Resisting the Narrowed Writing Assignment

As I was reading these articles, I really struggled with Bean’s resistance against the “generic” essay topic. In the beginning, Bean claims that “because the traditional term paper assignment does not guide students toward formulating a problem, developing a thesis, or arguing within the conventions of a disciplinary genre, it often does not stimulate the complex thinking…that teachers desire” (Bean 91). Bean eventually agrees at the end of the paper, almost begrudgingly, that there are some benefits to open-ended papers. While I agree that the initial example of the instructor saying there’s a paper and not bringing it up again is not going to produce quality papers, I, also, resist narrowing my students’ scope of focus to answering specific questions, topics, or ideas.

One of the major problems with relating Bean’s ideas to Comp is that the majority of the examples fail to prescribe to the 110 guidelines in the handbook where you have to have four types of very specific assignments. A lot of Bean’s preferred suggestions are narrative based. Even the research-based papers include this personal narrative that often seems more associated with a high school paper than a college level writing. Take the nursing assignments. While the “Imagine If,” structure might be familiar to freshman, allowing them a comfort as they transition into elevated writing, I feel like having a large essay assignment (since we have to have four) being so familiar to one form and not the typical essays they will see in college becomes problematic, especially for the institutional motivations of the classroom.

As a class designed for students to learn to write across multiple disciplines in the academy, students need to become comfortable with formulating their own ideas into critical essays. While I disagree with Bean’s major claim, I believe combing the layout given on writing assignments with that of Walk can create an open-ended assignment that still gives the students some guidance. For example, you can still include the task, purpose, audience, and format (and should) on the assignment. I particularly love the idea of having the interactive components being turned in with the final draft. While I agree with Beans comment on staggering is an effective way to ensure the completion, the inclusion of the interactive material reinforces the decision to stagger the development of the paper over the course of the class, where one day you need to see brain storming, the next a thesis, and so on.

Ultimately, I enjoy the assignments Bean is creating, I just don’t feel like they’re constructive for truly developing critical thinking AND writing skills. Instead, I would rather implement some of the ideas into in class writing with the more structured expectations, allowing the students to become familiar with the form before having them try to accomplish it on their own.

While I mostly focused on Bean, Walk includes this negative attitude towards broader assignments, seen in the example given on “Southerness” in two writers. While narrowed, Walk’s assignment feels broader and framing the first assignment in a similar way might allow students a better transition from extremely dictated writing to more freedom.

And, I’d like to just clarify that I’m not saying that Bean is wrong for everyone’s classes. I just don’t feel like extremely narrowed topics are beneficial for the way I choose to teach. In fact, I’ve done in class writing assignments where they are given narrow topics and broad topics, and my students have usually done much better writing in class with the broader topics. However, this might have something to do with the students. Would the solution be to keep the assignments vaguely (or very briefly) described on the syllabus and then depending on the needs of the students changing the scope of the assignment to fit their particular needs?–Kristi

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5 Responses to Resisting the Narrowed Writing Assignment

  1. I am a fan of having students practice both structured (or narrowed) and free-writing – the way I implemented this in my pedagogy this year is by swapping some of the required formal responses with blogposts and weekly comments on the syllabus I inherited from the English110 archive. They are required to post on the blog once per semester, and have the chance to select between two prompts when they are posting, but the structure of their entries is completely up to them, and the comments (required once a week, and ought to be at least five sentences long) can engage with the entries in any way.
    The reason I came up with this is to sort of counterbalance their exposure to overtly-structured writing that characterizes the classroom discourse (such as when we talk about models of argumentation, or when we read texts such as They Say/I Say) and to make them understand that those are just some of the ways in which things can be done, certainly not the only way. I agree with Beams when he claims that writing instructors can influence the way students develop their critical thinking: we certainly do not want our students to develop overtly-rigid pattern of thinking, thus I always make sure to tell my students to be sure to find their own voice and not be restrained by the templates some of the texts suggest or the constraints of the assignments (e.g. the topic of my class is Celebrity Culture, and one of my students decided to write about how his biggest inspiration in life has always come from people in his family, rather than through para-social relationship. The first formal essay required to explain one’s moment of fandom through one of the theories discussed in the previous week, I thus encouraged him to write about how idolizing a family member differs from idolizing a celebrity)

    My bottomline is that templates and narrowed writing assignments are a good jump start for those students whose writing lacks structure and have trouble developing coherent arguments because of that. The idea is “start with this, then as they get more confident and better acquainted with the tools, both the assignments and the structure of their writing can become more unrestrained and leave more room for their creativity.”

  2. adouglass says:

    I tend to agree with you, Kristi, that it’s super important to help students develop the ability to find their own avenues in this kind of writing, and my assignments are usually quite open-ended. I wanted to just write a bit about my experience, this semester, of assigning the most closed essay topic I ever have before. I did this not because I had some revelation about my practice of assigning open-ended papers, but because it was built into the pre-made syllabus I’m using. The first unit of this syllabus is largely about reading/understanding/interrogating difficult texts, and so the first essay asked students to all do the exact same thing: compare the assumptions and motivations behind three different pieces on the concept of “cultural literacy” that we had all read in class.

    In some ways, I really dislike this assignment because of its narrowness. It’s very obvious which of my students find this topic interesting and which don’t, because those who don’t are spitting back rehearsed versions of the kinds of things I was saying to the group over the course of the last few weeks, despite all my attempts to push them past this. However, there were some really great things about it as well. Because we had worked through all of these texts together and had teased out some of their more complex issues, I had some students who pursued much more complex theses than I can usually expect at this point in the semester. Also, though I still feel some resistance toward making students write about a particular set of texts, there was a distinct advantage here in that all of my students have now had the experience of writing on three texts that actually speak to one another. Often, I find that when I assign papers that require a synthesis of texts, my students pick things that either have no conflict among their perspectives, or that aren’t really engaging in the same kind of conversation. Though I do not dismiss either type of research, it’s vital to academic work that the writer knows how to navigate a preexisting dialogue, and I’ve found it difficult in the past to guide students toward these kinds of conversations when they are all pursuing such varied topics. By initiating them with this curated conversation, I think (hope) they’ll be able to take those skills into their own, open-ended research later in the semester. So, I think in that way the narrow assignment provided something I haven’t had before in directing the efforts of this initial attempt. I wouldn’t have a topic so narrow more than once in the semester, but I might think about doing something like this again as an early project.

  3. Response to Kristi
    It seems that Kristi prefers a broader approach when assigning writing and reading topics. Perhaps, this is true because of the kind of person (not just teacher) that she is. From her class comments, it is understood that she includes a variety of media in her classes’ studies. Obviously, this shows her versatility. And, yes, this does reflect on her students and their independence and capabilities. Probably, they feel confident to go with their analytic instincts as they write. Still, the value of formative assessment is the opportunity for the teacher to check in that the student is not faltering in his or her process. (This simply can be circulating, as students write / discuss or, less intrusively, trying the exit slip.) When students have trouble, it is important to individualize instruction. This might require helping the student to narrow the scope of the topic and providing additional structure.
    Here, I feel the need to reflect on my own freshman 110, 25 page research paper. Not knowing the direction of my academic life at that time, I still remember my exuberance (and anxiety) at the prospect of such a daunting task. I knew that the controversial issue of abortion interested me. Also, I knew that I wanted to know how the experience of abortion was perceived by a woman. Ultimately, my thesis became something to the effect of some women are minimally or negligibly affected by having an abortion, while others are distressed by the experience. I still marvel at my teacher’s ability to get me through the back and forth process of brainstorming, freewriting, researching, (critically-minded) thesis writing, arguing, outlining, using evidence, drafting, peer-reviewing, and revising. (This is how we teachers scaffold and/ or stagger instruction.) Miraculously, this teacher juggled the balance, allowing my broad search but got me to a place of narrow thesis focus and, subsequent, development.

  4. Alex Radison says:

    I also feel a bit conflicted with regards to narrow vs broad assignments. In my undergrad career, I encountered mostly structured writing assignments. These assignments definitely helped me to become a better writer, but at the same time, I really didn’t care about most of them. It wasn’t until the honors seminar where I was truly given free reign to choose my topic that I really felt invested in my writing. I agree with Stefano that structured assignments and in-class writing are probably beneficial for newer students at first so they can get their feet under them, and then increasing the flexibility of the assignment as the semester progresses. This also applies to creative writing: for my class I decided to let my students write about whatever they want and in whatever form they want. I feel like creative writing, in particular, calls for more freedom in assigned writing. I do, however, lead lower-stakes in-class writing that is more structured, either around certain themes, or around certain techniques seen in readings. This way they get to practice with a specific goal in mind, which helps students to avoid “writers block.” So, yeah, I agree that broader assignments are the way to go in the end, but structured assignments have their place as well.

  5. It seems like Kristi’s post and the comments here, as well as lots of the other conversations on the blog, are getting at the need for balance. There’s a need to balance narrow and open topics, and reflective/personal writing with academic writing. Like others, I’m trying to integrate these things and balance reflective writing with more structured writing, and open topics with narrow ones, by using in-class writing as an opportunity for open freewriting whereas the essays are structured and academic. The essays, which were built into the syllabus I inherited, are formal, academic assignments with varying levels of broadness–none propose a thesis to prove or disprove, but all require students to focus their attention on a particular topic within the readings. I’m not the biggest fan of even that level of narrowed focus and know my students are finding other worthwhile ideas in the readings, but I understand that, especially earlier in the semester, allowing students to come up with their own arguments on a specified, somewhat narrow topic can be valuable for the students who need some kind of structure to work within, and it can also be helpful, like one of the readings suggested (I think Bean? I can’t find it now), for the instructor, who has less pressure to provide super specific, one-on-one attention to 20 different paper topics.

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