Tailoring Expectations

One useful perspective-realignment I’ve found useful raising to faculty, particularly those who don’t teach strictly “English,” is the that many assignments have implicit writing assumptions which must be made explicit.  It is difficult sometimes to see the necessity of writing underlying even ostensibly non-“expressive,” or technical, assignments.  This sounds like an easy, or superficial suggestion, but consider, for instance, courses which integrate design and writing in an integrative and mutually-informing manner — in order to produce any sort of finished, visually appealing document, the writing present within must be coherent and “finished;” yet, this expectation is often only alluded to tacitly.  Further, even if one is actively grading “writing,” it is often difficult to break down this “writing” requirement into constitutive units the students can follow, or knowingly deal with on an individual, then total, basis. As an added benefit, when students are made more conscious about articulation, even in a small way regarding a tangible quality of writing, it makes them more aware of the total flow and logic of their work.  (These tangible qualities are then able to compound, and inform one another.)

One possible suggestion:  Perhaps (even as a sort of pedagogical thought experiment), try outlining one or two explicit qualities of writing to be graded, or paid attention to, in a non explicitly English or even humanities assignment.  As we often discuss at WAC, try to scaffold, or otherwise anticipate the exact skill you would like them to exercise by introducing it earlier than the exact moment you wish them to recall or produce it.  Then, see if, for example, should you ask them to pay attention to something like topic sentences, or even choosing neutral, or discipline-specific jargon for the assignment, whether the overall clarity of thought, and quality of product produced, improves.

This means of “tailoring” expectations, or honing in on required, but implicit, qualities of writing in assignments, is also transferable to other areas, such as peer review.  Rather than asking students to holistically grade entire documents for “quality” or “followability,” try to hone in on two or three qualities (perhaps even breaking a “thesis” question down into a subcategory or two), and set firmly-defined timelines for how long students spend on each portion.  This means of narrowing the scope of the students’ attention will likely improve the sharpness and nuance of the skills paid attention to, and overall improve the logic, thinking, and argument of the writing, and writing-reliant aptitudes, required.

Using Course Material As a Springboard for “Drier” Essentials

One major concern I ran into as an instructor at CUNY (particularly in Composition), was how to integrate my subject matter (English in general,  American Literature in particular) with the basic, foundation skills requires for paper writing?  (“Papers” being the final desired outcome for my class.)  Further, how to do this without either condescending to the material you’re working with, nor making the task at hand seem trivial or unproductively “free form” with regard to low-pressure writing?  This seems to be a common concern among faculty: how to integrate skills smoothly, non-oppressively, and with a degree of efficacy while still not totally derailing the planned coursework and materials to be covered?

How I addressed this in my American Literature course, with broader import, I think, for other (even non-humanities) disciplines, was in getting students to engage with course material in the form of the required assignment.  That is, isolating a skill required for a later assignments and making this skill manifest as the required form of response to the course content.  In service of John Jay’s requirement for a “mock interview” between the students’ sources (a less intimidating way of approaching the annotated bibliography), I had my students respond to a piece of writing that was written in Question and Answer format.  The text in question was David Foster Wallace’s story “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” from the short story collection of the same title, which is told in the unique format of an extended question-and-answer sessions with the interviewer’s questions removed.  We made informed guesses as to what the missing questions possibly were based on the surrounding contextual clues in the interview subjects’ answers, gaining insights about the operation of literary dialogue while also accruing skills for how to flesh out opinions–both their own or that of their sources in the “mock interview” dialogue.  I noticed the “interview” assignment went much better when prefaced with this more free-form (but secretly “literary”) assignment beforehand, as it had both helped the students study the composition of “voice” in prose, as well as reflect on how one might accurately render the opinions of their quoted sources.

While not every instructor might have the luxury of free-ranging formats allotted by postmodern literature, there is undoubtedly material that might cater to a particular skill that is required (sometimes implicitly) as part of a larger, later project.  Perhaps an article highlighting a new scientific tool requiring a response in the form of a “methodology” section of an abstract?  Or a “breakthrough” statistical study requiring response in the form of the study’s possible “outcomes”?  In any case, isolating skills beforehand in a non-derailing way, potentially with the use of already existing course materials, can help these phantom skills from piling up last minute in the form of an intimidating, omnibus final assignment, to which students (in my experience) usually respond with non-productive fear-and-trembling.