In Paragraph City students complain about their writing assignments. Occasionally the complaints come from students just trying to make their lives easier, which I generally don’t hold against them. I don’t do much of anything with such complaints; it’s just the whining that’s part of warming to a topic. But just as often the complaints come from students genuinely confused about what’s being asked, often because what’s being asked is something they have never done before. These complaints one takes like a pat on the back; sometimes it’s the only praise students will ever offer a beleaguered writing instructor.
As much as high school students are told that college will be different from high school, mostly they expect it to be the same. I see it in when they are surprised to find:
Some of their English teachers’ ‘rules’ just aren’t rules (never use the word “I”; never start an essay with a quotation; never start a sentence with the words “and” “but” “which” or “because”)
Looking up a word in the dictionary is not “research”; neither is the use of a quotation from BrainyQuote.
Explaining the obvious is bad writing, even if comes wrapped in perfect punctuation.
A paper assignment with a maximum length of 800 words does not mean that a 1,000 word essay is going “above and beyond” normal effort.
So one of my guides to creating writing assignments is that students are being challenged to do something new. Ideally it’s something that they don’t think they can do. I’ve written here before that a great assignment is one that students know they cannot do until they learn something from the class that enables them to do it. This is where confidence comes from.
The assignment I’m thinking about originally looked like this: Build an essay around some important idea or concept you learned in one of your courses this week. I loved it immediately. The topic would be at college level because the idea comes from a college course. It acknowledges the importance of another instructor’s material, and it would be cause for the student to study up on an important idea in that course, chasing after a little more depth or detail or application.
Students hated it immediately. Nothing important was covered this week, they said, or their other courses were boring, or how could anything done in Psychology or Intro to Art or US History or Anthropology or Problem Solving be described as “important”? So I extended it to course material covered in the last month. Next semester I said told them write about any idea from any course anytime this semester. The complaints were even worse. Last semester I said, “any college course you’ve ever taken.” No better.
So I changed the focus of the assignment. “Write” I said, “about your worldview, and how something covered in one of your courses reinforces or opposes that worldview.” Suddenly the content of their courses is no longer a matter, but class after class someone asks what a worldview is, and I start to run out of ways to explain a concept I thought would need no explanation. One student came to my office: “I don’t think I can write this assignment,” she said. “I don’t have a worldview.” Is it possible that the world means to her only what she is told it means?
Next semester I’m going to drop the worldview from the assignment and dial the clock back to material covered in the last month. Because the problem, obviously, isn’t in the timeframe or the course material. It’s in so many students having no idea that their courses are packed with life-rocking, world changing, landmark ideas. They expect nothing but some sort of work-sheet, date-drill boredom, and that’s what they turn their courses into.
So here’s what lots of my students have to do that they’ve never done before. Find an idea that shines in one of their courses, and write about its luster. “Life is meaningful, I tell them, only when you make it meaningful. You make it have meaning. You do it in an essay and you do it in your living.”
Meanwhile, five students stop by my office to ask for advice. “I’ve got a dozen possible ideas just from my Antro class,” one says. “How am I going to decide?” Yep, there we go.