September 2016 Teaching Workshop: Assignment Development

The moving force of inquiry is the existence of questions that are posable relative to the “body of knowledge” of the day but not answerable within it. Inquiry sets afoot a process of a cyclic form . . .

—Nicholas Rescher, Process Philosophy, p. 65

Yesterday, the First-Year Writing Program facilitated a workshop on assignment development for instructors. It was a nicely attended event, with a healthy balance of new and seasoned instructors.

I had been charged with preparing materials for the event, a task to which I’d responded with gusto—or, rather, absurd thoroughgoingness. (A deadline for a dissertation chapter was looming, and what better way to procrastinate than to compose several pages of single-spaced text on assignment design? I’ve already watched Stranger Things.) But despite the wealth of handouts that I’d brought, I was quickly reminded that a dozen heads seeking advanced degrees are better than one, especially re: assignment development. Which is all to say, the participants blew me away with their great ideas.

I’d like to share all of them with you. But because workshops and freewheeling discussions don’t lend themselves to clear, concise recounting, and because I’d like to conclude this post someplace south of 5,000 words, I’m going to focus on just one of the many threads that we followed yesterday.

One of the most important points was, perhaps unsurprisingly in retrospect, also one of the most fundamental: if we hope to design better assignments, we must arrive at a fuller understanding of what student writing is, what it’s for, and what the relationship is between student writing and that genre of instructor writing that we call assignments. Of course, student writing is writing by students—but it’s writing by students as students, specifically for occasions occasioned by the instructor (and often by the instructor’s writing, in an assignment sheet, for example). In a sense, then, it’s as much the instructor who generates student writing as it is the student—but only in a funny, PoMo theory kind of way.

Or not? “As much” may be too much, granted. But while it’s often, and obviously rightly, the student to whom we ascribe the “genesis” of student writing, our discussion yesterday brought to light just how central of a role the instructor’s assignment sheet plays in bringing student writing into being—and in influencing the shape that the student’s writing will ultimately take. There’s a call and response relationship between the two genres, the assignment and the student’s academic essay. If, as an instructor, you find yourself grumbling about a poor batch of essays by your students, you might consider revisiting the assignment that you devised; maybe it’s there that the issue began. Equally, a carefully crafted assignment not only tends to lead to more insightful, interesting, ambitious essays, but it also models for students what a good project is. (A couple of participants pointed out during our discussion yesterday that “good” in this case has to do with disciplinary conventions. One field’s criteria for “goodness” will differ from another’s.) This knowledge—what a good project is—isn’t as intuitive as we sometimes think, particularly for college freshmen who don’t regularly read, say, PMLA or College English.

There’s a balance, however, between modeling a good project and allowing room for originality, creativity, movement of thought. (Then too, at a more selfish level, most composition instructors don’t find it thrilling to read twenty nearly identical versions of a single essay.) We discussed some practical aspects of this balancing act: allowing students to select one or more of the texts that they examine, or having them begin with feeder assignments like project proposals. But what seemed most crucial was the rule of thumb that assignment sequences should both be responsive to what’s going on in class (the ideas, the writing, the conversations of the class) and be structured in such a way and with such flexibility that, if a student offers a fascinating and/or useful contribution to the course’s inquiry in an essay, that contribution isn’t born on the page only to die on the page: instead, that great idea or insight (or whatever) goes on to circulate throughout the class, changing the trajectory of the course’s knowledge-seeking.

Consequently, we can extend our little formula from before:

An instructor’s writing (in an assignment prompt) occasions a student’s writing (in an essay)—yet this same student writing should also occasion the instructor’s writing (subsequent assignment prompts, lesson plans, etc.).

David Bartholomae has already taught us, in “Writing Assignments: Where Writing Begins,” that student writing typically does—and, if students are to learn from us, must—spring from the assignments that we write. What was perhaps most vital about yesterday’s discussion was the recognition by many participants that, from a still more encompassing perspective, this dynamic isn’t a one-way street. Rather, assignments facilitate a “process of cyclic form,” to quote Nicholas Rescher, in which every act of writing, whether by student or instructor, gives shape to the next.