For 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.
Another 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?