…and sometimes it might be a combination of things.
I’m feeling a bit better about my students’ papers after talking with my classes this week. I make a habit of doing “mid-semester course evaluations” and then talking over the results with my students. We covered writing assignments during this discussion. When I went back over how the different writing assignment for the course are related (something I had already done at the beginning of class but, well, we all know how fleeting those initial moments of explanation are), I could see little light bulbs turning on above some of their heads. The first thing I’m having them do is an adaptation of an assignment used in the University of Maryland’s freshman writing program: “What are the issues?”
Rather than make an argument themselves, students must write up an analysis of class discussion of a particular text. They are to identify the issues that emerged, the claims that were made with regard to a particular issue, and the arguments used to support those claims.* At the beginning of the semester, I talked about these elements of discussion and instructed them to be aware of what was going on as we talked about class texts. However, I did not continue to put these elements in the foreground, assuming students would remember to keep them in mind, and this may have been a mistake.
This is the first time I’ve ever tried anything like this in a literature class, and I suspect most students have never been asked to write anything like this. I believe their unfamiliarity with the assignment is why these first papers are not as good as one might hope. I’m not just trying to teach them content or interpretation but also argumentation, and I think what might be their inertia in taking seriously the idea that argumentation is important might come from the weight of previous classes in which (I’m assuming based on no evidence) less emphasis was placed on that particular skill.
I had written previously about coming up with a framework “[t]o give students (and myself) a clearer framework for understanding how they can participate and are participating in a class discussion.” A valuable follow-up discussion ensued. However, I did not import this framework into the classroom in part because it seemed like it might be too cumbersome. Maybe I should rethink that.
Jason writes, “I’m sure you’ve communicated your expectations, but could their subsubstandard work be a product of poor writing skills?” I think to some extent, yes, there are those who have poor writing skills, and this is evident in their writing. The biggest problem ususally being short, undeveloped paragraphs and a lack of coherence between one paragraph and the next. However, it is also apparent that some of them just did not get the assignment. They reported on what the different issues were, and perhaps also what claims were made, but they provided no analysis whatsoever of the effectiveness of the arguments underlying those claims. So it is at the level of analysis that I need to provide more instruction, I believe. In other words, to answer Francois’ question, the difficulty lies in “shifting from reporting or describing a position, to analysis.” I was off the mark in describing the problem being that the papers read like the students didn’t care about them when they wrote them; that’s really not the issue.
Finally, I’ve decided that there is some value in assigning a paper that puts students off their balance, that confuses them to some extent. When you assign a paper of the type that students have written many times before, there are two risks. First, they might say, “Oh, yes. This. I’ve seen this before.” and write a pro forma fulfillment of the assignment. Second, there are more likely to be many examples of such papers online, waiting for download and submission. I doubt that either of these is likely to happen with this first assignment.
* The next assignment will be to find a recent scholarly article on one of the texts we’ve read and provide a summary and analysis (again: what issue is at stake? what claim or claims are made? what arguments are used?). The final assignment is to write a longer paper in which they themselves make an argument regarding one or more of the texts we’ve read. They are all connected in that they are meant to build an awareness of what kinds of issues are relevant to literary studies and what kinds of argumentation are most effective.
I completely agree that unusual, anti-forma (if you will) assignments are the way to go. My most satisfying teaching has been with teaching writing with difficult texts that require students not to jump through the typical hoops (summarize, respond, appreciate, compare, etc.), but that might require those as intermediate steps to writing something in which they have an identifiable stake. For a few students, this is perpetually confusing and, unfortunately, alienating of their typical experiences in writing classes (good riddance, in my estimation, but alas). For most, however, the writing requires them to stretch themselves in ways they are surprised and excited to find they can handle. As one student eval from over the summer went, “I finished each essay completely exhausted by it, but I knew that meant I was on the right track.”
Yes, ideally students will build on what they’ve already learned how to do in previous courses (or earlier in the semester). But sometimes it feels like we’re starting from ground zero every semester. I can’t assume everyone already knows how to do certain things, that they can all distinguish between a summary of a text, for example, and an analysis. Or how an analysis might be used in the service of an argument. Presumably these have been covered in the second composition course they are required to take, but not all of them got it right in that course, or perhaps once they passed Comp II they promptly forgot everything they learned.
It makes me feel like an inadequate teacher when these obstacles to good writing become apparent. Then I have to remind myself that not everything is within my control: some students enter the class with more training in effective writing than others.
In general, the more detail one provides about expectations for an assignment, the better.