Considering the Writing Prompt (An Interlude)

We are about to get into the “Postreading” section, the critical reading/critical thinking part of the module. This is where we stop playing the believing game and begin the disbelieving game. In previous sections, our stance was “What if this is all true?” Now, our question is “What is wrong with this?” We turn to skepticism.

We will introduce the writing assignment to the students in the section following “Postreading,” which is called “Connecting Reading to Writing.” This is where the students will see the writing prompt for the first time. However, it is very important, as a module designer, to be thinking about the writing prompt while designing the Postreading section. Whatever we do in Postreading will set up the writing assignment, so we need to know specifically what we will ask the students to do.

The most obvious writing task is to ask “Should government agencies limit people’s consumption of sugary soft drinks?” However, that is essentially the question that Kinsley tries to answer. Kinsley lays out all the obvious arguments, though he waffles on the conclusions to be drawn. Students will simply pick a side, trot out the appropriate arguments, perhaps add a couple of personal examples. The best writers might try to defeat some of the arguments on the other side. The resulting essays will depend on Kinsley for much of their thinking. This is the easiest and quickest assignment, at least on the surface.

An alternative would be to do what the Supreme Court would do and ask a more general question, one which Kinsley asks in the first paragraph: “In a free country, people should people have the right to do what they want, even if it’s bad for them?” Again Kinsley provides some arguments and examples on both sides, but this is a much bigger and more complex question. Students could take it in different directions and the essays are less likely to look the same. However, this question has the potential of getting too big because we might end up having to define “freedom.”

Another alternative would be to ask “When, if ever, should government limit or prevent people from doing things that are bad for them?” This question assumes (except for the “if ever”) that government has a role in controlling people’s dangerous or unhealthy behavior. The question is, where does this role begin? This leads to a series of related questions: How much control is too much? At what point does individual responsibility kick in? Is age a factor? How informed does a person have to be to make a potentially risky choice? What if people are misinformed by misleading advertising? Does the government have a role then?

These questions are probably interesting to high school students, who are generally pushing against parental and governmental authority. However, this question can be taken in many different directions, depending how we set it up. For example, we could take it in a historical direction and have students research Prohibition and the 18th amendment to the Constitution. Alcoholic beverages were prohibited in the U.S. from 1920 to 1933. We could also ask students to research different substances and their effects on health. Kinsley mentions regulations concerning tobacco and the nutritional content of foods. The legalization of marijuana is in some ways parallel to the repealing of prohibition in 1933, though some students will probably find it difficult to research this topic objectively. An investigation of popular nutritional supplements might be a better choice.

Kinsley sums up the issue in this way:

In the end, whether you support Bloomberg’s crusade or oppose it depends on how you weigh the various factors. Libertarian absolutists will have no problem rejecting all of the above considerations — most of which are pretty trivial — and concluding that freedom is freedom. At the other extreme, health policy types (many of them authoritarian in habits of thought) will have no problem saying that sugary drinks are bad for you and therefore you shouldn’t be allowed to guzzle them in excess, especially if you are a child or young person.

In other words, some people don’t like being told what they can and cannot do, while others like to tell people what to do, for their own good. Democracy tries to negotiate a balance between these two extremes. We might ask students to consider how this balance is negotiated and achieved. This brings us back to the third formulation of the prompt. We might say

Considering the issues raised by Michael Kinsley in “Mayor Bloomberg’s war on soda: Why does New York’s mayor want you to stop guzzling sugary drinks?” write an essay answering the following question:

“When, if ever, should government limit or prevent people from doing things that are bad for them?”

In answering this question, discuss the factors that should be considered, both about the nature of the dangerous or unhealthful actions and the people who potentially do them. Where should we draw the line between safety and health on the one hand and individual choice on the other? Support your position with logical arguments, examples, and relevant facts. You may need to do additional research to support some of your arguments.

This prompt has a number of advantages. It is a response to the Kinsley article, but it has the potential to go beyond Kinsley’s arguments and his narrow focus on soda. It does not set up a pro/con argument as Kinsley does, but a more nuanced continuum. It also offers opportunities for further research, if the student or the teacher wants to go there. Let’s go with this.

2 thoughts on “Considering the Writing Prompt (An Interlude)

  1. This examination of prompt possibilities and their relative merits and drawbacks is really useful, John. I think from it I could construct a heuristic of sorts that the writer of prompts might look at as an aid to getting to the most useful formulation. I could also go through some of the more successful prompts in the modules and pull out their phrasing and perspective to use as additional examples.

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