Write down an abstract question about your issue that you would most like to explore through creative writing. Freewrite about a group of events, people, organizations, places associated with that question. Meditate on the question, alternating your meditations with the actual event, people associated with the issue, and the causes/effects of the issue, etc. After your freewrite, explore sources that could help you flesh out your exploration of the question.

Why do authoritarians kill people brutally?  There have been a number of events in history where tyrannical men killed the people they subjugated, often brutally.  From Vlad the Impaler to Sadam Husain there’s been plenty of tyrants who have killed for power (to gain or retain) or for pleasure (particularly Vlad).  Hitler murdered millions of Jews during his campaign of subjugation in vicious spite.   Of course, today’s modern world stage has many actors built to combat such atrocities such as Amnesty International and the United Nations.  In the case of Syria, Al-Assad has been accused of using chemical weapons on his people which has stirred the world in outrage.  The question, of course, is why?  Why would Al-Assad feel the need to use chemical weapons to kill the enemy?  What drives a person to do this?  Are soldiers, tanks and bullets not enough to win?  Does it take a sociopath?  Someone desperate to keep power at all costs?  Someone determined to make others pay?

Some sources to reflect on this:

Write down five statements from your research (sources). then write some commentary that responds to, or challenges, or embroiders upon, or adds to, or offers a bit of relevant information that’s missing–or any other kind of commentary–for each statement.

“You cannot use sarin beside your own troops,” Assad said. He said he had evidence that has been turned over to Russia that the rebels have used chemical weapons, calling it a “kitchen gas” that anyone could make.

He said if chemical weapons were deployed it would be “a crime” and “despicable,” but dismissed Western accusations that his government initiated the sarin attack in a Damascus suburb, saying it didn’t add up.

In this article, Assad reports that he didn’t use chemical weapons in Ghouta.  NBC considers him “defiant” for suggesting that he didn’t use chemical weapons.  Interestingly I might consider this a little judgmental on NBC’s behalf.  There is no definitive evidence that Assad was the one who used the chemical weapons and plenty of questions behind his motives.  Using chemical weapons in a winning war is idiotic and Assad, for all intents and purposes, is not an idiot.

“The people are sick of the war and hate the jihadists more than Assad,” a Western source familiar with the data said. “Assad is winning the war mostly because the people are cooperating with him against the rebels.”

In this report about Assad remaining popular in his civil war, despite the accusations of being a war-criminal, the reporter says that a majority of the people love Assad more than the rebels.  According to this source the rebels are seen as foreigners by the people and while they don’t necessarily like Assad they definitely don’t like outsider religious zealots.  As perspective, their feelings would be similar to Americans’ pretending if a rebel group of syrup-loving Canadians were waging war against the US government because the nation isn’t syrup friendly enough.

“Suppose a respectable opinion poll found that most Syrians are in favour of Bashar al-Assad remaining as president, would that not be major news? Especially as the finding would go against the dominant narrative about the Syrian crisis, and the media considers the unexpected more newsworthy than the obvious.”

Of course one of the most interesting things about the Syrian conflict is how out-of-touch the western media is about the issue.  If you only watched CNN or MSNBC you would believe that everyone in Syria hated their president but the polls within the country report something different.  Their people, as a majority, want Assad to stay in power.  This goes to show you should be skeptical about everything you read in the news.  Unless you dig deep and look for alternative sources, you could be completely ignorant of the facts.

“Looking further into the future, these complex dynamics appear to be gradually generating a discernible division between those who support the SNC’s vision for Syria’s future and those who oppose it and want a notably more Islamic state. Neither of these end points should necessarily be seen as right or wrong and it is by no means impossible that they couldn’t be combined. However, debates are raging in Washington D.C., Paris, and elsewhere over the hugely significant question of whether or not to militarily intervene in Syria. Even a limited punitive form of strikes will have very significant consequences in Syria and within the international system. As such, a full and accurate picture of the insurgent landscape is crucial. This article has only provided a basic macro level overview and may nonetheless still present a complex picture — but delve deeper and this complexity only multiplies.”

This article digs into the numbers behind who’s good after Kerry reported that the rebels were largely good guys.  The author of this article disagrees and uses his experience in middle east foreign policy to digest the parties involved in the civil war noting that a large portion of the people simply aren’t “good” for westerners.  Even the number of outright hostile rebels to the USA is much higher than Kerry’s report according to this author.   If you use his interpretation of intentions of each group, it’s possible that up to 80% of rebels are bad for the US and Europe if they win.

“As the U.S., its European allies and various Arab states in the Middle East consider military action against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons, Assad doesn’t have many friends among neighbors in the region.”

This report from Pew Research shows that the majority of countries in the middle east don’t support Assad using an Argumentum ad Populum logical fallacy in support of dethroning Assad.  The country most in favor nearby is Lebanon, which as trivia was once occupied by Assad.   This data, however, is hard to interpret.  The middle east is rife with religious contention.  Assad is Shia which makes the Shiite population upset (guess who the rebels consist of?) and both religious factions hate each other and seem more than willing to do terrible things to each other when ruling the other.    Given the misinformation from our own press, one has to wonder how much of the hate for Assad is fabricated and how much is simply based on how he worships his god.

Collect several images that interest you, related in some way to your issue (the relevance can be tangential, as long as you feel it). then write something that connects the images, one to another. You can think of your connections as a story (one thing connected to the next), or as a web (everything cross-connected), or as a square, with two sets of opposites, or as a circle (ideas leading back to the place you started).

syria-dead syria-rebel syria-assad

These three images directly relate to the Syrian conflict.  The first image depicts some of the dead from the chemical attack.  The second image is a picture of a Syrian rebel carrying a gravely wounded comrade.  The final image shows Al-Assad waving to an adoring crowd.  The first thing that comes to mind is World War 2 and seeing pictures of Hitler and his handiwork.  The third image easily could be him surrounded by adoring Germans, the second showing an Allied soldier wounded from battle and the first being the ovens used to kill Jews.  Seeing the third image it’s hard to believe that such an adored man (perhaps not with a cynical eye, after all what would you do to keep power if you treated with such godlike devotion) could be capable of murdering people in such a brutal way.  It’s definitely a cautionary look at how appearances can be deceiving.

Tell the story of your research. What turns did it take? what were your missed opportunities and what were your unexpected scores?

When I first started researching the Syrian conflict I had little context for it.  I knew the basics of the problem but knew nothing about the how or why.  The research began with the basics.  I wanted to know more about the “what”.  What is the Syrian civil war about and how do the chemical weapons fit in?  I also wanted to know more about the potential intervention.  Why should we intervene?  We shouldn’t we intervene?  As I was looking up these questions I fell into an interesting twist.  Never did it occur to me that Al-Assad is actually popular with his people.  I figured him as another Saddam Hussein but in truth the evidence seems to point somewhere else.  After learning more about the rebels, I connected why the people don’t like them but prefer a potential tyrant instead.    I feel this discovery was a major find for the project.  As for missed opportunities, I suppose it’s hard to know a missed opportunity if you missed one.  I figure in reflection I could’ve found more contrary sources for projects.  I found a lot of sources that supported my point of view (and trail of thought) and didn’t spend as much time looking up sources that combated my ideas.   I definitely consider my time researching the Syrian conflict was a great learning experience both for how to research and for the Syrian conflict itself.

Choose one of your sources. Write a short bio of your source’s author–300 words. Now write it in 100 words. Now write it in 50 words.

~300 words

Charles Lister is an analyst and head of MENA at IHS Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Centre, a division of a global company that trades information critical for movers and shakers in business and government.   He is an expert in geopolitical analysis and specializes in the Middle East.  He focuses on threat management and the roles of actors in each area and currently focuses on the Syrian civil war.  Previous to this, Mr. Lister worked in counterterrorism, security and risk management, military defense systems, and political Islam.  At IHS, Charles researches and writes multiple briefs pertinent to his areas of expertise.  Each month he publishes several 1,500 word articles about terrorist groups, countries and conflicts that are pertinent at the time of writing.  Every so often he writes 3,000 word, heavily sourced intelligence briefs about particular conflicts and political actors.  He also is charged with day-to-day reporting of events which are published to Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Monitor, accessed by clients globally.  Outside of his work for IHS Jane’s, he also is published in BBC News, BBC World Service, CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times, The Telegraph, The Financial Times, The Guardian, The Independent, AFP, Reuters and the Associated Press.

Charles Lister’s went to the University of St. Andrews from 2007 to 2011 and graduated First Class MA Honors in International Relations with his MA honors dissertation:  “How has an absence of “cultural awareness” disadvantage the ongoing counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan?”.  He speaks three languages:  English, French and Arabic with Arabic being at an basic proficiency.

When he’s not working, Mr. Lister enjoys tennis, swimming, football, music and travel.

~100 words

Charles Lister is an analyst and head of MENA at IHS Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Centre, a sub-agency concerned with keeping the world informed on the day-to-day challenges and conflicts in the Middle East.   Mr. Lister in an expert in Middle Eastern conflicts and terrorism and conducts daily extensive research about these issues and produces articles and bulletins important to international movers-and-shakers in business and government whose interests are vested in these geographic areas.   Charles Lister has a First Class MA Honors in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews.

~50 words

Charles Lister is an analyst and head of MENA at IHS Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Centre and is charged with keeping the world abreast with blow-by-blow analysis of the Middle East and potential security concerns with extensive research and analysis.   His work is used by people and agencies all around the world.

Tell someone about your writing project. Or: imagine telling someone about your writing project. What are the most important parts of it? What order would you tell it in? What parts of your writing project would you leave out in this telling? Why?

The most important part of the writing project I’ve discovered is how much Al-Assad is appreciated by his people.  If there was any curveballs I’ve found this would be the most notable.  It’s hard to believe, based on the media’s portrayal, that anyone could like this guy.  Yet there is plenty of evidence that supports that the people want him to win the civil war.

I think another important part is the idea that there’s no indication of who used the chemical weapons.  It’s assumed in the media that he used them when there’s no hard evidence that he was responsible.  People are quick to charge him as an evil tyrant but there’s a strong counter-argument that he would have no reason to use chemical weapons.  Assad is a logical person and logically there’s no reason to use chemical weapons.  He’s winning the war both through blood and public support.  Chemical weapons are used by desperate (or insane) people, neither of which describe Assad.  However, on the other hand, the rebels have the motive to use chemical weapons.  The rebels want western intervention (because they’re losing) and the easiest way to get it is through framing Assad with chemical weapons.  The very reasons why Assad wouldn’t logically use chemical weapons are the same reasons that the rebels would logically choose to use them.

I don’t think there’s any part I would leave out of the telling.  I feel my evidence is all interesting and each flavor the project in a different way.  Nothing in the project is erroneous I think each piece is interesting in its own way.

Look at your draft and find a place you used a source. What did you do with this source? Describe how you used it: did you introduce it? quote, paraphrase, summarize it? Did you put it in contrast with another source? did you agree with your source, use it to support a point, use it to characterize an argument or position you disagree with? What are some other ways you could have used this source? Why did you choose to use the source as you did?

In my video I used my source as a direct quote at the beginning.  The quote is used to describe a diplomat’s opinion of Al-Assad and who he is to the Syrian people.  In the video I recorded myself speaking the entire quote while on screen I reduced some of it down to make it less wordy and easier to digest.  The point of the quote was to introduce the profile of Al-Assad.  The quote was very hopeful and spoke of a leader who might lead Syria to a greater future.  I felt it was fairly ironic given the context surrounding the man but also a way to help describe why the people of Syria are so enamored with him.  It’s not hard to see why they still support Assad despite all the controversies after seeing this almost Jesus-like statement about him.   If you genuinely thought your leader (Obama is a great example) was going to redeem your nation, you might forgive—or turn a blind eye to—any faults that they might have.

I don’t really see myself using this quote for any other purpose.  I believe it’s a great way to describe how the people of Syria perceive Al-Assad and any changes I would make would be based on where in the video the quote showed up–something I did consider but ultimately nixed between the draft and the final submission.

What are some opportunities for change that you have heard or that should be made? Write a poem composed of questions about why these changes should/shouldn’t occur and/or haven’t occurred? As an example of a questions poem, here are the first two stanzas of a poem from Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions: “And what is the name of the month/ that falls between December and January?// By what authority did they number/ the twelve grapes of the cluster?”

How can a man be allowed to lead
a nation after such an atrocity?
Does it matter that he with popular in steed
is ruler of people slaved to authority?

When should they be allowed to choose
who leads them and who among them must lose?
Who are we to choose who the monster is
when our closet is full of bloody terrors?

Should we not be concerned with those who hate
not him but us who already made this mistake before?
What can we do when the choice is between
hated Berith and the cunning Verine; neither lesser?

Notebook Part 2

Write or create a PSA on for your issue in which you explain the causes and effects of a problem associated with your issue. Explain what should be done to address the problem.

psa Warning, do not fund the Syrian rebels.  The majority of the rebels involved in the civil war are not interested in maintaining democracy and secularism in Syria but instead are interested in establishing an Islamic State.  Helping any rebel group (including those who are interested in maintaining freedom) overthrow Al-Assad will weaken its ability to defend against radical Islam and will indirectly help terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda.  At the least we should remain uninvolved in the war, at the most, we should actually work to help maintain Assad’s power.   While Assad is a tyrant in some ways, he’s actually more committed to the interests of the United States and it’s quest against radical Islam than what any of the rebel groups can offer.

Write a haiku that explains what your essay is about? Write another haiku that explains what your essay is really about?

About the Profile essay/video:

Spring ahead.
Man celebrated as saving rain.
Still same quagmire.

Trick of scorched sand
false hope teases quenching water

Return to an essay you have written. Revise the essay, making some kind of major adjustment—reworking your thesis, starting with the conclusion, changing the narration (in the memoir or profile), cutting it by a third, etc. Or translate it into a PSA, audio essay, video essay, graphic/hypertext.

Added approximately 2 minutes to the narration of the profile video.



Write a Letter to the Editor of your Online Magazine/Newspaper in which you use satire to propose a ridiculous solution to a problem explored in your Position or Proposal essay. Try to model your letter on Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”

To whom it may concern:

While I’m confident that many of your fine readers share my sentiments concerning Syria, I feel it’s necessary to write to you and give a voice to a group of people who aren’t often heard. As you’re probably well aware, Syria is currently in the middle of a civil war and solutions within our country and other western nations are being debated. Some people believe that we shouldn’t intervene, that we should allow people to choose their own fate. Others believe we should bomb anyone who doesn’t agree with what we believe in. I, on the other hand, have a more sensible proposal: culturally bomb them with Bob Marley.

Bob Marley is a peace symbol in the United States and some historians believe he was responsible for the hundreds of years of prosperity we’ve experienced in the homeland. Of course, I sense some skepticism from some of your readers (I won’t mention names) but I strongly assert that my plan would work and that doubters should at least hear me out.

First off, this plan is affordable. Legend: The Best of Bob Marley and the Wailers audio CD is $8.67 on Amazon (and qualifies for free two day shipping with Prime). Syria, with an estimated 22.4 million people could be serviced with one CD each at the cost of $194,208,000. The Iraq War since 2003 has cost $815 million—that’s a savings of 600 million dollars!

Second: this plan is practical. Everyone likes music and we always listen to the music people gift us. Scientific studies show that music impacts our behaviors. Consequentially, that means a CD of peace and love like Bob Marley’s being distributed to every man, woman and child in Syria could turn Syria into America tomorrow.

Thirdly, it will create American jobs. 22.4 million CDs need to be made and shipped from somewhere. In the trying economic climate of today, every bit helps. If we follow through with my plan not only will we be responsible for overcoming millennia old conflict but we will give hard working men and women in America jobs.

As you can see, skeptics, my plan is fool-proof and practical. I hope you feel happy doubting someone you’ve never met before.

A concerned citizen

Write a 300-word satirical “This I Don’t Believe” essay in which you take on the persona of an opponent to your position on your issue or a stakeholder that sees only the limitations of your proposal. Model the essay after NPR’s “This I Believe” guidelines. Check out The Onion for example satires. Note: The Onion often uses adult humor and language.

As I was making my way to the grocery store I came upon an interesting sight. A handicap spot had two cars caught in an epic struggle for its comforting embrace between its parallel blue lines. A man with a white shining Cadillac SUV was battling for a handicap parking spot with an old lady with a dilapidated car. When I saw this, something struck me; I realized that Syria’s civil war shares many core themes with this automotive dispute. Some people believe we shouldn’t stick our noses into other people’s business—this is something I don’t believe. Like I did with the two people, I believe the United States shouldn’t mind its own business and should establish peace through killing anyone who doesn’t believe in this ideal state of being.

Of course I didn’t actually kill anyone when it came to this handicap spot battle royale—I would be in prison and incapable of writing this disagreement. People interested in non-intervention are extremely short-sighted and are non-humanists. Standing by watching other people struggle is sadistic and unproductive. Al-Assad is a dictator and like the man with the white SUV, deserves to be stopped. He lives a life of luxurious smooth rides while people like the old woman putter around in a vehicle that could at any moment blow a tire, careening out of control into a median. Other people—if I daresay—don’t even own cars and will never even have the opportunity to fight for their own handicap spot.

My opponents will argue that the Syrian war is about religion but that’s no excuse. We have the right worship whatever we want and who are we to judge if one religion desires to subjugate all the others? Intervention doesn’t need to be about religion. After all, it’s common knowledge explosives are agnostic. When I yelled at everyone for fighting over the handicap spot I felt like a warhead bringing world peace.
Non-intervention? This I don’t believe.

Write a monologue about your social justice issue. The speaker can be you or someone associated with your issue. For an example of a social justice issue monologue, read an excerpt from the Vagina Monologues:

Syria is a micro look at the greater macro socio-religious dichotomy of freedom and individualism versus religion. It’s interesting that so many people have lost sight of the greater meta of the Middle East when it came to this struggle and further, that so many still haven’t learned from our many expensive lessons of the last decades. Somehow we feel that each time we intervene in the Middle East that some sort of different outcome will come. Even Egypt, which was so promising with its revolution, its suffering from religious extremism and the United States was wrong—yet again—with the horse they picked from the revolution. Chances are in Egypt there will be another revolt, which is refreshing as it gives hope that some people in the Middle East don’t want to live the life of religious tyrants. Syria, on the other hand, is not nearly as promising. The rebel groups are split up into several different sects and a small minority (not including the Kurds who simply want to address grievances expressed by the administration against their people) show to be interested in something that doesn’t include radically theocratising the country.

It’s interesting the people of free people like the United States or France consider disrupting the status quo in Syria in lieu of establishing religious zealots. We’re interested in intervening because chemical weapons were used but are those weapons any worse that what else happens during the war? Arguably there are “legal” methods of killing people that are much worse ways to die than chemical weapons and all sides are using them. Asphyxiation is likely nothing compared to having body parts blown off and dying of infection weeks later yet the latter is considered kosher. People die in war and it’s not pleasant. People are being beheaded by some of the rebel groups. People are getting shot. Both sides are using mass graves to bury the dead. As outsiders, however, we should be concerned about the ramifications of the war. Human life is precious but freedom is arguably more precious. Besides the actual threat a Sharia-Law Theocratic State next to a hostile nation like Iran could be, is it okay to allow a new dictatorship—arguably worse than what Assad does—to set up shop? Sharia Law violently oppresses minorities and women and we’d be doing Islamic extremists a favor by helping the rebels. Reports coming from Syria say that average person supports Assad—not because they like him, but because they recognize the ambitions of the rebels and they reject them. Like the Egyptians now fighting against the new Muslim Brotherhood regime because they reject Islamic tyranny, the Syrians prefer a possible chemical-weapons-using secularlist to Al-Qaeda taking over.

As outsiders considering taking up arms for or against Al-Assad in Syria, we should take a step back and understand the possible conclusions that stem from our actions. If we allow the Syrians to decide their own fate (and it seems at this point Assad is winning) we can breathe easy that we can trust Assad to make decision that at least doesn’t directly threaten us. If we do intervene, we could easily put a new Muslim dictator into power like Ahmadinejad was in Iran and threatens everyone.

Read Cynthia Newberry Martin’s essay “Not Every Sentence Can be Great, But Every Sentence Must Be Good.” Look through your current piece–find a passage where you feel the sentences could be stronger, more vivid, tighter, less slack. Using her “seven ways to take a sentence from boring to good,” revise at least three sentences to make them better.

There are three major group categories in the Syrian war.  Each group has different goals and motivations.  Some of the groups are backed by the United States as reported in the Washington Post “The CIA has begun delivering weapons to rebels in Syria, ending months of delay in lethal aid that had been promised by the Obama administration, according to U.S. officials and Syrian figures (Londono).” reported September 11, 2013.  Other groups are backed by foreign countries including Saudi Arabia: “The first public sign of Saudi Arabia’s intentions was an August 8 statement by the chair of the National Coalition, Ahmad al-Jarba […] that he was working with the Free Syrian Army to form a unified force of 6,000 men to confront warlords operating in liberated areas (ISN Security Watch).”

The Syrian civil sports three major groups who contend for different end goals.  Like sports-teams throughout the world, each rebel faction seem to have their sponsors and affiliations.  Some groups are even funded and supplied by the United States despite being thwarted in its attempts of more direct engagement.  The CIA has been delivering weapons in Syria  “ending months of delay in lethal aid that had been promised by the Obama administration, according to U.S. officials and Syrian figures (Londono).”   Other groups are sponsored by foreign countries including Saudi Arabia: “chair of the National Coalition, Ahmad al-Jarba [of Saudi Arabia has said] that he was working with the Free Syrian Army to form a unified force of 6,000 men to confront warlords operating in liberated areas (ISN Security Watch).”.