Example Assignments

So what do I assign my students? What sorts of work do I see as being vital to the classes I teach?

Broadly speaking, I see those assignments that can help students work on their critical thinking skills as the most important.  The revision work we do in my classes is not limited to the written word – I want the students to be able to re-vision their take on everything. Constant questioning, rather than blind obedience, is what I want students to focus on. I will discuss on this page a number of the assignments I give to students, and some of my thinking behind those assignments.

Cultural Literacy/Myth Narrative

During the Fall 2015 semester, I finally taught a syllabus I put together myself from top to bottom: I compiled readings, structured the weeks, and tweaked all the assignments just a bit.

The students were, obviously, somewhat freaked out by the narrative assignment. I find that having them work with a narrative genre early in the semester can settle them into the tone of the class (I want reflective, thoughtful, important writing, and not just a regurgitation of facts or terms or whatever). The Cultural Literacy Narrative Assignment is intended to get them thinking about their own interactions with the myths we are unpacking, and so I established a forum for them to get started discussing and thinking on the “page” about these myths. I opened the forum by reminding the students that we have been talking about myths, things that aren’t true, but we act like they are, or even worse, believe that they are and then make important decisions based on those myths.

I use as an example the concept of slut shaming, and went on to say that

if a woman enjoys sex (a perfectly healthy endeavor when engaged in between two consenting adults), she is considered a slut. If, however, she doesn’t, she’s considered frigid. Neither of these are true – it’s like calling someone names for not liking a flavor of ice cream or something.

Essentially, the idea of a “slut” is a myth told to women to keep them in their place. Just as Santa will not actually bring you coal on Christmas if you break a few of the house rules, you will not actually turn into an intrinsically tainted, unpalatable creature if you break one of society’s rules and have sex with one too many men. The word “slut” isn’t a criticism for having too much sex necessarily, but for being a woman: a real, living, breathing woman with quirks, foibles, normal sexual feelings, and personality; and failing to live up to the societal ideal for a woman: the passive, pliable, perpetually innocent, and sexually available Barbie doll.

So the concept of the slutty girl is a myth – yes, there are **some** women (and men) who have an unhealthy relationship with their sexuality, just like there are men and women who have an unhealthy relationship with eating or drinking alcohol. The problem comes when we try to say that all women who engage in sex with more men than is considered “right” by other people (who really have nothing to do with this fictional young woman in question) – we are trying to police the morals of women and continue to keep them passive, pliable, etc.

We are about to shut down our government because certain men in power believe that Planned Parenthood encourages “slutty” behavior in women. I don’t know about you, but I never found my mammogram to be particularly sexy, and Planned Parenthood does more mammograms than abortions (abortions are 3% of their services, while 80% are to prevent pregnancy, 400,000 Pap tests, and 500,000 mammograms annually). This is a great example – writ large and painful – of how a myth, when fully believed and engaged in, and acted on, can truly cause damage to a large number of people.

Then there are some of the myths relating to class and race that have been perpetuated with one of the most offensive being the Welfare Queen.

Here are a few links that might help clarify things: http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/08/welfare-is-not-living-large/ and http://mashable.com/2015/07/27/welfare-myths-debunked/#Zq45lopHvEqR

If I had a dime for every time I heard a student say that women have babies with multiple fathers because they can get more welfare money, I could…well, I could buy those students a clue. Food stamps/welfare is not some great “livin’ the dream” concept that politicians have constructed it to be. As someone who has been on the receiving end of my share of government benefits (including within the last couple of years), I can unequivocally state that I would much rather have been able to earn my own money and not have to suffer the glares in line at the grocery store, or have to jump through all the flaming hoops that are put in place to try to deter people from actually pursuing those things that can help them keep body and soul together. When my son was very young, the only reason I could go to school to become a paralegal (which was a job I held for 15 years or so – all paying into the system, doing my part, and consuming goods and paying taxes at record pace) was because I received a now-defunct benefit that paid the biggest part of his bill at a legit daycare. This was way back in the Reagan years, while my then-husband was an active duty solder, btw.

We like to pretend that black women are the biggest recipients of welfare, but in actuality, it’s white children in rural, southern areas. 40% of SNAP recipients are white, compared with 25% of the recipients being African American. So here’s another myth that’s demonstrably false, yet we continue to believe it, to the detriment of children, who are the largest recipients of SNAP/welfare.

So as you think about your paper, think about times you have run into these myths. And I’m not just asking you to talk about when you were the victim of a myth – I’m also asking about if you helped perpetrate one. I was raised in a very, very racist household, and if it hadn’t been for my mother, I would have grown up continuing to believe that the Civil War was fought over anything and everything other than slavery, and that the correct name for it was “The War of Northern Aggression.” So of course this changed my view of the world, in ways I didn’t understand, even into college. I am not proud of that fact, but I see it for what it’s worth, and I battle that perpetuation and way of thinking every day.

So I guess I have modeled a few topics for you in this post, in a way. Think about the topics we have discussed, the readings we have discussed (and if you can reference them as you discuss your topic, all the better), and how any of those things might have impacted your life – not just as a myth consumer, but as a myth constructor as well.

The students had a rousing discussion about the essay online and in class, and exceptionally attentive workshopping time. I was so impressed! This assignment has given us quite a bit to work from as we move their sand into their sandboxes for creation of their sand castles.

Writing to Save the World

During the summer semester, I decided to do something a little different.  I recently read Margrethe Ahlschwede’s article, “Writing to Save the World,” and was reminded of how much I wanted students to have the experience of putting their writing to work, and having their writing result in action.  There is very little in the world as empowering as having one’s words result in action, and I found Ahlschwede’s article just the impetus I needed to revamp one of my assignments.

The structure of the assignment is one that I find helpful to reinforce the concept that writing is a lot of small tasks that might seem like a big mess but which are actually, when put together and looked at as a whole, a larger, persuasive argument informed by strong, thoughtful research. I also see this assignment as one that allows students to try out new ways of thinking and approaches to research and writing, and I stress the import of trying something out before discarding it – you can’t decide you don’t like squash if you don’t try it, as my mother told me when I was a child, and the same goes for double entry journal note taking.

The assignment focuses on the research process, and incorporates a number of larger assignments, pared down into smaller pieces: first, using the double entry journal process, students find 8 sources relating to a problem they see in their world (and I stress that it needs to be a real problem, with which they have real experience, and that they care about).  From those 8 sources, the students choose 5 and create an Annotated Bibliography (this offers us the chance to discuss again the benefits of research, what the results of research can be, and how research we do never really dies or goes away, but instead informs us in so many ways).  The students then write a short 3 page paper in which they describe their research process – where they began with the problem and what they thought they knew, and then where they ended up at the end, with some of the more important stops in between. Finally, the students correspond with a person (or group) who can do something about the problem (I tell them they can create a Vine, a YouTube video, they can tweet, write a letter to the editor – their genre is their choice). Extra credit is offered if they actually send the correspondence to the intended audience.

This project offers a lot to the student who truly engages with it.  While the summer semester has not been long enough for me to allow the amount of time for this project as it deserves, I feel like it is successfully encouraging students to take an active role in the research, and rather than merely find sources they can mine for quotes to plug in to their 5 paragraph essay, they can instead be informed themselves by their research, and identify ways their research actively changed what and how they think. Here is the assignment sheet, and a guided research activity (the guided research activity was suggested by the students during our discussions).

Electronic Portfolio

The creation of an  e-Portfolio presents the opportunity for students to curate their work, picking and choosing those artifacts that most reflect who they were as writers at various points in the semester. The reflection that the students do on their work itself, their approach to that work, and the processes they use to navigate the assignments (and the class) are key to the learning process – we don’t really learn something until we can take the time to reflect on what worked and why it worked. A crucial step in the learning process is so often overlooked or ignored due to the lack of time in the semester, and by using a portfolio like this, we are able to ensure that those opportunities for reflection present themselves.

I am currently only using this assignment at UNCC, but I continue to consider ways I can bring it into the classrooms at CPCC successfully.

Reading Responses

Talk Back to the Authors:  This assignment is similar to one that all writing teachers have given:  the response paper. Response papers are the workhorse of the writing teacher – they perform loads of functions for us, some behind the scenes and some more outright.

Students write responses (200-300 words) to assigned readings, in which they question the author’s argument and/or their own response to the argument of the author. This assignment is a staple of literature and writing classes – instructors use it for many reasons:  it can guide the instructor in preparing for class discussions, just as it can guide the student in preparing for class. By assigning a short graded writing on the day’s reading, the instructor increases the likelihood that the students do the readings, and do so closely enough that they can speak on at least one aspect of the reading. Further, when viewed at the end of the semester as a whole (possibly in a portfolio), the student and the instructor can chart the changes and growth of the student’s understanding. The responses, when shared with others in class, can allow a student who might not otherwise express herself in class to do so in some way with her classmates.

The purpose of this assignment is for the student to engage in her own rhetorical reading and writing in response to the assigned text. Rhetorical reading calls attention to the writer’s intentions for readers and focuses on how texts work to change readers’ minds. As students read, they are not just learning about the world; rather, they are learning about the author’s worldview demonstrated in the text.

Further, encouraging students to “talk back” to the text (a title that I have taken from Karen Cochran Roop, who in turn, acknowledges bell hooks’ text) is another way to encourage critical thinking in students. Encouraging students to see a text as something with which they can argue in their own writing can also help them formulate their participatory work for class.

In the assignment, I have included a link to a website which discusses active reading. Typically when I assign work in class, I do so on the overhead, utilizing a computer and the internet.  I also make use of a class website (whether through a school-associated site or one of my own making), so including hypertext is an easy way for me to guide the students in understanding what I am looking for them to do through the use of example or further explanation.

Encouraging students to read actively – to truly speak back to the text, to interrogate it, to address the author specifically – is enacting what Kate Ronald and Joy Ritchie describe as some of the “central uses of women’s rhetoric: it challenges dominant epistemologies, asserts new topoi/contexts from which to argue, places material experience – especially that of women, women of color, sexual minorities, and other nonmainstream groups – at the center of knowledge formation, and it reconnects language/rhetoric to action and change” (Teaching Rhetorica 11). Of course, having a student speak directly to the author of a text, or the text itself, is not going to do all these things alone; however, to challenge (even briefly) is to step into the realm of academic speech, as well as to begin to formulate questions and posit possible answers.

Discovery Essay

Another assignment I truly enjoy working on with students is the Discovery Essay. For most traditional students, entering college straight from high school, they translate “discovery essay” into “research paper.” This is not at all the case with this assignment, though.

While this paper offers students the opportunity to improve their research skills, practice MLA referencing, and (perhaps for the first time) locate the campus library, it more importantly offers them the chance to change their minds about something.  Students are to choose a topic they know little about, research it, and then write about both the knowledge they have learned on the topic as well as their research and writing process.

I begin the unit with a discussion of things that they wonder about, and we brainstorm these things on the board. By the end of the lesson, we will likely have ideas ranging from the anticipated (“Why is parking so bad at TCU?”) to the truly thoughtful (“What is the experience of adopting a child from overseas like?”).

Early in the process of their researching, I hand out strips of butcher paper and ask students to write two ideas they are considering for their discovery essay. I have them tape their papers on the walls around the room and we move between the ideas, commenting and questioning the anonymous postings. This offers the students the opportunity to “test drive” the ideas, before committing to a lengthy research process and then realizing that they don’t have enough to work with, or that they actually hate their topic. (I am moving this exercise into the 21st century with the help of Justin Cary, who introduced me to Padlet recently during a Coffee & Conversation presentation at UNCC).

The butcher paper exercise also grants students the permission and opportunity to peek at what their peers are doing – I find that this is a great way to help out those struggling students who truly don’t know what to do. If they can get a glimpse of the lines of thought their comrades are pursuing, they will most likely catch up.

Rogerian Essay

I believe one of the more important assignments I present to my students is this one:  the  Rogerian Argument Essay. None of them, really, have extensively thought about how to go about successfully and politely arguing their point, nor about how their points might be taken by others. We tend to think of our writing and persuasion as being solely about changing the minds of others, or moving them to action, but at the same time, there is definitely a lack of civility in the world when it comes to argument, and impressing on students that there are better ways to persuade than to outyell their “opponent” is the cornerstone to this assignment.  Equally important is convincing them to see their “opponent” as less of an adversary and more of a reasonable individual with a life and viewpoints as important as their own, and that is – truthfully – one of the more difficult parts of this assignment for the student to grapple with.  Working with an argument we don’t agree with and being forced to put ourselves thoroughly into the shoes of someone else can be really difficult, and not just for college students.  Doing that work, however, can be transformational.

I have enjoyed teaching this assignment very much, and hope to also incorporate this podcast in our discussions. I’m still ruminating on it, and plan to work more on this assignment over the summer, during my “off time.”

These are only three of the assignments I use in my classroom, but you are welcome to download all of them and use them as you choose. None of these are original to me, but I have added my own “tweaks” to them over the years. Let me know how they work out!