From the Political to the Personal

Every semester I give an assignment in political science to my students entitled from “The Political to the Personal.” The goal of the assignment is that students will take a position and construct an argument on a current event that interests them. My hope is that students will take ownership of a particular current event so that it becomes personal to them. At times, I feel that I am being overly optimistic. It seems that students see the assignment as a paper that they will need to hand in for a grade without any thought of how the paper can make a difference to their own lives. I want them to take a current event and see how the chosen topic can become a personal issue so that they are just not handing in a paper: rather, they have taken ownership of a topic and see its personal value. When I first used the assignment, I implemented very little scaffolding and the result was papers that had very little point of view and a distinct tone and voice. I would tell students to write a paper that served as an extended abstract to sell me their book. But this proved unsuccessful until I engaged students in scaffolding through a process that would help them take further responsibility in their writing. With proper scaffolding, the political became the personal. This blog will detail some of the more effective scaffolding assignments that I used throughout the semester that hold students accountable for their writing. Furthermore, these techniques can be useful to disciplines other than political science.

The first assignment involves a two page journal free write on two current events articles. A free write is often a useful tool because students can put pen to paper their ideas without the restriction of conventions. The goal for them is to write on a topic and perhaps make an argument on how they feel about current events. In this way, students can take current events and put them into their own words often developing a point of view on each. I find this assignment particularly useful because students will begin to develop their own voice. A distinctive voice and tone is one of the grading criteria for the final product. I find that starting with a free write gives students the chance to initiate the process of developing their own point of view and as a result, begin the process of taking ownership of their work. The grading for this assignment is relatively minimal. It serves as the initial assignment that develops a dialog between the students and teacher. It is the first opportunity for student and teacher to begin communication about the assignment. Comments can be quite brief and merely point students in the right direction. The free write is relatively useful for all disciplines as it is a brainstorming activity meant to get students to grapple with their topic of choice.

The second activity is relatively simple, but very useful. This assignment gets students to start thinking about their readers. The students answer the following prompts “before reading my paper my reader will believe…and after my paper my reader will believe…” Here, students will begin to think about how to construct an argument to change their readers’ mind concerning their topic of choice. Here is where the “so what” factor of their work is highlighted. This encourages ownership of their writing because students are encouraged to think about the purpose of their work. Once again, grading for this assignment is minimal. The instructor can initiate brief comments that point students in a specific direction concerning the overall value of their work. Finally, this brief assignment can be useful in many disciplines because it allows students to think about the readers’ point of view and the purpose of their work relevant to many disciplines.

In addition, I find that students take ownership of their work through the process of a reverse outline. A reverse outline is unique because students will have already written the first draft of their paper. They will then write an outline form the constructs of the first draft. Here, students will be critics of their own writing and learning the essential skills of good writing that encourages them to self-edit. I often assign this step after a session of peer review. In this way, students are not only identifying key elements of organization in their own writing, but that of their peers. Reverse outlines are particularly effective in getting students to organize their writing so that it presents a well-polished argument. Furthermore, students can ascertain whether or not they have all of the elements of a persuasive argument. Here, you may find it useful for students to provide a rubric or checklist to guide them during the writing process of a reverse outline. This step also prepares students for the next step in writing, and that is the final product. After constructing a reverse outline, students are prepared to write the final draft of their paper. Grading for this step is also relatively minimal. Comments for this assignment should reflect the overall developments of the paper pointing students in the right direction so that they have all of the elements of a proper argument.

Ownership of writing comes from the process and developed skills of being able to edit your own writing. In this sense, writing enters the realm of the personal, rather than the alternative which is to merely to hand in an assignment for a grade. I find that proper scaffolding with unique assignments to be very effective in engaging students not only to be better writers, but to see the value of being invested in their own writing. In this sense, properly scaffolded assignments in any discipline make writing personal.

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