Yes, I am still sick, but I am feeling MUCH better than I was when I posted this afternoon. Six hours of sleep + Soup + Copious Fluid Intake really does make a difference.
But I'm posting because I'm back to the grind with grading (need to get through 9 papers) and I want to think about the resistance of students to tasks that force them to develop their own ideas. Now, this is the... fourth? time I've given this assignment in as many years, and the 7th section that's been faced with the challenge. It's a personal essay assignment, but the assignment is designed to emphasize all of the components of academic writing. I don't just want confessional schlock. Toward that end, the assignment is not phrased as a question; it is not the conventional, "tell me about x in your life and why it's important to you." If it were, I don't think that students would have the complaints that they have. They're familiar with that kind of writing and that kind of assignment.
Instead, I expect students to develop their own topic and structure in response to an assignment in which students need to construct an argument about their identity, choosing specific examples from the "text" of their life to support the argument that drives the essay. Moreover, they need to provide analysis of each example that relates each example back to the argument. In other words, this is an analysis paper assignment disguised as a "personal experience" essay. Only I don't disguise it. I tell them that's what it is.
The assignment is not, in fact, "vague" or "completely open." Rather, it's incredibly directive, but the way in which it is directive isn't familiar to my students, just three months out of high school. And so they freak out.
Now, this is the thing. I believe in my pedagogy here. I remember being a college student faced with truly open paper assignments - ones where you were just expected to "write a paper, due on this date" - and feeling at a loss for how to go about approaching them. And so I want to walk students through that process as early as their first semester so that they will have confidence that I didn't have.
But yet, there are always those students who even by the time they finish the paper don't really get that this is what it's about, no matter how transparent I am about my aims, on the syllabus, on the assignment, and in class. They just want to be told what to do. (This is also the same group of students that most resists peer review activities.)
Here is what I want students to learn from this kind of assignment:
1) I want them to learn how to come up with an idea of their own for writing, to devise a structure within which to articulate that idea, and to develop their own conclusions through their writing of the paper.
2) I want them to learn that they own their own writing, and that their writing is their responsibility and not my responsibility. Toward that end, if they need help or guidance, they need to ask for it. If they get stuck, they need to devise strategies for getting unstuck. I will be their guide through this, but at the end of the day it's their problem, not mine. This is important because when they complete the assignment, I also want it to be their accomplishment, not mine.
But so this is one of my ongoing frustrations as a teacher of writing. How do we convince students that what they think - on their own, without the intervention of a teacher - is interesting enough to put into words? How do we show them that their own independent thinking has more value than the bland, "correct" thinking that peppers so many student papers?
6 years ago