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Survival Kit: An Inductive Approach to Cultural and Textual Analysis

Assignment Summary

When you part from your friend, you grieve not; For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain. Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

This quotation suggests that distance, even imagined distance, can enhance one’s perception of familiar or unexamined subjects and in turn improve one’s understanding of their value.  This assignment sequence asks you to reconsider something you may take for granted—what it means for you to “survive” in your current state of existence—and to put its value in context with what survival means for different people in your and other cultures.

Installment One – Personal meaning
Imagine that you are to spend an extended period of time (at least a year) on a remote island with no chance or need to get off of it during your stay.  All nutritional, clothing, shelter, energy, and safety needs are taken care of for you already.  Make a list of five things (broadly defined, any size and number) you would you take with you in a “survival kit,” and reasons why.  Be detailed in your explanation; though this is a list, you are to be thorough here.  Do not think of your island stay as an exile, but rather an opportunity (or at least a hypothetical you’re being asked to play along with).  Necessary payment for and transportation of the items you bring are provided for you.  Once you have completed your list and explanations, generate ideas for discussion and analysis by applying any prewriting exercise from class or the Hacker handbook (pages 4-9) to each item on the list.  You may repeat exercises from item to item if you like.

Installment Two – Social meaning
Compare your answers with those of your group members, friends, family, etc.  Make a list of similarities.  What do these similarities say about your culture?  How do you feel about your answers?  Why?  Make a list of differences.  What do these differences say about your individual identity?  What does your identity have to do with your particular context for growing up (e.g., family, race, class, gender, nationality, generation, etc.)?  How do you feel about your answers?  Why?  Elaborate on how you first came to value the items on your list and what they mean to you now and would mean to you in isolation.  Explain how and why the meaning changes across place and time.  Account for survival kit items that are contingent on other factors, such as the willingness, availability, and needs/wants of other people you are bringing.  Contrast your survival status and corresponding values with what you know of those from an entirely different culture.  How might you and others productively respond to these differences?

Installment Three – Academic meaning
Use your material from the previous two installments to develop theoretical generalizations about yourself and your culture.  For example, if you are bringing a cell phone to the island, make some judgments about your habits of communication and the nature or value of communication to your generation, to American middle-class society, to humanity in general, etc.  Demonstrate and explain your values to readers who do not necessarily share or understand them.  Be creative and descriptive, but also organize your writing around a central point or set of points that express your opinions (i.e., a thesis).  In other words, unify a selection of your various observations to support a common purpose.  Ultimately, this paper is an analysis of yourself and your culture.  Consult the following categories/prompts for help in developing critical analyses of the items in your survival kit.  Note: it’s their value, not the items themselves, which is key.

    Entertainment items

    1. Personal history with / knowledge of / feeling for these items
    2. Their value, or what you get from them
    3. The need factor: for distraction, dependency, downtime, etc.
    4. Commentary on form: implications/limitations of the medium, passive/active engagement
    5. Conclusions about the nature of entertainment, societal influence, your related character

    Items you currently have or that pertain to activities (beyond entertainment) you currently do

    1. Personal history with / knowledge of / feeling for these items
    2. Their value, or what you get from them
    3. Illustrative details or anecdote (real or imagined)
    4. The fulfillment factor: if you are what you do then how “accomplished” are you?
    5. Conclusions about this activity, societal influence, your character, such possessions

    Items you don’t have or that pertain to activities (beyond entertainment) you don’t do now

    1. Your knowledge / impression of these items
    2. Their value, or what you imagine you would get from them
    3. Speculative details or fantasy
    4. Commentary: why you don’t have these items/do this activity now, the nature of desire…
    5. Conclusions about this activity, societal influence, your character, such possessions
    6. A person or people
    7. Personal history with / knowledge of / feeling for them
    8. Their value, or what you get from them
    9. The reciprocity factor: what they get from you and their time on the island
    10. Illustrative details, anecdote, speculation
    11. Conclusions about the nature of (this) company, society, your character, communication


    Be inventive. Your readers are less interested in what you bring than why, so provide illustrative details, compose stories that show rather than tell the value of your items, keep pushing for depth by asking “Why is that important?  Why is that important?  And that?” to arrive at theoretical conclusions about the value behind the items on your list.



Instructor's Comments

This assignment offers an inductive approach to teaching analysis and evaluation skills by using students’ (often under-examined) values as the textual material to be scrutinized.  The three-part assignment invites students to have some fun and to negotiate what I call personal, social, and academic levels or kinds of meaning and to identify commonalities and tensions among them.  Also, the three installments for generating content directly correspond to respective stages in the writing process, i.e., generation, development, and arrangement of ideas.  Student writers may employ various methods, including narration, description, analysis, comparison and contrast, and argument, which in turn stimulates critical attention to two more compositional subject areas, rhetoric and genre.I teach the Survival Kit sequence alongside an overview of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, explanations of which are widely available in psychology textbooks and online.  We also read a passage from Erich Fromm’s To Have or To Be?, which is just one (relatively readable) text among many like it that can generate and ground discussion about ethics and materialism.
genre analysis
course WRT 101
activity type Generating, drafting, and revising.  Peer workshopping.  In-class discussion. Small group discussion.
skills textual and cultural analysis
duration 1-3 class periods
A Writer's Reference by Diana Hacker, available Bedford/St. Martins Press
handouts: --
contributor: Peter Khost