What do your essay assignments look like?

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?

7 thoughts on “What do your essay assignments look like?

  1. First, that’s a beautiful assignment. Beautiful. I can imagine someone who enjoys language really loving that (so me, except I don’t know OE, alas).

    I was talking to a colleague the other day who’s come back from doing various administrative stuffs for about 5 years, and he said that he was totally unprepared for students to ask for a rubric for their work. It seems that the increasing focus on meeting specific benchmarks or whatever early on trains them (and us, increasingly) to focus on specifyiing the benchmarks. So it’s interesting that your essay assignment is so process oriented, rather than benchmark oriented.

    I much prefer your process-oriented approach, but I can imagine some of our students wanting the more benchmarky approach, and thus totally missing the process (because it takes time and attention).

    Depending on the assignment, I tend to give less lengthy process stuff, and also, at a later point, some benchmarky information. But I hate the focus on “how many pages?” and such of the benchmark stuff so very much. My students though, complain, and evals hurt, and so my ed-biz chair tends to push for benchmarky stuff (she’s not unreasonable, but way more comfortable with that sort of push).

  2. Dr. Virago, I think the appropriateness of your framework depends upon the teaching institution you’re at. At a less rigorous institution, for instance, many students might just phase out…precisely because they might lose the drift that makes a short, punchy prompt effective. I taught for a period at a place that prided itself on nerdy students who were whip-smart (really, though, they were just bookish) and so they would have enjoyed this kind of prompt. What I like best about the prompt was the way it suggested possible categories of exploration–sound-effects, compounds, figures, etcetera–because this lets students move toward newer areas of inquiry. It probably makes for more organized and cohesive essays…thereby saving you the headaches of office hour tooth-pulling or grading-rage. One suggestion might be bullet points. Students love them.

  3. Thanks, Bardiac and Khanh!

    Bardiac — The thing that drives me mad about the benchmarks approach is that it’s just a wordier version of “Essay due.” It doesn’t tell them *how* to *reach* those benchmarks. (And yes, it sometimes puts them in an automatic check-list mode, so that they then don’t understand later why they got a B. “But I included everything you asked for!”) But I do include language of expectations (as you can see in the excerpt above). But yes, the danger with my approach is that they’ll skim for the “benchmark-y” stuff and miss the process. I think that has, in fact, happened in my lower-div classes.

    Or, as Khanh puts it, they “phase out.” I do think that might be a problem among my lower-div students and some of the less rigorous majors, too (even when I *do* use bullet points). Maybe I’ll experiment with pithier assignment instructions on low-stakes assignments and see what happens.

  4. These are great assignments and it’s excellent to go in-depth when leading students through key steps in doing the assignment and, you know, actually learning something beyond the content which they’re determined to forget as quickly as possible once the course is completed!

    That said, did you think about maybe pulling out some of those guides and framing them as separate technical handouts? Then you could refer to them and the specific skills they draw upon “In this assignment, you need to read against the grain as you analyze how Ermantius describes the Norse raids. Review our guidelines on source analysis in THIS HANDOUT before you start reading the document, paying particular attention to. . . .”

    I use rubrics, but I juxtapose them against workshops and class time when we talk about how we do history. Now that we’re ten weeks into the term (eep!), I can get the students to supply the answers when I ask them “How would you approach this source?” or other leading questions when I prod them on assignment processes.

  5. I like the focus on process, and I actually think it connects to the increasing focus on skills based outcomes for humanities majors. I.e. this is *how* you do a certain kind of analysis, ask certain kinds of questions. I love that assignment.

    I try to give enough guidelines that students know what I want, without overwhelming them. We’re in the midst of discussions of rubrics, and I have colleagues who think they are the spawn of the devil; but I think ideally a rubric actually points back to process.

  6. I like the focus on process, too, although my assignments have more bullet points because they will read bullet points. (So will I, for that matter.) This would also be fantastic as a workshop exercise: having them work through the things that are written here hand and really talk about them in small groups would help them to internalize the criteria.

  7. In most of my assignments, I do use bullet points — especially in lower division courses and often even in the English major courses. (I also use a lot of bold for key phrases — not represented here.) This particular assignment is for a pretty self-selecting group of bookish types, so I think the short paragraphs will go over well with most of them. But I will, as usual, set aside time in class to discuss it. I think I might do a version of what Karl Steel suggested in the Facebook thread related to this post: ask *students* to explain what they’re meant to do.

    Of course, what I excerpted above is just the part about the *topic* (and not even all of it). There are two of those and a whole *other* page giving the overview and the pre-writing process! That’s how it got to be 1003 words!

    This particular assignment is a little “special” — the students are first working on a collaborative translation (that has a whole separate set of directions!) and then these essays are based on that. So the pre-writing directions include instructions such as “Read the *entire* translation you and your classmates have produced, as well as the professional translation that I”ll post to Blackboard after the deadline.” So it has a lot of process built into it.

    Anyway, I give that instruction to read what your classmates did more than once because it’s necessary for the essays they’re writing (they have to draw on evidence from parts of the poem they *didn’t* translate, as well as they part they did), but also because for 5 weeks now I’ve been trying to hold discussion of whole texts of which they’ve translated part, the rest of which they were meant to read in translations provided on Blackboard (which are also there to give them context and help for what they’re translating), and every time there’s a student who says, “Oh, I didn’t know the rest was on Blackboard” or “Oh, I didn’t know I was supposed to read the rest.” *headdesk* He has a habit of reading only the syllabus — does this in every class! He’s the kind of student I may be overwhelming with instruction, but he’s also an outlier. I never know how much I should keep such students in mind when I pitch my assignments.

    Now, in my lower-div classes I have more students like that one, so I do try to bullet-point things and bold them and keep them simple and divide them into sub-sections (topic, preparation and process, formatting and submission). But there still end up a *lot* of students who misread even bolded statements in short bullet points!

    I supposed I’m dreaming if I think someday I will write an assignment in which every student excels. But, oh, wouldn’t that be lovely to grade? Actually, I did that *once*. It was the final exam in my mystical and magical Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic class, but it was so good because *I* didn’t write it — the students proposed the topics and wrote the first drafts of the questions and then we worked together to revise it, so they knew every bit of it intimately. I think there’s my answer — I need to set aside more class time to make student familiar with the assignments.

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