Assignment Sequences: 19th-Century Fiction

I have one week left of my sabbatical. That in itself is probably a good subject for its own post: the time is coming for a full reckoning of what I did and didn’t get done in the last six months. But it’s also probably the reason that I have just had my first teaching dream in months! Teaching isn’t actually the first routine chore I’ll be getting back to: I have a meeting to attend next week, technically the day before my sabbatical ends (I’m too good a department citizen to be a stickler about that…), which I have to prepare for by beginning my review of one of the tenure and promotion cases I’ll be involved in over the next few months. But teaching is always the part of my job that I puzzle over the most–as testified to by the amount of time I spend fretting over things like reading lists for the mystery and detective fiction class. With that issue settled for this round, it’s time to turn my attention to my courses in 19th-century fiction. For these, it’s not so much the reading lists that are difficult to decide on: though I do mix them up regularly, the courses are meant to offer something like a ‘greatest hits’ list, and once the most obvious choices are covered, there’s not a lot of room to play around. No, for these classes it’s the assignment sequences that I worry about, partly because I do assign a lot of reading and it’s hard for me to decide how much writing it is reasonable to ask the students to do, particularly as the writing won’t be very good if they have barely had time to finish the novel(s) they are writing about.

I used to do what I think is a pretty standard sequence of one short (3-5 page) paper and one longer (5-7 page) paper, followed by a final short-answer and essay exam. I’ve also done two short papers and then an option of a long paper or an exam. Usually I don’t ask them to do research, or else the research component is deliberately very small–again, I ask them to do a lot of reading and it’s hard enough, IMHO, to come to grips with the complexities of the novels without adding in secondary readings you aren’t really in a position to evaluate if your understanding of the novels is still very preliminary. Even though I usually try to make the essay topics fairly flexible, on the theory that people write best on topics they are genuinely interested in, a lot of the writing always turns out to be quite clearly perfunctory or just plain careless. Some years ago, I read about an assignment that required students to send each other letters early in their work on a novel and then answer them when they were finished–the idea was that students would pick out something that caught their interest and their partner would follow through and explain its significance later on. Not only does this allow the students to find their own angle on the reading, but it makes the audience for their writing clearer and sets them up as a community working together to build their understanding of a range of critical cruxes and problems. I really like the assumptions and expectations of this process, and I developed a version of it for the 19th-century novel classes that ran, I think, quite successfully for a few years. We do a sample letter first, with everyone answering one of a handful of sample questions set by me. Students bring anonymous copies of these first letters to class and we circulate them and discuss them in small groups and then as a whole class, identifying particularly successful strategies as well, of course, as problems–and not just with the letters, but with my sample questions as well. Then over the next three novels they do a letter exchange for each one, each time with a different partner. For the final novel, they have the option of writing a longer, more conventional critical essay with a research component or writing the final exam, which includes answering a question from me about the novel.

I am strongly tempted to do this letter exchange sequence again for both of the 19th-century fiction courses in 2011-12. Because they generate their own topics and write to each other, and because I encourage them to raise issues from their questions in class and to draw on lectures and discussions as they think their way to their responses, it can really raise the overall level of engagement. It also means they are thinking creatively and critically about every novel but often along somewhat unpredictable lines (you can’t predict what their partners will ask about!), and it gets me, too, out of some of the ruts it’s easy to fall into with novels you think you have figured out. The letters are required to be very short (two pages), so they also have to work on focusing what may be a kind of wide-open question and on not wasting words as they answer it. Though I emphasize that a good answer has to be pointed (in other words, they do still need to have a thesis), the letter format prompts (and I encourage) a somewhat more colloquial, personal tone, too. One reason student writing can be so wooden or awkward is that they try to write the way they imagine we do, or they imagine we want them to, and in the process not only do they lose any confidence in their own voice but they end up with tortured constructions and using a vocabulary they are not comfortable with, just to try to sound ‘academic.’ A lot of them relax and become much clearer and more articulate when they have met face to face with their partner (as I insist they do) and then write knowing their job is to tell this particular person something about a topic they care about. (They are still expected to follow standard rules of spelling and grammar!) I have seen some great results.

But…having said all that, I am also reluctant to do this assignment sequence again. The last couple of times I’ve done it, it has been logistically extremely difficult, for one thing. For whatever reason, a lot more students created problems by not submitting their questions to their partners on time, leaving the other student stranded without an essay topic. In response, I made the rules more and more explicit and worked out contingency plans and penalties and so on–but handling these complications becomes very time-consuming, and chasing people with threats and recriminations about their not meeting their part of the bargain is unpleasant. With forty students involved, there are lots of ways things can screw up technically–students send each other attachments that don’t work, or they don’t use the Blackboard tools that make sure the addresses at least are consistent and reliable, or they ignore instructions about document format and end up with incompatibility issues. They miss required face-to-face sessions. They skip the practice letter (which is not worth a lot of marks but, as I stress, is worth a great deal in terms of preparing them for success in the ‘real’ assignments). They misunderstand the requirements–so that my explanations have gotten longer and longer, tediously so. They want lots of specific guidance on how informal or how specific or how many quotations … the first few times I did these assignments, everyone seemed much more confident about working within the general guidelines, but I’ve felt more and more pressure to try to spell everything out (the tyranny of the rubric!) and to anticipate every quirk or . There have always been some whose questions were terribly disappointing (showing clearly, for instance, that the student had read at most the back cover of the book)–again, my explanations of the requirements have gotten longer, and I give more and more examples and discuss good and bad strategies for formulating productive questions, but the last couple of times there just seemed to be an awful lot of students stuck with unusable questions, and even if the provision is there to mark down the students who provided them, I’m still stuck rescuing their partners. In brief (too late for that, I know!), instead of making the writing (and marking) more fun, in many ways the letter exchanges seemed to make everything more stressful. I still saw some excellent, original, smart work, but the students who accomplished it would have done as well on more conventional assignments, I expect, and the overall hassle would have been less.

So I’m not sure what to do. My goals are: to have the students write regularly, preferably at least once about every novel–though not necessarily in equal detail each time, and exam answers would count; to have the students see their writing assignments as closely connected to our work together in the classroom (too often it seems as if papers turn students’ attention elsewhere, as if they don’t realize that they can and should use lectures and discussions to develop their ideas and as models for the kinds of argumentation and evidence appropriate to the assignment); to have students see each other, not just me, as a resource and as participants in the work of learning; to avoid as much as possible writing that is done only because they had to do it–to have the students feel ‘ownership’ (ugh, I know, but it does matter) of their intellectual work, to feel that it really matters to them somehow; and to do all this within reasonable limits, so that they can give real, sustained attention to their assignments and I can evaluate them with clear eyes and a full heart (!) rather than frustration and annoyance at hasty, thoughtless work. Some combination of informal and formal writing seems optimum (in another recent version of these classes, for instance, we did regular ‘free writing’ in class, which cumulatively was worth about 10% of their grade and was meant to jump-start discussion as well as provide seed material for longer assignments). I like giving an option of a final paper or the final exam–which really helps reduce the ‘writing because I have to but can’t give it my full attention’ problem that arises for so many students at the end of term. Students who choose a final paper are likely to be quite highly motivated for it.

There are students out there, I know. What kinds of assignment sequences do you like? What is the best way, in your own experience, for you to keep your attention on the class readings? What kind of writing gives you the most satisfaction? If any of you happen to have been in one of the classes with the letter exchanges, any thoughts or suggestions about their success? And for the other teachers out there, any suggestions? Resources that have helped you?  I got the letter assignment from Art Young’s book on teaching writing across the curriculum (PDF here–see p. 26 and following).  I attended a workshop once on teaching writing where the main ‘lesson’ was ‘don’t assign any writing you don’t want to read when they turn it in’–that always seemed like easier advice to give than to take! But maybe there’s a way to do that, if I could just figure it out.

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4 Responses to Assignment Sequences: 19th-Century Fiction

  1. JoVE says:

    Another blog I read (by a philosopher) recently talked about getting students to write IN CLASS; not to be graded, but to respond to the text as a prelude to discussion. He found it a better alternative to the more common talk to the person next to you about … type strategy for various reasons, one of which was engagement, another regular low stakes writing improves the higher stakes writing.

  2. Dorothy W. says:

    I love the letter assignment, although I can see the logistical issues as well. I can see myself possibly assigning the letters and then pairing students up in class on the day they are due, so that those who didn’t do it just don’t participate (which isn’t great, but nothing to be done about that). In this case, using paper might be easier, since I can simply collect the papers and redistribute them on the spot. I might also ask them to answer their classmates’s questions, but give them other things to write about so if the questions aren’t interesting, they can answer them briefly.

  3. Stefanie says:

    Oh, I like the sound of letter assignment. maybe if you don’t assign partners ahead of time and just redistribute the question letters in class as Dorothy suggestions that would solve the problem of people who don’t do the work without penalizing the people who do. Or you could just have some spare letters on hand to pass out to students whose partners failed to do teh work.

  4. Rohan says:

    Darn it, I really like the letter assignment too. I’ve been trying to hard to go all electronic, but maybe you are both right that in this case the face-to-face component is just too important. It does allow me to have a Letter Delivery day and match up people whose partners are missing right there on the spot. The value in assigning partners ahead of time is having the preliminary meetings to discuss what they are finding interesting so far. I think I will try it again, but between now and September I’ll keep thinking about how to make the logistics as simple as possible–and how to get past the “you need to tell me exactly what to do” issues that arise also.

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