Monday, May 14, 2012

Crash and Burn

Sometimes, you write an assignment and think it's pretty good.  You do prep work in class, and you think it went well.

And then the assignment comes in, and you despair.  That's where I am now.

Here's the asignment:
Research Question and Project - We'll work on developing research questions together. You'll write a research question and turn it in (yes, typed). Then, once I've approved your question, you'll use the MLA bibliography to find one essay that answers your question to some extent. You'll get a copy of that essay (make a hardcopy). Read the essay carefully, and write a one page summary/response to the essay. The first part of your summary/response should summarize the essay (identifying the thesis statement). The second part of your response should explain how the essay answers your research question.

Make sure to cite your essay. When you turn in the assignment, staple your summary/response to the front of the essay. Make sure to highlight the thesis statement (which may well be more than one sentence) on the original essay.

We'll practice for this assignment with the Traub essay, so you should have a good sense of how to do the assignment and what's expected.
We worked with an essay by Valerie Traub, and talked about how to find the thesis, summarize it, and what sorts of evidence it uses and assumptions it makes.

We worked throughout the earlier part of the semester on writing research questions, and I read and gave feedback on their final question.
But I surely didn't do something right, because so far a fair number of these papers aren't doing what I was hoping for at all.  Some people chose bits of books rather than essays.  Some chose book reviews; I'm guessing they didn't recognize them as book reviews.  Some didn't really summarize.
I either need to revise and rework the assignment extensively or drop it.  I like the idea of the assignment, though.  I want students to read a work of criticism or historical research carefully for what it is, rather than to quote mine in an attempt to find something that "agrees" with their own argument.  But boy howdy, this assignment did not do the trick very well.


  1. This is a terrific assignment, but I have tried something similar before and had the same problems. One solution is to ask students to find several articles (two or three) and send you the bibliographic info in advance for your approval. This is more work for you, but it gives you the chance to explain the difference between a book review and an analytical essay or explain why one venue may be more reliable than another.

  2. I also like the assignment. When I have an assignment that largely flops, I try to find one good essay, ask the student's permission, and use it as a model (or at least a portion of it) for the next time I do the assignment. This gives the students a chance to see what you're looking for.