Friday, February 21, 2014


syn·the·sisnoun \ˈsin(t)-thə-səs\ : something that is made by combining different things (such as ideas, styles, etc.)

My college writing students are finishing up what is called a synthesis paper, in which they are required to put multiple sources in conversation with one another, exposing not only their disagreements but, hopefully, discovering common ground and creating new insight.

Believe it or not, I'm actually excited to read what they come up with.

Last semester as I was giving this assignment to my class, I suddenly flashed back to a test in one of my high school English classes, and had a major brain wave about an alternate way for them to do the paper. I stopped (mid-sentence, I'm sure, as I'm inclined to do) and described it.

It was in Mr. Buswick's 20th Century Drama class. Over the course of the semester we read maybe 20 plays, all by different playwrights. For our final exam, he had us pick three playwrights and write a dialogue in which they argue about the purpose of theater. I remember one student wrote something exceedingly humorous (he was in the drama club, so he had skills) and Mr. Buswick staged a reading of it for the class. Loved it!

So, I told my students, instead of writing a standard, dry, thesis-driven essay (which usually turns into a summary of each source and a weak conclusion tying them together rather than an actual synthesis of ideas), they had the option of writing a dialogue among the sources instead--an actual conversation. They could be as creative as they wanted as long as their characters dug into some substance.

Five students took me up on it, including one of my truly struggling students. He absolutely glowed when he told me what he'd done, and it may have been the only paper he turned in on time all semester.

The crazy part of the story is this: The morning after Mr. Buswick made an appearance in my head to plant the idea, a picture of him showed up in my Facebook feed. And not just any picture. It was a picture that had been posted by a friend three years prior. And not just any friend. A friend who had been dead for two years.


I suddenly became obsessed with finding Mr. Buswick. Had he died himself? I wondered. Was he now traveling the globe in spirit form, inspiring his old students everywhere? I googled to see if I could track him down.

I found, thankfully, not an obituary, but rather an email address at a college where he teaches classes about the value of the humanities in the cold, hard, logical world of business. I emailed him to thank him for inspiring me. He emailed me back, pleased to know he made a difference. We exchanged a few ideas about our work. Synthesis.

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