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Kidder Writing Assignments

Writing Assignments for Mountains Beyond Mountains

Introduction: This book can inspire many types and levels of writing assignments. The following are meant to integrate some ideas about self reflection, calling, and journey that our Evoke seminar group spent the semester pondering.

Journal, Reflection, or Diagnostic Writing Prompts
Purpose: These informal in-class or online writing assignments are designed to prompt students to reflect on issues and ideas in the book and to connect them to their lives, beliefs, and values.
Note on assessment: These assignments can be assessed or receive feedback in various ways, probably not with a “letter grade.” Word or page length of assignments will vary according to the expectation of the instructor: 1) Instructor marks assignment as “complete” with or without reading it. 2) Instructor reads or responds to the student’s writing on the paper or on line, opening a dialogue with the student. 3) In the classroom, students may write responses during the first half of class and then break into small groups to share and discuss responses. This exercise may also take two class periods, one for writing and the next (or part of the next) for responding. Some of these prompts would work as discussion threads for Blackboard or as prewriting for more formal assignments.

  1. Dr. Paul Farmer and his colleagues at Partners in Health (PIH) have dedicated themselves to the principle of “O for the P,” short for “preferential option for the poor” (174). Farmer locates this principle in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25: “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of my brethren, you have done it to me.” Practically, following this principle means serving the poor in some of the most distressed regions of the world by various means, depending on the talent and expertise of the individual. What principle or principles have served as signposts for your life journey so far? Can this principle be located in a sacred writing or other texts or in the ideas of others who have influenced you? How do you imagine yourself living out these principles in your future? What would you be willing to sacrifice for your principles?
  2. Many of the people who work with Dr. Farmer or who come into contact with him admire him and wish to emulate him. Some, including Tracy Kidder, wonder whether it is possible to emulate someone whose dedication to a nearly impossible task seems so all-consuming. This sense of emulation is portrayed by a repeated motif in the book, as Kidder follows Farmer (and is barely able to keep up with him!) on long hikes through the rugged Haitian countryside. Do you have strong admiration for someone you know personally, for a person in public life, or for a person in history? What qualities and characteristics do you admire in this person? Which of his or her activities, actions, choices, or beliefs would you like to emulate in your life’s journey and why? Do you think it will be entirely possible to follow this person in your life? Why or why not?
  3. Dr. Paul Farmer dedicates almost all the resources and aspects of his life—time, money, family, friendship—to his work for the poor. Obviously, this work is his first (and sometimes seems to be his only) priority. What are the priorities of your life? What is the most important thing in your life right now, the one aspect that means the most to you and is most worthy of your focus? What other parts of your life also take your time, effort, and attention? How do you imagine that those priorities might change in your future life?
  4. What contact have you had with “the least of my brethren” described in Matthew 25: the poor, the homeless, the sick, the incarcerated, those for whom Farmer and his colleagues work to extend a “preferential option”? To what extent are your ideas about such persons formed by real life experience, and to what extent are they formed by television, films, and other media? What are your true feelings about these persons? Do you feel that they are worthy of the level of ministration that they receive from Dr. Farmer, his colleagues, and those who support the work of PIH? Why or why not?
Summary/Response or Analysis/ Reflection

Purpose: These assignments require careful and thoughtful reading, with the goal of demonstrating comprehension, analysis, and application of ideas from the text to the writer’s own experience.  

  1. Summarize the early experiences and conditions of Paul Farmer’s life. (You might also consider the life paths of other “characters” in this book, such as Ophelia Dahl or Jim Kim.) What qualities and characteristics of his personality were developed and demonstrated through these experiences? How did these traits contribute to his life’s work as a doctor and as an advocate for the poor? What conditions and shaping experiences from your early life have made you the person you are today? How will these traits help you become the person you wish to be? How might they help you accomplish what you wish to achieve?
  2. Explain what Paul Farmer and his colleagues mean by “O for the P.” Give some examples from the text in which Farmer or others act on this principle in caring for the sick and poor. At times, Kidder and others question these actions as extreme or impractical. How does Farmer respond to these critics to convince them that his methods are both morally and medically sound? Can you give an example of some action or decision you made, based on principle, that others might have considered extreme? Do you feel that you ultimately did the right thing? Would you do the same today? Why or why not?

Researched Argument
Purpose: These assignments require students to learn more from reputable and scholarly sources, and to synthesize information and ideas from those sources to support a carefully constructed argument. This argument may take the form of a claim of fact, value, or policy. No matter what the mode of argument, the goal of the writer is to demonstrate ethos through a credible level of expertise about his or her subject. Strong opinion is no substitute for knowledge and clear understanding. In addition to print materials, sources could also include interviews.

  1. Research a career. Consider the career possibilities portrayed in Mountains Beyond Mountains. Find out more about such careers as academic or clinical medicine, a specialty in infectious disease, medical anthropology, hospital administration, administration of or fund-raising for non-profit organizations, nursing, public health work, bio-medical researcher, or non-fiction writer. What kinds of jobs are available in the CDC or WHO? What education and training are required for this career? What personality traits, qualities, interests, or skills would be useful in following this career path? Synthesis of this research could take the form of an informative report, or the writer could support a claim of value: after learning about this career, does the author feel it is something he or she would like to pursue? That is, would this be a good career for me? Why or why not?
  2. Research an identity-forming institution.  The people in this book often identify themselves or locate at least part of their identity in larger organizations. For example, Paul Farmer sometimes tags some of the things he says by adding the phrase “Love, ID.” That is, he backs his ideas with the larger authority and knowledge of a community and discipline known as “Infectious Disease.” When Farmer and Kim set out to change the protocol for the treatment of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, they must contend with and try to persuade communities called “TB,” “WHO,” and “CDC.” Consider some other identity communities described in the book, perhaps one that has some part in shaping your identity. For example:
    1. What does it mean, in the world of Haiti, to be identified as a United States citizen? Research the history of U.S. influence in Haiti and surrounding regions. You might use your research to support a claim of fact: what has this influence been? What has the U.S. done in Haiti? A claim of value: has this influence worked for good? Evil? Both? A claim of policy: how should the U.S. change its course of action in Haiti? What can the government do, or what can individual citizens do?
    2. Paul Farmer identifies himself as a particular kind of Catholic, one who practices “liberation theology.” Research this concept to support a claim of fact: what is liberation theology? What is its history, goal, and mission? What is the Vatican’s position on it? A claim of value: are the goals entailed in this concept worthy of emulation? Why or why not? A claim of policy: what should be the position of the Catholic Church and individual Catholics toward liberation theology?


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