Week 7: Designing Formal Assignments

calvin-enjoy-writingFor me, the heart of Bean’s discussion on designing formal assignments is his RAFT/TIP heuristic (98), which encourages the creation of assignments that are problem-driven and rhetorically situated.  Bean suggests that the trouble with traditional assignments (the “term paper”, the “research paper”) is that they are topic-oriented – “Discuss diabetes!” – and thus likely to result in “data dump” or “all about” papers that are boring to produce and boring to read.  Moreover, these papers bear no resemblance to any writing that we actually do in our fields: they are composed in a rhetorical vacuum, and sent down a one-way street to the teacher-as-examiner.

Exhibit 6.1 (92) is a high-impact illustration of Bean’s point: What teacher would still choose to read a stack of Option 1 papers, after considering the types of thinking and writing that Options 2 through 5 might produce?  I have used this exhibit several times to underline how deeply implicated teachers are in the production of dull and pointless student writing.  Happily, once teachers see their default assignment ideas as design choices that can be changed, they immediately start their own revolutions.  I personally like Option 2: A staff nurse, writing a research brief for the hospital’s governing board, which has already reprimanded nurses experimenting with TT – this is such a rich and complex rhetorical situation, where there is a lot at stake! The context is a real-world type of controversy, the writer’s motive for writing is clear – all the RAFT elements are present. 

Do you have a current assignment, or an assignment idea, that could RAFTed or TIPed into a really engaging new form?  Explain a bit here, and consider bringing this assignment to our next meeting for discussion and development.

barn-raisingAnother aspect of assignment design that Bean explores is scaffolding the thinking/writing process in such a way that students are advancing the work through increments of informal writing, discussion, revision, and so on – all of which serves to add depth to their consideration of the problem, and also to help them avoid nightbeforitis.  These “interactive components” have to be integrated into class time to certain extent – yes, taking away time for the coverage of content, but by now we know how dismal the returns on covering content for content’s sake are.  Class time invested in the scaffolding will be paid back when you are reading final product where the students are deeply invested in the problem at hand – or so goes this line of thinking.  If you have time, Petrucci’s article on his reworked intro to linguistics assignment is revealing and very instructive.  He explains how at first he despaired that his students would ever be able to do linguistics.  Then, he reorganized their homework into a series of what Bean would call theory + practice “microthemes”(111), where the students could do first hand research applying linguistics concepts to their direct observations of regional Spanish usage in Texas – with the microthemes leading to a larger thesis-driven response to a central complex – indeed controversial – question: Is the Spanish spoken in the regions of the American south-west “ungrammatical”?  The outcome radically changed the intro to linguistics experience, for the students and for Petrucci.

Are you currently able to scaffold the thinking & writing process in some of your major assignments?  With what kinds of success?  Are there any new kinds of scaffolding that Bean refers to that you’d be interested in integrating into your current assignments?

 

 

 

 

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7 Comments

  1. Like the other teachers mentioned by Ian, I also found Bean’s list of assignment variations on page 92 eye-opening. There are some techniques included here that I already use for both my final IS and Ethics papers, but the examples helped me think about how I could make them more effective. For those classes, I do have students write their final research papers for an audience with decision-making powers on their topics, such as government committees or corporate boards. I explain that given their audience’s busy schedule, it’s crucial that they write clearly and forcefully. At the end of their papers, students are also required to propose at least three policy recommendations based on best practices they’ve discovered in their research. While it sometimes takes some getting used to for the students, this has tended to work successfully.

    On the other hand, I have never made my students write for rhetorical situations with the amount of precision outlined in Bean’s list. In the future, I could note in my prompt that the officials to whom they are writing are *bombarded* with position papers every single day. This would help underline the importance of clarity, but I could also use it as a reason to insist that it’s important to incorporate the best counter-arguments into their work. Doing so not only helps show the reader that they’ve done their homework, but also makes it clear that they are not simply propagandists. This will allow their research to stand out and get taken more seriously. Similarly, while I have made students write for a committee or board with decision-making power, I have not asked them to do much more than name the audience (which they can even make up). In the future, I might consider having students frame their papers for a more targeted (and real) audience and writing situation. This would require them to actually discover who *does* have power on the topic and how they might have to address them in “real-world” conditions.

    There’s another topic in the chapter that intrigues me, on which I would like to get feedback from others in the group. This is exploratory writing. This type of reflective writing is one I often have students produce for “low-stakes” in-class assignments, but I would like to start designing this kind of work for more significant projects too. I love the exploratory style produced in places like the New Yorker or the Walrus and would like to see my students produce such writing too. I’m so used to assigning the classic thesis supporting essay, however, that I’m unsure on how to proceed with the alternative “thesis-seeking” paper. Here’s an example of one of my typical thesis-driven assignments I would like to go beyond. In my course on Hitchcock this semester, students had to find a problem, puzzle, or tension within one of the films we examined and then, applying a theoretical lens, “resolve” that problem with a multi-part thesis. (Students are also encouraged to use the film to “read against” the theoretical model that they are applying.) While I think this is a useful exercise, I have often wondered whether students would produce more interesting work if I allowed them to write papers that move *towards* a thesis rather than forcing them into what sometimes feels like a very rigid argumentative model (one that also gives almost everything away in the introduction). Any suggestions on how to have students produce well-organized and analytically rigorous exploratory projects would be welcome!

  2. Like the other teachers mentioned by Ian, I also found Bean’s list of assignment variations on page 92 eye-opening. There are some techniques included here that I already use for both my final IS and Ethics papers, but the examples helped me think about how I could make them more effective. For those classes, I do have students write their final research papers for an audience with decision-making powers on their topics, such as government committees or corporate boards. I explain that given their audience’s busy schedule, it’s crucial that they write clearly and forcefully. At the end of their papers, students are also required to propose at least three policy recommendations based on best practices they’ve discovered in their research. While it sometimes takes some getting used to for the students, this has tended to work successfully.

    On the other hand, I have never made my students write for rhetorical situations with the amount of precision outlined in Bean’s list. In the future, I could note in my prompt that the officials to whom they are writing are *bombarded* with position papers every single day. This would help underline the importance of clarity, but I could also use it as a reason to insist that it’s important to incorporate the best counter-arguments into their work. Doing so not only helps show the reader that they’ve done their homework, but also makes it clear that they are not simply propagandists. This will allow their research to stand out and get taken more seriously. Similarly, while I have made students write for a committee or board with decision-making power, I have not asked them to do much more than name the audience (which they can even make up). In the future, I might consider having students frame their papers for a more targeted (and real) audience and writing situation. This would require them to actually discover who *does* have power on the topic and how they might have to address them in “real-world” conditions.

    There’s another topic in the chapter that intrigues me, on which I would like to get feedback from others in the group. This is exploratory writing. This type of reflective writing is one I often have students produce for “low-stakes” in-class assignments, but I would like to start designing this kind of work for more significant projects too. I love the exploratory style produced in places like the New Yorker or the Walrus and would like to see my students produce such writing too. I’m so used to assigning the classic thesis supporting essay, however, that I’m unsure on how to proceed with the alternative “thesis-seeking” paper. Here’s an example of one of my typical thesis-driven assignments I would like to go beyond. In my course on Hitchcock this semester, students had to find a problem, puzzle, or tension within one of the films we examined and then, applying a theoretical lens, “resolve” that problem with a multi-part thesis. (Students are also encouraged to use the film to “read against” the theoretical model that they are applying.) While I think this is a useful exercise, I have often wondered whether students would produce more interesting work if I allowed them to write papers that move *towards* a thesis rather than forcing them into what sometimes feels like a very rigid argumentative model (one that also gives almost everything away in the introduction). Any suggestions on how to have students produce well-organized and analytically rigorous exploratory projects would be welcome!

  3. Julian’s audience is much more powerful than mine! I have also given a new assignment after reading these chapters, but mine is the general population of Montreal. I’ve asked my students to write a newspaper piece reclaiming the reputation of witches (just in time for Halloween of course!). They are to explain about the valid religion of Wicca and try to banish the picture of the Wicked Witch of the West with her green face and hook nose. This for an audience of mixed religions, ethnicities, ages, genders, etc.
    Along with this, they are also creating “propaganda posters”: images with captions that replace the negative stereotype with positive images. This came out of a classroom exercise where they brainstormed about possible actions and we voted as a class on which one we thought would be most effective. I think what this accomplished was a personal connection and investment with the subject, which will hopefully show up in the assignments they hand in. I’ll let you know………

  4. Beaucoup d’idées intéressantes dans ce chapitre et surtout beaucoup de solutions pratiques.
    Une fois de plus, j’ai le sentiment que la lecture de Bean m’aide à clarifier, à donner une forme précise à des idées qui étaient un peu floues dans ma tête. Je m’y retrouve (surtout en ce qui concerne l’idée d’échafaudage des activités d’écriture et d’apprentissage) tout comme j’y découvre ce qui me manque. Et un grand manque dans mes cours est l’aspect rhétorique. Je réalise que je n’ai jamais pensé à proposer à mes étudiants des travaux qui visent un auditoire précis. Probablement, parce qu’on ne m’a jamais demandé de le faire (en tout cas, pas de manière si concrète, si réaliste que Bean le propose). Décidément, c’est quelque chose que j’aimerais changer dans mes cours. J’ai déjà fait une première tentative après une discussion qu’on a eue lors de notre première ou deuxième rencontre. Ian nous a parlé des lettres qu’il demande à écrire à ses étudiants et par lesquelles ils interpellent l’auteur d’un texte étudié dans le cadre du cours. J’ai fait quelque chose de similaire en demandant aux étudiants d’écrire une lettre adressée à l’un des personnage du roman qu’on étudie afin de démonter un par un les arguments qu’il avance pour défendre la nécessité/ les bienfaits de la construction d’un robot de guerre. Ce n’est qu’une faible tentative, bricolée en cours de route, mais je vais y réfléchir sérieusement.

    J’ai par ailleurs beaucoup aimé l’exemple de Petrucci : une question qu’on approche de manière intuitive, subjective au début du cours pour arriver, grâce à des multiples et divers travaux préparatoires, à traiter selon les canons de l’écriture académique vers la fin du cours.

  5. RHETORIC — This chapter on the Design of Formal Assignments links well to Chapters 3 and 4 on Rhetoric and Genres, both of which consider ‘engaging’ forms and devices in writing. If it is true that genres produce how communities think and act (numerous authors in Bean p. 48), our use of different genres with their attendant expectations and assumptions will inform how the individual student, and also the class together, responds to issues and ideas we share. Often students are writing for the teacher, and we then need to make them aware that they may be writing for a naïve, or a puzzled, or a resistant audience that is not us. What I wonder about is, how can we make ourselves more aware of whether the students themselves are a naïve, a skeptical, supportive, or resistant audience for our rhetoric? Should we use the form of ‘before being introduced to such and such… students will think such and such… and then after… such and such”, for our own teaching? Are there other ways we too can be made aware of our audience, our purpose, and the genres and rhetoric we disseminate through assignments?

  6. @ Julian

    I share your interest in the thesis-seeking option, and have had some success using it with my ICE-Writing English students in several ways. Eg. Students read an excerpt from Dewey’s “Experience and Education”, where Dewey argues that students cannot succeed in education without some kind of intentional plan – and that the role of teachers is to collaborate with students to develop a plan that fits with their specific interests and aspirations. Their essay must begin with a 5-10 sentence summary of Dewey (using Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say templates as scaffolding); they must then go on to “explore” their own educational experiences so far, reflecting both on the presence or absence of a plan of their own, and also on the help or lack thereof from teachers in the creation of a pathway that fits their needs and interests; and they have to “arrive” at a central thesis by the essay’s conclusion. I write a model based on my own experiences at the same time as they are drafting in class. It works well! And I wonder if it is particularly well suited to history too?

    @ Carmen, Julian, Sonia

    I agree, considering audience in the way Bean encourages can be a dramatic step towards more engaging assignments.

    The “audience” problem has often been summarized in this way: Why would a writer be motivated to explain a topic/problem to an audience which is superior in knowledge/authority on the same topic/problem? The answer is familiar and banal: When the writer is a student, and the audience the teacher, the motive is the grade. This doesn’t preclude the student being engaged by and invested in the learning – we know they often are – but it restricts the communication of the learning within a closed circuit of student-to-examiner. I heard Janet Giltrow describe this a few years ago in a presentation as the one-way street of “school room” genres: Work written for no one gets handed in to some one, and is never heard of by any one! Assignments designed with specific real-world audiences, and classrooms where student writing is shared and discussed in an atmosphere of critical support, can go some distance to changing this norm. Sonia’s poster/memes would be well suited to a post-assignment exhibit and review, for example…

    @ Mari

    You are right, Mari, the way we address students and the way we frame the work they will do is itself a rhetoric – often very idiosyncratic, as students know well, and so they insist: “But what do you want, miss?” I guess you could say that the UDL / Universal Design for Learning project is an effort to create a kind of universal rhetoric for assessment, so that students are not constantly spending time and energy decoding a teacher’s “local” idiosyncrasies. Do you think this is a worthy and realistic objective?

    • Thank you Ian, I would very much like to read more on the Universal Design for Learning, if there are any additional links you might suggest for background? I try to avoid the “work written for no one gets handed in to some one, and is never heard of by any one” by asking students to write letters or share views in ways that incorporate ‘gut reactions’. In a class on the Culture of Consumption we read an excerpt from the Story of Stuff (there is also a video), and students are at the same time able to understand and articulate where ‘stuff’ comes from and where it goes, but reluctant to recognise how they might have a hand in uncovering their own responsibilities or contributing to changing how consumer items are generated or discarded. We examine the chain of materials from extraction to disposal, and consider various points along the chain where stuff is made, bought, distributed, and then address a real world issue in the materials economy. We then write a letter; we find something wrong such as toxins in perfumes, unfair wages, or incineration as a means to discard trash, and try to identify an actor who might help in addressing the problem. Already, the students working in groups then feel like they have some link to this actor that has a say, even if they themselves don’t feel they can do anything directly. After we write the letter, we look at ways in which other people, like and unlike them, have responded to the same problem, and what types of responses they have garnered from sharing their ideas or engaging in actions small and large. Various actions include protest, drafting laws, or making personal or political changes. Finally, we come to some understanding of different views about who in the world has too much and who has too little, and we are able to apply ethical frameworks to the problems we have uncovered, if only starting with a humble, simple letter. At the beginning of all of it, I tell the students of my interests and experiences, so that they know my areas of expertise and my limits, and they can either ask me questions or go to other sources and resources, all as their own ‘gut response’ develops into something more critical and analytical. We then are rewarded by learning something new together.

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