My idea for a 2paragraphs conference was born from end-of-semester desperation: what was I to do with the spring-besotted scholars of my “Fictions of Adolescence” class at Franklin & Marshall College? Having endured a long winter, these first-year students were reluctant to put aside the rites of spring in favor of some serious critical thinking and writing. The only way to lure them away from the ineffable scent of pending freedom was to ask them to perform a new, challenging, and exciting task. I had recently discovered 2paragraphs.com, a website introduced to me by a colleague who had published there. When this same colleague told me that Joe Mackin, the founder of 2paragraphs, was a Franklin & Marshall College alum, my idea hatched. Accordingly, I asked my students to compress their thoughts about our class readings and discussions into two paragraphs, which they would present to the class. We had studied the paragraph form in our writing workshops, dissecting its structure and tightening our grip on its tendencies to become baggy and diffuse. The two paragraph assignment would give us an opportunity to organize our thoughts while practicing economy; to be brief, but not superficial; and to cull a particular truth from the class.
The resulting two paragraph essays—or 2paragraphs essays—succeed in exemplifying the spirit of our class where longer pieces might have faltered. The task of condensing their thoughts and experiences distilled my students’ voices, highlighting their various gifts and minimizing their (and all of our) tendency to dilate on a subject ad nauseam. This selection of pieces links literature to personal experience. Peter Cameron’s novel, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You (2007) prompted three students to explore their own lives. Tal Arnold revisits his time in therapy as a high schooler, noting that, like Cameron’s therapy-bound protagonist James Sveck, he “was lost,” but that his therapist’s silence brought forth his own words and stories. Kat Benedetto explores the underlying “What If”s in all of our lives, wondering how her life would have been different if she had remained “afraid to be open to new things”; and Mia Samuels analyzes a hated biology teacher’s daily mantra with new insight about how each of us is unique. Similarly, our reading of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (2008) instigated comparisons between Collins’ protagonist and ourselves. Alyssa Taylor’s “Ode To Katniss Everdeen” laments the fact that none of us is able to live up to Katniss’s almost superhuman maturity, while Jackie Salg relates Katniss’s struggles in the hunger games to her own fight “in a literal hunger game, stealing cans of soup from school sponsored canned food drives.” Friendship was a big topic when we read A Separate Peace, prompting Wouter van den Hooff to think about his own best friendship and how it differs from the psychologically toxic relationship described by John Knowles. Finally, the two-paragraph form sparked playfulness, as Charlotte Jacob’s piece on the role of food in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden demonstrates. Taken together, these writings attest to the fact that literature still has the power to resonate with our deepest experiences. Perhaps more importantly, the 2paragraphs form allowed my students to articulate the way our course inspired them to become better readers, both of texts and of their own lives.
—Dr. Kabi Hartman is Senior Adjunct Assistant Professor of English at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA. She is currently using the 2paragraphs format with her students to explore where life meets literature.