Pedagogical Defense: Avoiding Soul Crushing Writing Assignments

Recently I’ve been working on decoupling/narrowing what I expect in my writing assignments. For those of us who teach 70+ students at a shot and do not have TAs , the prospect of grading their papers is not only daunting…it is SOUL CRUSHING.

Even if their work is well-intentioned with good editing and citation, most undergraduate student work is still under development in nearly every area: structure, readability, sophistication of hypotheses, strength of argument, etc etc etc…

In prior courses I’ve laid out complex rubrics with several categories, points, and lots of very specific feedback. The net result was not only that I hated reading blah papers, but now I had tons of blah feedback to provide which tended to overwhelm and demoralize my students more than help.

This semester I’m trying a different tack with my first-year students: Two developmental criteria per paper ONLY, plus an invitation for creativity. The first criteria is to advance the some aspect of their writing’s quality of thought, the second, to advance one aspect of formatting, the third is to save my soul.

Example: My most recent assignment is an early attempt at synthesizing and discussing the work of more than one author. (Preparatory work for eventual literature reviews) PLUS…and remember this part…I don’t want to have my soul crushed trying to read them all. Note the areas where I’m trying to stop them from killing my soul.

Author Synthesis Assignment (see what I did there?)
Cocktail Party Script: (Soul Crush Avoidance Technique)

Imagine you’re at a cocktail party with three prominent scholars who have published research related to your question. (**Questions and sources were developed and vetted these in a prior class.) Write a script that details the conversation you would have with these authors.

Content: Your script must include…
1. Your question and why it is important
2. Each author’s research and insights and how they pertain to your question. NOTE: Accuracy and specificity get higher grades, vagueness and misinterpretation get lower values.
(Writing Development Emphasis)
3. Potential disagreements and agreements between each member in the party—including yourself.
4. Humor or Drama of some kind. (Soul Crush Avoidance Technique)

Formatting: Your script must focus on …
1. Careful attention to citation frequency, format, and accuracy. (choose any style you like but be consistent) (**Format Development Emphasis)

Dazzle me with your concision and creativity! No more than 6 pages. Focus on citation and accuracy. If you’re all freaked out about margins and font size you’re missing the point. 

I’ll post results next week. Wish me LUCK!

Binary Failure

kitten-fightAn example of the kind of assignment design that I mentioned in my last post about feature creep:

I have assigned three iterations of policy memos in this year’s iteration of my first-year seminar. Directions for the first memo are here. The memos are intended to function as authentic writing exercises — each has a specified purpose, audience, and format. The authenticity is supposed serve as a vehicle for stimulating students’ interest in the topic.

The memos require a small amount of creative problem-solving. First, each student chooses a policy recommendation that he or she prefers. Limited choice is always good because it generates mental investment in the outcome. Second, each student selects from information that I’ve provided to create a rationale for the policy recommendation, but this has to be done within the constraints of the memo’s format. There is a puzzle to solve. Continue reading

When Less is More, More or Less

shopping-listIn 2015, I wrote about asking too many questions in instructions for assignments. What I as the information-craving professor sees as helpful detail, the student sees as a tangled and confusing mess.

I still notice occasions where I fall into this bad habit, most recently in an assignment in two of my online graduate courses, in which students analyze peer-reviewed journal articles. The old instructions said that analyses should answer the following questions: Continue reading

ALPS Summer School

Scribe PortraitAre you interested in turning a classroom experience into a journal article? If so, we’d like to help. If you send us a rough idea of your topic in the form of a guest post, we will publish it. We will then provide feedback in the form of either comments or a series of subsequent posts. You will have the opportunity to respond. The end goal is to workshop the idea and help you produce a manuscript on pedagogy that can be submitted to a journal like PS, Journal of Political Science Education, European Political Science, or International Studies Perspectives.

Send your ideas to us at


Grading on Spec II

Blueprint And RulerEarlier this week students in my globalization course wrote draft statement of purpose essays for Fulbright grant applications. This exercise hit several objectives:

  • The writing task was authentic. Even though the vast majority of the class will probably never actually seek to be a post-graduation Fulbright award recipient, almost all of them write application essays for scholarships. Scholarship application essays have a nearly identical audience and purpose.
  • The exercise reinforced for students the idea that they can actively experience other parts of the world — instead of just reading about it — and will almost certainly benefit from doing so. In this I was assisted by the assistant director of our office of international programs. She visited the class to give a 15-minute overview of the Fulbright program and to provide an example of a recent alumna who just received a Fulbright award to do work in Colombia.
  • Students were incredibly engaged. For thirty minutes I heard nothing but the clicking of keys as students wrote furiously on their laptops. The resulting drafts demonstrated that students took the work seriously, perhaps because they were writing about their own interests and potential futures.
  • Grading was easy because I explicitly defined the essay as a first draft and employed my own version of specifications grading with the two-criteria rubric shown below.

Continue reading

When a Book Becomes Your Spirit Animal…

As a professor of politics I’m frequently reminded of my obligation to be a contributor to my discipline’s development. Ergo, I publish works about political science and security studies. This is the proposed purpose of my being…(particularly pre-tenure) and certainly NOT to publish in gasp pedagogy, or god forbid….other fields.

As such…I want to talk, briefly, today about the most extraordinary book I’ve read this year…


Operations Analysis in the U.S. Army Eight Air Force in World War II
– By Charles W. McArthur

It’s not a teaching book, it isn’t a political science book, it isn’t even a methods book. This book is weird.

Before Charles W. McArthur passed away, he was a Mathematics faculty member at Florida State University. I know right? Math prof? McArthur’s book is about a bunch of academics who worked in the European Theater of Operations in the 1940s helping U.S. pilots learn how to fly and fight more effectively. The book details all the ways in which research and science were a fundamental part of winning the war. McArthur himself flew 35 missions as a bombardier for the Eighth Air Force in WWII. He wrote this book as a historical recovery of the work done by Operations Analysts during that time.

McArthur’s book was published by the American Mathematical Society in 1990. It is part of a series of books published by the AMS called “History of Mathematics”

What does this have to do with pedagogy?

McArthur’s book is phenomenal all on its own merits, but what truly makes this book unique and relevant to pedagogy (and political scientists who research it) is that his work is a meta analysis of the honing of his craft (understanding how to conduct military operations analysis), through his craft as a professor, published by the academic community that he claimed as his discipline–Mathematics. Even though there are ZERO mathematics in the book itself.

McArthur’s book is complex, beautifully written, and fascinating to read. But most importantly…this book now sits on my desk as a reminder, that my lasting contribution to this world…should be about writing about those things about which I am passionate, no matter how far outside my field, or tenure requirement…erm okay maybe after tenure….

Either way, Charles W. McArthur’s book is an inspiration.