Yesterday I was putting the finishing touches on an assignment sheet for one of my classes and I looked down at the word count: 1,003 words. Hm, you’re probably thinking, that seems like a lot, but it depends on the assignment. The assignment, my friends, was for two 500-word short essays. That’s right, I wrote as many words *describing* the assignment as I expected the students to use in *doing* the assignment!
Is this bad?
On the one hand, I feel like I should point this out to students and say, “Look, if I can write this many words just telling you what I expect, you should be able to produce this many words on the more substantive topic of your essay. Easy peasy!”
On the other hand, maybe I’m overwhelming students. And yet, I’ve had students praise my assignment handouts because I lay out my expectations so clearly. But still, there are students who are almost certainly reading only every other bullet point (and sometimes reversing what I say there even when they do read it, despite the big DO NOT in bold and all caps, or whatever), and least judging from the work they turn in. So, for them, it’s too much, or overwhelming, or confusing.
Part of why my assignment sheets are so long is that often my assignments are as much about the process as the product, and I lay a lot of that process out. I want students to learn from the assignments, to learn from doing, as much as I want them to demonstrate the skills and knowledge they’ve developed. And sometimes I want to teach them more effective processes. So, for example, if I want students to do a close reading of the interaction of form and content in a poem, I tell them explicitly NOT to consult any other sources (other than, say, the OED, or other reference works), and especially to stay away from the internet. Instead, I tell them, read the poem over and over, first all at once, then section by section, word by word. Make multiple copies of the poem and mark them up, I tell them. Use what you’ve learned in class, I say, and consult your book and your notes. Sometimes in a set of directions I’ll give them short examples of effective and ineffective methods or argument or whatever (so, for example, an effective thesis and an ineffective one; a smooth quotation of a poem and an awkward one, etc.). And so on.
To be clear, they are *not* anal-retentive checklists of things that must be in an essay. For as much guidance in the process I give, I leave a lot of openness to content and its organization. (A frequent exchange I have with students: “How should I organize my essay?” Me: “That depends on your argument.”) Often, in fact, my essay prompts raise a number of questions and then I say, “You do NOT have to cover all of these questions in your essay. They are here to generate your thinking.” For example, here’s a passage from the assignment I was writing yesterday for my upper level undergrad/MA level Old English class, in which one of the essay topics was “What got lost in translation [in the class's collaborative translation of Judith]?”
Write a thoughtful and detailed essay about what your new knowledge of Old English language and literature lets you see in this poem that you would not have seen from reading it only in translation. Tell me about some of the choices you had to make (or that others made) that shut down multiple possible meanings, or that lost meaningful structural or grammatical forms of the Old English, or that obscured significant qualities of the poetic form and its conventions. (Or maybe even discuss points of confusion.)
Words that have multiple possible translations are a good place to start, but try not to limit yourself to that. Think also about poetic form (the structure of alliterative line and its beats), sound effects (look for “noisy” scenes in the translation and then look at what the OE is doing), poetic conventions (including compounds and kennings, but also variation, poetic vocabulary, the OE love for litotes and other irony, and the conventional motifs of poetry), ambiguity, and also the effects of the flexible word order of OE poetry.
You don’t have to cover it all, but a successful essay will dig into the subtleties of what’s lost. It will also put its discussion in context of understanding the poem Judith as a whole.
In other words, my assignments and their focus on process are an extension of my teaching, where I also try to emphasize the processes of reading and interpretation (and research, too) rather than single readings. And they are so because many (perhaps most) of my students need to be taught *how* to do these things well (where “these things” vary by the level of the class). When I was in college (at a more selective college, with a very different student body, I realize — also back when dinosaurs roamed the earth), instructions for essays in all sorts of classes from the freshmen core classes to advanced classes in the major amounted to a line on the syllabus that said: Essay due. I don’t want to return to that, especially since that wouldn’t suit my students. I need to teach them where they are.
But maybe I should simplify?
Oh wise citizens of the intertubes, what you do you think?