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!

2 Replies to “Pedagogical Defense: Avoiding Soul Crushing Writing Assignments”

  1. Any results from this experiment? I like the innovation and am curious if it worked at all.

    1. Great question! Like all good experiments….. sort of. The papers ended up mildly entertaining for the students who just sort of tried to do it, and wildly entertaining for those who ran with it. The upside was that reading them was great and grading them was remarkably pain free. The downside was that there was about 3 hours of soothing and coaxing that accompanied this assignment when the students were asked to produce a writing assignment that didn’t involve a five paragraph format. Like….complete PANIC. Do I think this was good? Yes. Did I anticipate it happening? No. Did that part suck? Yes. Would I do it again? Actually, yes but …. I think that this assignment is a 3-stepper. I would not recommend lumping this whole thing onto them in one go. Some selected articles that weren’t useful and became hard to wrangle. Others selected articles they weren’t capable of understanding, and that was its own unraveling. Overall… the next time I do this, it will involve 3 classes….1 for searching…2 for drafting and feedback…3 for drafting again…then hand it in.

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