Word Vitals

 Activity/Assignment Purpose:  Evaluate the “Life” of Words through the Death of Pluto


Take no more than fifteen minutes and define the word planet.  What is important about planets?  Make a list of all the words, concepts, popular culture references, films, artwork, and literary works that immediately come to mind when you hear this term.


Engage in a discussion with two other peers, in which you determine what criteria is necessary for defining the term planet. Ask them to comment upon the strengths and weaknesses of seeing the definition in the ways in which they have described it.

Sample Instructions:  Read each other’s pre-writing.  Discuss the similarities and differences between your responses.  Write down at least two reasons your responses differ, and at least two reasons for why they are similar.  After swapping, write a response to the following question:  What are the strengths and weaknesses of seeing the definition of planet in the ways in which your partner has described?  Closely examine both your definitions and critiques, and collaboratively compose a definition that negotiates both of your positions.

Class Discussion

Get the class together.  Ask volunteers for responses.  Board Trace.  Ask questions such as:

What types of assumptions seem to govern our definition of the word “planet?”  What do we assume is true about planets when we define planets in this way?  In what ways do these assumptions limit what planets can do?  In what ways do these assumptions limit our actions?  In what contexts would this definition be appropriate?  In what contexts would this definition be inaccurate?  How does this definition relate to the spaces and places in which we acknowledge planets?  What additional criteria would you add to this definition?


Read one of Mike Brown’s interviews, such as, “A Conversation with Pluto’s Killer”:  http://www.space.com/12711-pluto-killer-mike-brown-dwarf-planets-interview.html

(Note:  The web has several interviews with Brown available, including an article from the January 2011 issue of Wired.)

Ask students to make connections between their pre-writing assignment and this article.  Some questions:  Did you learn that Pluto was a planet in school?  In what ways does Brown’s definition conflict or complement your definition?  Why did Brown kill Pluto?  Closely examine the way he defines the term “planet” and identify his assumptions regarding the term planet.  Was Brown justified in his killing of Pluto?  What are the effects of Pluto’s demise?  What or whom is affected?  What can Brown’s ability to kill Pluto tell us about the importance of making evaluation arguments?

Major Assignment Adaptation

Ask writers to “kill a concept,” making an argument for the necessity of its demise.

Benefits of Activity

Instructors could use these activities to encourage collaborative research.  For instance, students could get into groups and compose a reception analysis of Brown’s “murder of Pluto” by examining how we talk about the planet or planets, in general, in the public domain.  These activities also ask writers to consider the power of institutional vs. non-institutional forms of knowledge-making and what kinds of assumptions they have about the “credibility” of each.

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