To structure or not to structure?

From my grading-addled mind, I bring you a post about structure versus a more freeform approach to teaching reading and writing.

When I first started teaching R&C, I assumed I would work towards being one of those cool, off-the-cuff instructors, the ones who could just sort of toss their hair back and spin out a class discussion that leaves everyone feeling epiphany-ed. Although I’d never actually experienced one of those discussions as a student, I indulged in the fantasy that such an instructor existed. Yet upon reflecting over the course of my past few years of teaching, I’ve come to realize that, in my classes, many of the best student comments and engagements with texts have come out of pretty rigorously structured activities and prompts.

For example, here’s one I asked my students to do, for an at-home bcourses discussion post:

Pick one single sentence that really stands out to you in Carmen Maria Machado’s “Real Women Have Bodies,” and quote it, along with the page number. Then, write a short paragraph (~150-250 words) that analyzes both the content and the form of that sentence. What is being said, and how is it being said? What formal details do you notice, and what effects do they have? As you write, try to put forth at least two possibilities for interpreting the sentence. 

And reader, the results were quite magical! (I would include them here, but I didn’t get to ask my students for permission). What most impressed me was the way students engaged with the details of the—very ambiguous—text to unfold interpretations, rather than gunning straight for an argument. I’ve done similar types of activities in class, with similar results.

I’ve been reflecting a bit that maybe asking students to work within structures allows them to take the freedom and even risks where I think it’s most valuable: in working through their own complex interpretations. There seems to be a paradox in which constraints actually open up space for student writers. I would compare it to—erm—a sonnet, but that seems too pretentious. At times, though, I worry that although this approach can help writers make strides and show off their critical thinking capabilities, it may still feel limiting to some of them, which is why I try not to do this type of thing at every class meeting. And while I’m airing my anxieties, I wonder if this type of planning is a way to avoid some of things that most worry me in classroom settings: feeling unprepared! bored students! general chaos and confusion!

I’d like to close with some questions: what are your experiences in using structured activities and prompts versus going with a more freeform discussion? Does this change depending where you’re at in the semester? Are there activities or prompts you’ve found particularly productive or unproductive? Have you tried the same activity with two different groups and been met with drastically different outcomes? Would this be different if it were an upper-division course? Is there something about reading and composition that lends itself particularly well to structured- or unstructured-ness?