In a comment spurred by this post on MLK and popular memory, charlieford wrote:

Just thought I’d share with ya’all that I turned this into a paper assignment in an Intro class (ie, US History Survey–almost all non-majors, sophomores and freshmen). I had them read tha tail of the “Dream” speech, most of the 1967 “Breaking Silence” speech, and Kai Wright’s piece in the Prospect. I asked them to frame it in terms of “mythic King” vs. “real King,” and why the two are out there, why the one is more palatable, and to evaluate the whole thing in whatever terms appealed to them. For about half, that was slightly ambitious. BUT: I think this was one of the most engaging papers I’ve assigned in some 10 years of teaching–ie, about 80% of the students really got into it. They almost all admired King enormously already (thank the schools–some had had King family members visit in elementary school) but to a MAN/WOMAN, none knew of the radical King. Maybe 2, out of 70, were disappointed that he’d criticize his nation when it was at war, but almost all were deeply challenged by his more radical analysis of US distemper. If you’ve read enough papers, you can tell when people are passionate, and when they’re feigning interest. Lot of passion from this assignment. Fun to grade, too. I thank Ari, Eric, and the EAW community for the inspiration to do it.

That does sound like a good paper topic. (And not because the answers charlie got from his students support my contention in the original post. Actually, I think his students’ responses buttress charlie’s point in the comments. Come to think of it, it’s just like charlie to design an assignment in order to win an argument with me. Selfish, that’s what’s he is.) Regardless, reading charlie’s comment raised a question in my mind: what’s the best paper assignment you’ve ever given? And by “best,” I think I mean the prompt that elicited the most interesting responses and that helped your students learn what you hoped they would from your course. That said, I might mean something else by “best.” I’m not entirely sure. I am sure that I need a nap.

For my part, I think the best paper topic I’ve ever given was in a seminar on memory I taught a few years back. I assigned Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s Army Life in a Black Regiment, David Blight’s article, “For Something Beyond the Battlefield: Frederick Douglass and the Struggle for the Memory of the Civil War,” and Glory. I asked the class to consider the relationship between the primary source, the scholarly article, and the film, focusing on the production and transmission of memories of African-American troops in the Civil War. The assignment, it turned out, was too complicated for some of the students. But the majority of them dug in and produced papers that I enjoyed reading (which might be a more accurate measure of what I mean by “best”). So, what about you? What assignments have worked well for you?