What Sorts of Assignments Should I Give Students?
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There’s no question that instructors have a range of different objectives when they ask their students to write, and of course it’s part of the mission of the Writing Across the Curriculum Program to promote writing as part of students’ coursework no matter what form the assignment takes. From our perspective, it’s a good thing whenever students are invited to compose their thoughts in text. Writers learn from writing.
Still, we think it’s fair to suggest that as a general rule, the best writing assignments should involve students in a process of active thinking, discovering and deepening their ideas as they write, rather than in a kind of passive report of what they’ve learned. Many formal writing assignments, that is, ask students simply to transcribe information from readings or course notes – to rehearse the course content they’ve absorbed. These are the sorts of assignments that allow an instructor to read and evaluate them through a kind of checklist of what’s been included and what’s been left out. We would encourage instructors to go beyond this model, to ask students to do more than simply transcribe or report: at best, writing should be about exploring, developing, and refining ideas as you articulate them. It should be at once a process of both communication and learning.
So how do you do this with students?
Here are some ideas based on thoughtful assignments we’ve seen in WAC courses. It seems to us that these assignments fall into a few characteristic patterns, and we’ve tried to describe them and, wherever possible, offer examples below.
1. Assignments of Application. The best way to take the measure of an idea is to apply it to things you see around you. This is what the rhetorician and literary critic I.A. Richards meant when he called language a “speculative instrument.” The assignment excerpted here, regularly given in PBJ 397, asks students to think about the concepts developed in their PBJ courses in relation to their developing practical experience in the field, “accept[ing], reject[ing] or modify[ing] certain theories on the basis” of that experience. A Fall 2001 assignment in PSY 100 suggests that pressing current events provide another likely source for this kind of application of course material: “Using what we know about psychology, hypothesize as to what might make a terrorist fly a plane into a building, killing many innocent people as well as himself. Be sure to use explicit principles from social psychology.” The instructor in this course describes students’ responses to this prompt, one option among several on her assignment sheet, as among the strongest and most thoughtful she has ever received.
2. Assignments for Internalizing Key Concepts. Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously said that participating in a text as a reader often required “the willing suspension of disbelief.” So does participating in the concepts that form the basis of the intellectual and methodological tools of any discipline. Can a literary critic do her work without the concepts of genre or subject position? Can a sociologist do his without the concepts of reification or alienation? The second option on this assignment from one section of ENG 204, Writing About Literature, invites students to reflect on the concepts undergirding a critical perspective the instructor reports they found especially uncomfortable and foreign: what's it mean to read for something other than content?
3. Assignments of Assimilation. It’s common to give assignments that require students to report on information they gather: go to Penfield and prepare, say, a summary of three articles you find on physician-assisted suicide in Bioethics or Medical journals. Of course, this requires that students read carefully, absorb different positions well enough to summarize them, and familiarize themselves with the language and stylistic conventions of the field, which is wonderful. Consider, however, that this can be complicated meaningfully if students are asked to do something to connect those different positions: how do they speak to one another? Are they representative of different voices in the discussion they address? Will they be more and less persuasive to different audiences? See this assignment from ENG 302, an advanced expository writing course focused in this section on research and citation, for an example.
4. Genre Exercises. Writing Across the Curriculum and Writing in the Disciplines programs are customarily based on the idea that genres, objectives for writing, and stylistic preferences are unavoidably discipline-specific. (Consider WAC advocate David Russell’s famous insistence that learning “general” writing skills is much like acquiring “general ball-playing skills,” for example – his contention being that practice writing an abstract for a psychology paper will help students no more with the coyly indirect, first-person opening their literary studies professors may favor than the ability to dribble a basketball between their legs will help them in a soccer game.) For this reason, one of the main projects people rightly connect with WAC courses is instruction in disciplinary forms. Writers have been learning how to write for centuries through modeling exercises, both consciously and unconsciously, and WAC courses, especially at the gateway level, frequently take up this tradition. Some courses offer a very close study of central and relatively inflexible genres, others invite students to take up some range of possible but distinct approaches, and still others model more general objectives for writing that students might pursue in a range of voices. But in any case, one of the most fundamental functions of writing in a WAC course is to introduce students to the language, perspectives, conventions, evidence forms, objectives, and genres practiced in the field. Doing this self-consciously, we believe, is a good thing. See the Writing in the Disciplines supplement to the SUNY Oswego edition of Diana Hacker’s Rules for Writers for examples of genres and language conventions specific to five different disciplines.
5. Reflections on Disciplinary Writing. If assignments that require modeling of disciplinary forms are common at the gateway level, reflections on those forms offer a very sensible way to think about the work of a capstone course. In an assignment from one section of ENG 465, the capstone course in literary criticism, students are required to review and comment on a paper written early in their undergraduate careers in order to ask not how close it comes to a form of literary analysis prescribed by the discipline – as one might well in a gateway course – but how their reading and interpretive practices have changed across four years: what sort of literary reader have they become, and how is this reflected in their written analyses of literature?