In lieu of a traditional written end-of-course assessment for our final exam, students in my American Literature classes take a full day class trip to the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. When they return, students are tasked with creating their very own asylum and “committing” any one character that we had encountered throughout the entire year’s worth of study. And that means open season on everything from futuristic cyber prisons for Guy Montag of Fahrenheit 451 to Puritan penal colonies of shame and isolation for The Scarlet Letter’s Hester Prynne.
But more than simply perpetuating a barbaric historical malpractice onto a hapless character from American literature — students were challenged to present a three-dimensional view of asylum life from multiple perspectives throughout their projects, synthesizing all sorts of writing and rhetorical strategies by crafting a series of individual web pages on their site, including:
- A Landing Page – designed to speak specifically to the unique amenities and features that this particular asylum has to offer (with inspiration drawn specifically from the source text of the characters who might be so unfortunate as to inhabit it).
- A Patient’s Diary – in which the student would assume the persona of the helpless character from fiction who had received this terrible sentence, and would write a series of journal entries (in character) about this warped new world in which they now found themselves and how it compared to the life that this individual once knew outside the asylum’s massive walls.
- A Doctor’s Note – in which students would attempt to see the world from behind the eyes of a period-appropriate physician, citing “the latest research” (much of it now debunked) and using their powers of rhetoric to make the case for why a medical professional in the time period of this work of fiction might have argued for this patient’s commitment to such an extreme course of action.
- A Contemporary Perspective – where students would cite extensive new medical knowledge (like the DSM-V) to offer a more informed diagnosis of the particular patient in question in light of how the same character might be perceived thanks to 21st century breakthroughs in medicine and psychology, ultimately making the case for alternate forms of treatment to restore and affirm the dignity of these individuals who might otherwise have been so easily discarded.
- A Personal Reflection – offering personal thoughts on all that they had learned through this immersive project and the uncharted break from the traditional academic routine. Bar none, this section more than any illustrated just how powerful and resonant an experience this ambitious “escape” project truly had been.
I absolutely love the idea of using a “build your own Google Site” approach in place of traditional, seated exams. With little effort, the same multi-page, “build-your-own-(thing x)” pedagogy outlined here can quickly be re-themed to fit just about any course or content area — even if you don’t have the option to visit a full-blown 19th century mental institution.