There’s a saying among composition teachers that if you’re bored by the essays your students write, then there’s something wrong with your assignments. Designing projects that lead to interesting and ambitious work by students is one of most important things we do as teachers. It’s also one of the most difficult.
The best advice I have to offer is to fuss the language, beginning with the words you choose to describe the work you and your students will do together. For example, I dislike the term prompt—which for me suggests something inconsequential, that can be quickly left behind. I want students to go back to the exact phrasing of the projects I’ve designed, to think about the nuances of the work I’ve tried to define. But not in a dutiful way—which is why I also dislike terms like assignment or task, which seem to me to refer to work done simply to fulfill a requirement. So I design projects instead. And I ask students to write essays or pieces in response—not papers, a term which reduces their intellectual work to the physical material on which it is printed (or at least used to be).
I don’t mean to belabor the point—which is that you want the language of your projects to reflect what you actually value about writing. For instance, you’ll see (I hope) in the materials I’ve designed for my courses an emphasis on terms like writing with, add, develop, response, voice, critical, and conversation. I wouldn’t expect you to have the same list of keywords. But I would urge you to think carefully about what terms you will want to return to as you talk with students about the writing they are doing—and I hope that these terms will be more ambitious than the all too familiar lists of required numbers of pages or sources, or approved fonts (“12 Point Times New Roman”) and formatting.
For our seminar on Wednesday, 5/22, then, I’d like you to draft one of the central writing projects for your R&C course. Try to define not only the sort of work you want students to take on as writers, but also why you want them to do it—what you hope they will learn about writing from doing so. And, as you draft the actual text of your project, consider how you model in your language the kind of prose you hope that your students will write. How do you describe the key issues or texts you want them to work with? How do you refer to the work of other writers? What stance do you take toward your readers (in this case, your students)?
I’ve noticed that my own project descriptions tend to run about 500-600 words. That might be a bit on the long side. But I encourage you to think of yourself as writing a brief piece of connected prose—sentences and paragraphs, not just a simple list of directives and expectations.
We will workshop these writing projects in seminar on Wednesday. Please bring five print copies with you.