Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Writing Basics - essay assignments

Writing good essay assignments has to be about the hardest part of teaching first year writing. (Grading is more miserable, but not usually "hard" per se.) Actually, it's hard whenever and wherever you do it.

I "look for" a couple things in an essay assignment:

1) It has to be do-able, in the time allotted, with the resources we have available, and with the skills I can teach or realistically assume they already have.

This seems simple, but it's really not, especially for first year students. Some of my worst early failures at writing essay assignments came because I somehow thought students should actually know enough about their other classes to research information from them. But really, most introductory classes don't teach students to research in a given field, and I'm not really up on teaching researching in, say, physics, or intro to psych (because you KNOW they're not reading Lacan!).

My test here is that I should be able to write the assigned essay with ease.

2) The essays should NOT bore me to death. In practice, this means I have to change up assignments sometimes just out of a sense of self-preservation. But it also means I just don't open up areas for certain kinds of topics.

3) The essays should be miserable to plagiarize. I can't prevent all plagiarism. I especially can't prevent a student from paying a more advanced student (or some unethical business) to write a paper for a specific assignment. But I can do things along the way that will add work to the plagiarist's life (requiring students to turn in rough drafts is one step).

I can also do things that make assignments quite specific to my class. (For example, when I have my first year students write a movie review, they have to refer to a couple of professional movie reviews in a fairly specific way, and also include copies of those reviews in the turn-in packet.)

And I can hope that my students can't really afford to pay another student to write a paper for them.

I generally know what I want out of a given essay assignment, but communicating that to students is difficult, especially early in the semester or academic year. Usually I try to build skills as the semester progresses, so that early on, I want to work on analysis of their own experiences. Later, I'll ask them to read other evidence, especially other people's writing and work with it, responding to it, analyzing it, and finally using it in an argument.

But it's torturously hard sometimes to get them to analyze their experiences rather than to narrate or explain their experiences.

How do you teach students to analyze their experiences?

How do you discourage plagiarism?

One of the BEST things I've learned from a colleague (because, really, learning from colleagues makes life so much easier) about getting better essays is: just before the rough draft is due for peer revision, I ask students to reread the essay assignment, and imagine what a competent (as in a C) "response" to that assignment will look like. They work first in groups, and then we put ideas on the board.

Early in the semester, they tend to want to focus on "good grammar" and "no spelling errors," both of which are nice, but really aren't key to a competent essay.

I prompt and push until we get a list on the board which includes: a thesis, an argument, points that develop the thesis, evidence, example(s), an introduction, a conclusion, and, most important, whatever specifics the assignment asks for. If the assignment asks them to compare/contrast, then the essay actually has to compare and contrast. (I don't give compare/contrast essays in first year writing, but you get the point.)

Then when they start to work on peer review, they can at least use that "competency" standard to provide feedback about how well the essay meets the requirements of the assignment.

Bonus! The blogspot spell check wanted me to replace "Lacan" with "lacunae." How fitting is THAT!


  1. Our department uses Turnitin.com, which virtually eliminates plagiarism.

    I tend to use wide-open essay topics drawn from class discussion & out online forum. I work with students to get them to understand what a thesis is, then set them free in the texts we have been reading.

  2. Yes, I did miss a bet with the "nothing," but the etymology of "country matters," (a pun on the first syllable of the phrase, as I understand it) was just too dirty to broadcast.

    I'm delighted to have a true lit specialist visiting bardseye. Please point out any mistakes or missed bets or areas for improvement if you have a chance. Meanwhile I'll be lurking at your inside-scenes-of-academe site.


  3. Thank you for that 'what constitutes a C' idea! I'm going to use it in my tutorials this week, if you and your colleague don't mind.

  4. Nice blog site. Ok, I just want to shed some light on an issue I think is crucial. In my university experience, I was never actually taught how to write an essay. No, they expected me to know from highschool. Well guess what, its been a few years since ive been to high school. (im speaking of course when I first started. Im now 4th year international relations major). During those years I forgot the basics. I read books and articles, but as an average reader, I never paid attention to composition and such. So, the point of my rant here is: dont expect your student (first year that is) to know how to write an essay. Actually, I have a great idea that i think EVERY university should do: Have a class that you, as a prof, go through say 3 essays during the term from begining to end. YES, from brainstorming to editing and everything that comes along with writing an excelent paper. Im not saying to worry about grammar. Just the layout. The logic steps. PLEASE dont assume we all know these basics, and pound these basics into the heads of students. AND, over the four years I have been writing, Ive picked up some tips. Most important, keep it simple. Write simplistic. Use very little if any AND's. Anyway, I hope I didn't affend you. I have lots of respect for english professors. I am constantly learning. It is my mission to learn how to write well and to convey complicated ideas in simplistic, everyday language. Thats the key. Speak to the masses, not to the elites. Dont you think these points are worth considering???? Let me know. My site is slippy71.blogspot.com.

  5. Hey Joseph Duemer, I've heard that's a great program. Do you have to have all papers turned in electronically, or can you just type in specific phrases if a paper worries you?

    Bardseyeview, Your site cracks me up, just so you know!

    GrumpyABDAdjunct, you're welcome!

    Hi Slippy71, thanks for stopping by.

    First, I'm not at all offended because I think you're right that university students need to be taught what an essay is, and given lots of process oriented practice throughout their university careers.

    You don't say where you're in school, so what I say may not be anything like what's available in your system.

    In most US colleges/universities, there's some kind of first year writing course or program; some universities have additional writing classes available, too.

    Maybe you'd find it useful to check if your college/university has such courses available, and take one or more?

    Also, in the US, most colleges/universities have a writing center or tutoring center of some sort where students can get help with essays. You might go there, and start working with a tutor on a regular basis both on the basics of writing an essay, and also on specific assignments.

    I think we need writers who can communicate on all sorts of levels. I disagree with you that all writing should be simplistic or put in everyday language because complex ideas require complex writing, and sometimes very specific vocabularies, whether scientific, philosophic, or poetic.

  6. Im at the U of British Colombia, Canada. The writing center is run by 3rd or 4th year students that often times have no clue what they are doing. And there are no classes offered on writing. If there are, they are on a certain topic, not on actual writing.
    One last thing. I still disagree that writters need to use complex writing. Perhaps there is a need to use complex terminology, but the writing should always remain easy to read. For example, read Octavio Paz's 'Labyrinth of Solitude' which takes on the complex topic of the Mexican identity and offers a Marxist-Freudian analysis of it. Also, E.H. Carr wrote an amazingly easy to read book titled "The twenty year crisis" on the topic of realism and political theory. These two books take on complex ideas but convey in simple language. In contrast, I have come across books that take on much simpler topics but use complex language and style. I personally think its speaks to the talent of the author if can express him/herself clearly.