>Over the years my handouts for writing assignments of all kinds — short, long, research papers, close reading analysis, whatever — have gotten longer and more detailed. These days they have a structure that looks something like this: general overview (including goals and point of assignment); format requirements (sometimes this comes later); details of process (what students will need to do *before* writing); summation/repetition of over-arching goal, often underlined or written in bold. So that last bit on a short assignment might say, “Write a short essay (about 4 pages) in which you address X and Y. Be sure to give concrete evidence to support your claims, state those claims with clarity, [etc. — insert appropriate necessary move here].” And it will essentially repeat what the general overview said, but with more language about the “how” (the process detailed above it). The longer the assignment, the more complicated this summation might be, but it’s never longer than a short paragraph.
So, in other words, I see my assignments as teaching student how to do what I want them to do, rather than just assuming they know what’s expected in whatever the assignment is asking. And in the process section, I often point out that the order they *do* things is not necessarily the order they will *present* them in the finished product, or that they won’t ultimately use everything they discover in the process of preparing.
Sounds good, right? Sounds like I’m setting them up for success, doesn’t it? And in some ways I’m even writing my assignments like a well formed essay or narrative, with a beginning, and middle, and an end. And yet, somehow it doesn’t work. More and more students seem to miss the point, the big picture, even when it’s underlined and in bold and repeated at the beginning and end. And the students who miss this big picture include English majors, honors students, and even MA students. I had one assignment in my graduate methods class that was an utter failure — not as single finished assignment addressed the big picture.
Instead, they get all hung up on the details. In that grad assignment, for example, they were seriously angsty over how to site the web page for a scholarly journal. Seriously. A whole bunch of them. I couldn’t figure out why so many of them were spending so much time on those web sites. And no one asked me substantive questions about the larger point of the project, which was to report on journals in a given subfield and educate each other on what journals were out there, what their emphases were and what kinds of articles they published, how difficult it was to get published in them (in terms of time and percentage of accepted articles, etc.), whether they published scholarly articles only, or other kinds of writing (forums, reviews, etc.). It was clear in many of the assignments turned in that no one in some the groups (it was a group assignment) had even bothered to open an issue of the journal! I should have known that they were missing the point from the weird questions they were asking. In fact, I’m now thinking that instead of asking students if they have any questions about the assignment that I should say, “OK, who can summarize the point of this assignment for the class?” I think I might a) catch misunderstandings and b) open the eyes of a lot of other students.
And recently, in another class, a short assignment had final directions along the lines of “Once you’ve done all that, write an essay in which you draw from the evidence you’ve gathered and answer the following two questions: what does that tell you about X and how can we apply it to Y.” More than half the class forgot to address the “apply it to Y” part and the ones who did threw it in as an afterthought. And the practice of “apply it to Y” has been part of every assignment this semester. As in the graduate journal assignment, I think theses students also got so hung up in gathering data that they forgot why they were doing it and what it was supposed to be used for.
So, clearly, something’s wrong with the way *I’m* doing things, if all of these different groups of students are missing the point. I have to say that I long for the approach most of my undergraduate professors used. Twice a semester they’d say, “Go write a paper.” Seriously, the syllabus (which was usually a single page, btw) would have two days marked “6-page Paper Due” (or something similarly laconic) — one before the midterm and one after — and that’s it. And then there was a midterm and a final (no details about those, either). Of course, that would be going to the other extreme and there all sorts of reasons I can’t do it that way with my students.
At any rate I’m starting to think I’m giving them too much guidance and they’re getting lost in the details. And I’m also giving too many assignments. While that theoretically gives many more opportunities to learn, I’m not sure the students who need it the most take those opportunities. It definitely gives students more grades (each weighted very little), but then some of the flakier ones fail to do every one. And it burns me out on grading.
So what do you all think? Give fewer directions? Let them work out the how? Or maybe move the process-oriented guidelines to an appendix and limit the first page to big picture stuff (and move it all there)? A perverse part of me now thinks I should have a class day dedicated to how to read assignment instructions! But that would be a little insane. What do you think?