I used to hate “creative” school projects when I was a student, since simply writing an exam required a whole lot of less of me, but for this year’s upper division American lit survey I decided to subject my class to just such a final assignment because as an instructor, I REALLY REALLY hate grading blue books.
Inspiration for this project came while I was putting together my syllabus and designing the Prezi course map and decided I wanted to render transparent the way in which designing such a course requires making some challenging decisions about what to include and what relationships between texts, genres, authors, and historical periods to emphasize. Any such course inevitably leaves things out and requires one to smooth over nuances that a more in depth study of any particular element would reveal. So, for the final project, I asked students to design a creative presentation that would re-present the overall arcs of the course in a way that seemed important or helpful for them. I told them to think about what they would do if asked to teach this course to other people or were designing the best study guide ever for a hypothetical final exam.
I was pleased enough with the results first semester to give it another go during the Spring when I had some exceptional models to offer. I would say about half of the students chose to emulate the course map by using Prezi, though with some decidedly innovative twists of their own. Other students created Pinterest Boards, Tumblrs, and standard blogs.
Here are some Prezi examples:
The last one has an audio component that is completely worth listening to all the way through for its spot-on parody of NPR interviews.
By the way, here is a great shortcode converter that makes embedding Prezi in WordPress really easy.
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.
A few weeks ago, I was browsing the Fall course offerings and came across an upper division undergraduate History class called “Religion and Popular Culture.” The content of the course looked fantastic, as the pop culture focus was on the Ben-Hur tradition (something I am currently researching), but in the part of the course description that lists assessment criteria, I found cause for concern:
Fifty percent of the course grade will be determined by class attendance and sustained and useful participation in class discussion. There will be no examinations as long as students do the assigned reading and sustain effective discussion. The other half of the course grade will be determined by the semester’s writing project. Students will write a paper of at least sixteen pages on a topic that traces a theme or development through all of the cultural manifestations of Ben-Hur over the past 125 pages. In preparing that paper they will write a brief prospectus, a longer prospectus, a first draft of the essay and then a revised draft. At all stages of the writing project leading to the final version, students’ work will be evaluated by the instructor and then re-written to reflect that evaluation.
What I really want to talk about here is the logic of basing almost the entirety (given that most participation components are kind of bullshit) of a final course grade on a single written assignment and then marking it–as this course was–with a “Writing Flag.” Ok, from what I understand, “Writing Flag” courses are meant to teach undergraduates something about writing in that particular discipline. A good half of the student body tests out of the required freshman comp class here, so most writing instruction is inevitably happening in these Writing Flag courses that can be hosted by just about any department.
Now, a sixteen page research project in an upper division course is probably pretty reflective of the kind of writing one might do in the history field. At least, that’s been par for the course in all of the graduate seminars I’ve taken in the humanities and social sciences. My concern is that writing is something that one can only learn by practicing, by trial and error. Even though this particular class requires a good deal of preparatory work for the final paper (two prospectuses and a first draft), I would worry that students aren’t really getting a whole lot of practice at this particular kind of writing before it comes time to start working on this massive omnibus project. They ought to have some lower stakes opportunities for figuring out what kinds of topics work, what counts as a thesis, how to structure and organize a smaller argument before doing a larger one, etc.
And this is a course being taught by a professor who I know to be excellent. I can see him doing quite a bit of writing instruction in the classroom, presenting samples, holding students hands through the process, giving ample feedback on proposals, etc. But there are a number of “Writing Flag” courses out there (enough that the chair of the Sophomore Literature committee warned all new instructors against following this example) that really do just demand a final draft of a huge paper on the final day of class and call that a writing course. I imagine these are the same professors who whine about the under-preparedness of college freshman (without a clue as to what the conditions are in public high school English departments) and refuse to teach “writing fundamentals” in any form whatsoever. I imagine that these are also the same professors who take off a point for every grammatical error.
My issue with this type of grading policy is that it does not encourage actual improvement. It’s designed to disproportionately reward students who came into the class with a lot of experience and strong skills while disproportionately punishing those with less experience and rougher skills. There’s a column at The Chronicle of Higher Education that I mostly find insufferable (for reasons I may talk about in another post) but that makes this point pretty well. Describing his first experience as a graduate student composition instructor, when he was asked to curb the trend toward grade inflation, the pseudonymous author says:
What Dr. Cathcart didn’t say, but that I realized afterward, was that Elite National U. did not want me to teach first-year students as much as sort them according to the abilities they brought with them to my classroom. Having been asked to halt the progress of Marty, a student with special needs, I had no desire to find out what happened to a TA who didn’t sort papers according to a bell-curve standard. After that day, my grading report sheets displayed lovely bell shapes.
Because first-year students’ success depended upon skills they had mastered before showing up on our campus, I suspected the same principle applied to teaching assistants.
Trying to teach writing without a strong emphasis on shorter, lower stakes assignments, regular instructor feedback, and opportunity for revision, without–in a word–PRACTICE built into the curriculum makes about as much sense as trying to teach a musical instrument via a lecture course. Imagine you are a student sitting in this hypothetical lecture course on, say, the piano, in which the professor waxes poetically about the piano itself, about the technique of great pianists past, even demonstrates his own remarkable skills and then asks everyone to learn a Sonata by the end of term without any opportunity for one-on-one instruction. The bald reality of the situation is that teaching writing–like learning an instrument–requires a great deal of back and forth between student and instructor and requires ample room for the student to take risks and mess up and then start over and try again. Teaching writing requires room for shitty first drafts.
So, while a long assignment may be desirable in your class–especially if you want your students to engage in focused research–it’s worthwhile to consider adding shorter assignments–ones that are unrelated to the larger project–to the syllabus. My students do a long paper on a text assigned in class at the end of the semester, but they also do three short analysis papers, all of which receive feedback from me.
And here’s the kicker: I allow all of my students to revise any assignment as many times as they want up to a certain date. I’m not exactly an innovator in this respect, but it’s worth mentioning here because I think this policy scares a lot of instructors, mostly because it seems like it would translate to a lot more work. It really doesn’t have to. I’m going to do a follow up post to this tomorrow (because this one is already really long) that will explain how the concept of unlimited revisions can actually drastically decrease the amount of time you spend commenting on individual drafts while actually increasing the amount of aggregate useful feedback your students get from you throughout the term. Other benefits for you include:
Fewer grade disputes: Students who know that they can revise their essays feel that they control their own destiny in your class. They are less likely to be shell shocked by a bad grade if they know they have the opportunity to change it, and that leads to less demoralization, less defensiveness, and the decreased likelihood that they will blame you for their poor performance. All of my nightmare, stalker grade grubbing incidents happened before I started allowing unlimited revisions.
Intrinsic motivation for submitting papers on time. I actually don’t even have a late policy in my class. I don’t need one. I tell students what my grading schedule is for each week, so if they want timely feedback (and I get papers back within 3 days, usually) that will allow them to revise the paper, they have to get it in by a certain time on a certain day. I love this policy for so many reasons. For one, it causes students (and therefore me) less stress, but mostly I love it because it flips the logic of due date incentives on its head by offering a reward for timely submission rather than a punishment for lateness. Also, it works.
More meaningful engagement with the writing process when revision is for a full grade replacement. Two years ago, I taught in the freshman writing program, which emphasized the revision process by requiring a revision of each of the three major essays. These revisions were recorded as a separate grade from the first draft. The problem with this approach is that most students would essentially just turn in the same paper, resigned to the fact that they were going to get more or less the same grade no matter what they did. I started seeing remarkable, thorough revisions when I offered students the opportunity to actually improve their grade by revising the paper. Furthermore, I no longer felt sketchy about encouraging revision by assigning grades strategically. Under the “separate grades” model, I felt like I needed to reward excellent first drafts (they do happen) with “A’s,” even though I knew that meant that they wouldn’t engage with the revision process. Now, I can give a strategic B+ here an there to encourage the strong students to make their papers even stronger, because they almost always do (and phooey to them if they let the opportunity slide).
The student’s final grade is ultimately a true reflection of where they are at the end of the semester rather than where they were at the beginning. And that, for me, is the true beauty of allowing unlimited revisions for a whole grade replacement, yet this seems to be a real psychological barrier for a certain type of pedagogue. The type of professor that the Chronicle essayist describes, seems to me to remain highly invested in pigeon-holing students into the “good writer/bad writer” categories. I’ve written before about why I think doing so is damaging. For one thing, it privileges students who came from the best high school programs, i.e. students who are inherently privileged already. For another thing, that’s not teaching. That’s sorting, and I find the investment of certain instructors (who often engage in this practice in the name of stamping out grade inflation) in engaging in this practice to be both cynical and discriminatory.
Not all students advance light-years in a single semester, but if you allow unlimited revisions and give some shorter, lower stakes assignments, you will often see a B- student start turning in A- work by the end of term. Not all students will revise every assignment, but almost all students will revise at least one. Not all students will learn to love writing, but some will actually start to think of themselves as people who are capable of writing, and for me, that’s good enough.