Empathetic Assignment Design

As the new Writing Across the Curriculum fellows discussed and revised “Effective Assignment Design,” the first of our writing intensive certification faculty workshop series (for more information, please visit our Writing Intensive Certification website), questions came up around student preparedness, effort, and assessment—what are instructors to do with students who are not prepared, do not make the effort necessary to catch up, and consequently fail in the various ways we assess them?

These are big questions. I’ve written for Fellows Corner before offering strategies for teaching the unique and particular students at the New York City College of Technology, from English language learners to students who find themselves at varying stages of readiness for college learning and writing. I hear my colleagues’ frustrations, but no matter how much construction we do as instructors in the classroom, learning is not possible without the intellectual curiosity, engagement, and unique experiences CUNY students bring to the table. I am often frustrated by my students, but more often than that I am inspired by them. I demand and receive pieces of writing I could’ve never dreamed of producing, that could’ve only come from them. My belief is that if students are met with empathy and sincerity, and that our assessment practices reflect this relationship to our students, then our students will, in turn, approach the assignments we give them with more openness, willingness, and effort.

Some questions to ask when thinking about designing and explaining empathetic assignments to our students are:

  1. What skill is this assignment meant to assess, and why do I think it is important and necessary for my students to have this skill?
  2. Have I conveyed this to my students—why I believe in this subject matter, that they learn and absorb it, that they spend their time on it?
  3. Are there different ways to assess this skill, for students who are struggling with the assignment in its current form?
  4. If an assignment fails, or many students fail an assignment, have I talked with my students about why and involved them in the assessment process? (For more on “co-authoring” in the classroom, see Danica Savonick’s “Community Guidelines: Fostering Inclusive Discussions of Difference and Christina Katopodis’s “Structuring Equality in my American Literature Survey Course.”)

Allowing space for students to bring in their own interests, passions, and experiences to the classroom is another aspect of empathetic assignment design. In one assignment I give my students, I offer them two distinct approaches to their second paper: one historical/cultural and the other theoretical. The goal for this second paper, which I make clear to students, is for them to show me they are practicing formulating and articulating a clear argument, and writing paragraphs that present evidence supporting this argument. They learn to close read figurative language in the first section of the course, and in this paper I hope to expand on these skills, teaching students to include peer-reviewed sources to back up what they see in the literature. This assignment requires that the scholarly sources students include do not directly discuss the piece of literature in question—I encourage them to bring their own disciplinary knowledge and interests to the literature, to use the information and theories they are learning in other classes to illuminate parts of the text. It is not until students have worked on and fashioned arguments based on what they see in the literature that I have them find scholarly sources on the literary texts in question and see how their argument fits into the existing conversation (this Annotated Bibliography and Preliminary Statement serve as the final research assignment).

Some papers I’ve received in the past are: “The ‘boiled-down juice of human living’: Reclaiming Narrative through Folklore & Sisterhood in Toni Morrison’s Sula”; “The Shiver of the Heart: Musical Connections in ‘Thailand’ by Haruki Murakami”; “Expectations and Vermillion Markings in Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘Mrs. Sen’s’”; and “Under the Influence: The Alcoholism Allegory in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

I think these gorgeous papers, and the effort it took students to write them, exist in part because students appreciate and hear faculty when they spell out why we all come together in the classroom at its best. So, I tell my students constantly—we need your voices in the academy, as part of the fabric of academia. I want to hear you, your voice, your ideas; I want you to bring yourself to this piece of writing, this essay, this literature. I tell them their time is precious, that if they’re bored writing an essay and I’m bored reading it, then why are we here? I tell them I wouldn’t be able to look at myself in the mirror if I didn’t believe it was important that our citizens, our dental hygienists and computer programmers, partners, mothers, and fathers, read Christopher Marlowe, Jimmy Baca, Mary Shelley, Nam Le, Haruki Murakami, and Annie Baker—that all kinds of people and professionals know how to read sources critically and suspiciously, communicate their ideas with an audience in mind, argue their point persuasively and confidently to authority figures, loved ones, children.

We move forward from there, and, more often than not, my students meet my call: to write with skill, integrity, and passion.