Assignment Design and Making Your Grading Sessions Less Mind-numbing

Tenured Radical has a fantastic post up today about designing assignments in a way that encourages students to write scintillating analysis instead of boring dreck:

Whose fault was this?  My fault, that’s who.  I had given a highly conventional assignment that signaled to the students (correctly) that they were being tested (without being honest about saying so), and so the vast majority of them stayed in the right-hand lane and drove slightly under the speed limit (metaphorically speaking.)  Furthermore, I had failed for years to attend to this whole business of what students were talking about when they referred to a “prompt”:  hence I had given one assignment, and they had essentially received a different one than I intended.  So the next time around, lest I should be tempted to drive a pencil into my ear while grading, I gave them complete and utter freedom.  I asked them to choose their own document and to choose it based on something they were passionate about now.  I asked them to compare their own enthusiasm for this topic to the enthusiasm expressed in the document, and to use the document to understand better how their own passion was rooted in a history of other people who cared about this thing too.  When students asked me if it was OK to write about something they didn’t really care about, I said no.  Then I took the time to talk with them about what they did care about, and urged them to write about it.

I’m probably stating the obvious, but the way an assignment is designed and presented will, for better or for worse, greatly impact the quality of student’s output.  As TR argues, a rote, conventional assignment that suggests that a student is being tested on course content will inevitably generate rote, conventional regurgitations of that content.  If the major objective of that class is to get students to memorize and apply content, then that may be perfectly fine.  But if the major objective of your class is to get students to practice the analytical skills relevant to your discipline–as it is with many introductory humanities courses–then it pays to allow a bit more room for creativity, and it can be a good thing to get students to practice those skills on objects that appeal to them.

I’ve been using a literary studies version of this assignment for the past two years, and I have been thrilled with the results.  Since the Writing Flag program at my university requires me to assign a variety of assignments with varied lengths (which is something I would probably do anyway), I determined that reading one hundred odd essays on course texts would probably bore me and my students to death, so I have them produce a conventional literary analysis on a course text at the end of the semester, but before that, they write three short (1000 word) analyses of artifacts they find outside of class employing one of the critical methods we discuss.  They can pick a painting, a song, a poem, a novel, a film, a television show, a video game–pretty much anything is up for grabs.  And the results are not only twenty entirely unique essays for each assignment but essays that are actually fun to read.  For one thing, while many students feel intimidated by Literature with a big L and mistrust their abilities to even understand them, much less say something new and interesting, many of them are capable of producing erudite readings of texts and artifacts with which they are more immediately familiar.  And no, I do not receive sixty essays on television shows each semester.  In fact, current pop culture makes up a surprisingly slim percentage of the topics chosen, and even when it is the selected topic, we’re usually talking about sophisticated and original assessments of the movie Pulp Fiction from an RTF major who bothered to do secondary research.  Last year, I also had a student who wrote three essays on paintings from the escuela cuzquena school, a student who wrote about a Czech shrine, and a student who compared an Obama speech to John Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity.

My class is actually a topics course in Literature and Religion, and other teachers frequently express surprise that I’m willing to talk about religion in my class, since the potential for controversy is so high (made a bit worse due to the fact that our state legislature now reviews our syllabi).  However, I have yet to encounter a problem, and I suspect that this assignment is part of the reason.  While I insist that their analyses avoid confessionalism or polemic, there appears to be something both cathartic and educational about getting them to talk about cultural productions that are important to them and allowing them small space for sorting out their own beliefs relative to a much bigger world of ideas without ever having to debate Biblical literalism in class or argue about whose god can beat up all of the other gods.  In other words, while the essays are academic essays, they allow some small space for self-expression and creativity as well as critical thinking.  And that’s pretty much what any assignment in a course like this should be designed to do.

Finally, while there’s no way to scientifically prove it, I do think that making this the dominant writing activity for the lion’s share of the semester makes the end-of-term essays on a course text more original and more interesting.  The short essays do seem to make students more sensitive to the context in which texts are produced and build confidence in their own abilities to tease out an author’s agenda.  At the very least, the short assignments seem to demystify the whole notion of authorship and of Literature as a monolithic, impenetrable body of signs by encouraging them to use the same tools of analysis that they use to unpack more familiar, more accessible cultural products.

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