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 only real advice I have to offer is to fuss the language, beginning with how 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 refer to work done simply to fulfill a requirement. So I design projects.
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 appears (or at least used to).
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 projects I designed for my recent spring course an emphasis on terms like writing with, develop, critical, response, voice, conversation. I wouldn’t expect you to have the same list of key words. But I do urge you 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 (“Times New Roman, 12 point”) and formatting.
For our seminar on Wednesday, 6/08, then, I’d like you to draft one of the central writing projects for your fall course. Try to define the sort of work you want students to take as writers, and why you want them to do it—what you hope they will learn. As you draft your text, you might also want ot consider how you model in it the kind of prose you hope that 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 passage of connected prose—that is, sentences and paragraphs, rather than a simple list of directives and expectations.
We will workshop your writing projects in seminar on Wednesday, 6/08. Please bring five print copies with you.