In a college-level literature course for English majors, the general practice is to assign several novels or other works and then let the students decide what they want to write about. Usually, this involves choosing a theme, a motif, a set of symbols, a social issue, or other focus and examining how it plays out in a particular work or works. Students support their reading of the work with evidence from the text. However, this practice is a bit too open-ended for non-majors. For ERWC, the writing assignment needs to have more focus.
A novel like 1984 is bristling with themes and big ideas to write about. However, the Internet creates problems in this regard. All of the obvious themes and big ideas have been explored in Spark Notes, Cliff’s Notes and various homework helper sites. A student can easily find essays to download, or detailed comments to copy and paste from Goodreads and other review sites.
In my original module, I tried to follow somewhat unconventional themes that perhaps had not been explored so thoroughly. I created four topics:
- The Party and Power: Can a society based on hate survive?
- The Fall of Big Brother: What might cause the fall of Big Brother?
- The Party and Objective Reality: Can Big Brother decide what is real and what is not?
- Surveillance and Big Brother: Is our technology taking us closer to the world of Big Brother?
Because these were all complex issues, I tried to help students by quoting relevant passages and asking lots of questions about subtopics. The prompts ended up being long and complicated, which is why I kept coming back to the core questions listed above. Recently, I asked one of my colleagues on the ERWC Steering Committee, who has read more sample ERWC essays than anyone I know, how these topics were working. The news was not good. Most students chose the fourth question about technology. Those who chose the first one about a society based on hate usually just answered “no” and went on to describe how horrible it was to live in Oceania. The topics were not inspiring good writing or thinking.
The other two topics were rarely used. The second topic about the fall of Big Brother requires an understanding of the fictitious book by Emmanuel Goldstein, plus an understanding of the implications of the appendix, the essay on Newspeak. It is an interesting political question, but too much for most students. The third topic, about Big Brother’s control of the perception of reality through language and power, is at its heart an epistemological question. I was setting the bar pretty high.
So as I revise the module for ERWC 3.0, one of my tasks is to create new writing prompts. My criteria are as follows: the prompt should
- Require that the student have read the novel
- Connect ideas from the novel to the student’s own experience
- Be formulated in such a way that the student can take a stance and write a thesis statement
Here is a list of possible new topics (linked here and pasted below). Please help me refine them by posting a comment:
1. Winston Smith is a low-level party member. In the course of the novel he has several interactions with the “proles” (short for “proletariat, essentially “the people”). How are the lives of proles and party members different? Would you rather be a prole or a Party member in 1984? Provide specific examples from the novel to support your argument.
2. The world of Big Brother has three main slogans:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
These slogans seem to be paradoxical and contradictory on the surface, but in the world of Big Brother, they make a kind of sense. Each is like an equation, but how can one thing equal its opposite? Perhaps it would be better to ask “How can one thing lead to its opposite?” Could war abroad lead to peace at home? Could absolute freedom make you a slave to your own desires? Could knowing too much make you think more than act? Choose one of these slogans and explore what it means in 1984, using examples from the book. Then think about how the slogan might apply in our own society.
3. The people of Oceania are under constant surveillance by the government, through telescreens and microphones. How does this surveillance affect the lives of the people? If you knew your TV, your smartphone, and other devices were constantly watching and listening to you, how would you change your behavior? In a well-organized essay, discuss the effects of surveillance in the novel and potentially in our own lives.
4. 1984 provides a cautionary tale about the potential of surveillance technology to allow an authoritarian government to control the population. At present, current technology, including smartphones, web cams, GPS tracking, internet-connected home appliances, and many other items, is being used to make daily life more convenient. However, each of these is potentially a very powerful surveillance technology that the totalitarian oligarchy of 1984 would have been overjoyed to use. At this moment, the government, or another entity, could easily see every Web site you have visited, read every message you ever sent, and listen to every phone call. In what ways does 1984 suggest that we should be worried that our use of electronic devices could someday lead to totalitarian control? If Big Brother really might use our electronics to watch us, what could we do to stop it?
5. Science fiction novels don’t always try to predict the future, but in 1984, Orwell is trying to warn us of what might happen if new propaganda techniques and technology were combined in the hands of an authoritarian leader. As a prediction of the future, how accurate is 1984? In a well-organized essay, discuss what Orwell got right, and what he got wrong. Support your arguments with examples from the text.
6. “Newspeak” is attempt by Big Brother to control thought by reducing the number of words in the language and eliminating words that might lead to “thoughtcrime,” which is itself a Newspeak word. Is it possible to control thought through controlling language? Does our own society have similar tendencies? In a well-organized essay, discuss examples of Newspeak in the novel and how this kind of control might function in our own society.