Drafting a Writing Assignment / Assignment Structure

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Drafting a Writing Assignment / Assignment Structure
Things that You Are Usually Better Off Including on Your Assignment Sheets

(To Avoid Later Questions and Headaches)

  • Due dates (for thesis statements, outlines, first drafts, final drafts, revisions—whichever and whatever is applicable)

  • Length and format (tell them approx. how long you want it and mention MLA format—consider demonstrating proper MLA paper formatting; it’s a guarantee that they will not know it. Also let them know how you accept papers: hard copies, Turnitin, e-mail?)

  • Weight and Grading criteria (how much is it worth? How will you grade it? Might be worth restating any revision/lateness/draft policies that you have here)

  • Purpose (why are you making them write this paper? What are you hoping for them to take away from it? Explain briefly here)

  • Rhetorical Situation (are there any requirements in re: exigence, genre, mode, audience, role, constraints? If so, outline them here)

  • Writing Task/Assignment (here is where you tell them what you want them to do! Be clear and detailed but try not to overwhelm with information—consider breaking it up into more discrete parts (i.e. aspects of the Rhetorical Situation) if it appears that something like that is happening

  • Additional Info (Do they need sources? A Works Cited page? Will this be posted on a blog? Whatever important info doesn’t fit anywhere else, make sure not to leave it hanging)

To Prescribe Content or To Let Them Run (Creatively) Wild

The key question you need to answer before beginning to draft any writing assignment is how much control over the assignment’s content you wish to turn over to your students. Some instructors believe that their students should have total freedom, allowing them to write on any topic they wish as long as they conform to the basic constraints of Mode or Genre as outlined in the assignment. This can be an effective method for encouraging your students to write about what interests them, but it’s just as (if not more) likely to encourage critical laziness—if choosing this route, you will, invariably, end up with several uninspired argument papers on abortion and stem cell research. Some other instructors prefer to make their assignments a good deal stricter in their prescription of content, deciding precisely the topic that their students will be writing about. This approach has the benefit of forcing them to give you what you want, but this method assuredly stamps out your students’ desire and ability to express themselves as individuals. The optimal route may be a balance between the two: set up clear and unambiguous parameters for what the essay should be and how it should accomplish its aims, but allow for a degree of personal choice on the writer’s part. (For example, see my Mode essay (which sets up clear goals but allows them to tell a personal story) or my Situation essay (which has explicit requirements, but allows them to choose whichever paranormal phenomenon they desire to write about)).

You will also need to decide which of your papers will require secondary sources. Technically, you could require them for all four of your assignments (if you’re feeling unusually ambitious), but the Portfolio only requires your students to have one paper demonstrating this ability, so plan accordingly. For logistical reasons, in Comp I the paper with sources should be the Mode, Genre, or Situation paper, rather than the more freeform Bonus Assignment. As the most inherently complex assignment, the Situation paper is best primed for sources, especially when considering that the skills used toward writing the Situation paper are built up over the semester in a similar fashion to the development of research methods.

The Order in Which You Receive Large Stacks of Paper

There are two basic philosophies in re: the question of which assignment should fall last in your sequencing (i.e. which should you save for the dog days of the semester): either you leave the one with required secondary sources until the end, or you put it third in line. Neither method is necessarily better than the other, though both have their advantages. Putting the paper with sources last leaves more time to build up your students’ abilities to adequately attack the assignment, and it’s also the structure they’re more familiar with from high school, wherein the research paper acts as the culmination of all effort. Putting the paper with sources third in line is beneficial in that it gives you and your students some less strenuous time at the close of the semester (always appreciated), but also because it can lead to some interesting potential for the Bonus Assignment and oral presentations. For instance, a part of my Bonus assignment involves the radical revision of their long paper with sources for a different medium, and my oral presentations (scheduled over the last couple weeks of classes) will consist of abbreviated versions of those papers with sources, which they will have more time to prepare considering that the paper has long been completed.

Technically, there’s no restriction against varying the order of the Mode or Genre essays either. That said, there is a certain obvious logic behind teaching mode before genre, but the discretion is yours. (Unless Matt says no, in which case: no, and I was misleading you all. My apologies). It is, of course, also worth noting that a Mode essay, by its very nature of being an essay, will also adhere to some form of genre. Perhaps it’s wise to make clear (to your students and yourself) that there is no firm line of division between mode and genre when it comes to drafting those discrete assignments. One always needs the other, so consider introducing both terms around the same time, and in your assignments simply place a greater emphasis on one over the other. (For an example of this conundrum, see my Mode essay, which could with little effort be retooled to be a Genre essay because of its focus on the Literacy Narrative).
Setting Realistic Expectations / Expect an Assignment to Go Awry

A final note I’d like to include would go something like this: as diligently as you may conceive and structure your assignments, invariably one will end up producing lousy papers from at least some of your beloved students. Who this shoddiness originates from is impossible to determine, so don’t fret too much over it.

Instead, learn from your essay-drafting mistakes. If, like me, you’ve drafted all of your assignments in advance, do not hesitate to return to them for revision after you have a better sense of your students’ abilities. In fact, even if you don’t have any doubts, check your assignments anyway. Sometimes you ask for you students to do too much, sometimes too little. Sometimes you’re frightfully unclear about what you want. Sometimes you leave assignments too open, sometimes too constrained. Be alert, adjust as needed, and the essays will improve.
(All of my assignments for this semester are posted on the Composition program’s wiki for future reference: newpaltzcomposition.pbworks.com)

Handout by Jeffrey Canino

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