Thinking about Writing

The following is a sheet provided by Dr. Mark Long in connection with his September 2010 workshops with faculty.

Critical Things to Think About as You Think About Writing in Your Courses

  • Think about the real purpose of the assignment and make sure that is clear to you and to your students. What do you really, really want them to get from the experience of putting word after word on paper. In other words, make your hidden agenda your real agenda.
  • Think carefully about the level of complexity of the assignment and whether or not it invites students into the world of ideas/concepts/theories of your course.  Keep that level of challenge as high as possible, (because that’s the only way to reinforce what you really, really want).
  • Keep it simple. The language of the assignment should be direct and concrete. But do not assume that the language of the assignment is transparent to students. Work with students to reach a shared understanding of what it is you are asking them to do. Analyze, explore, research: what exactly do these terms mean to you?
  • Think about doing the assignment yourself and whether or not it sounds like something worth doing. Does the assignment really challenge students—beyond asking them to demonstrate an understanding of a subject or an idea?
  • Consider the role of audience. Are students writing for you? Or do you imagine them writing for audiences beyond the classroom or college? How can writing for multiple audiences help students “transcend the assignment” and claim ownership of their ideas?
  • Think about what you will be reading for, commenting on, responding to as well as what you will not be reading for but you expect anyway. If you expect grammatically correct sentences, but won’t be commenting on that decide beforehand how you will deal with that. Remember the example of a typed paper and hold that line.
  • Think about how to incorporate a “holding environment”into the process. As students struggle, how will you create the tension, and help them through it without diminishing the purpose or level of complexity. This environment can take many forms: free writing in class, talking about what they are thinking about writing, hearing others talk about what they’re thinking about; low-stakes writing assignments; smaller pieces that prepare them for the final piece; mandatory drafts and carefully constructed peer reviews; drafts that they discuss with you in conference, or with tutors at the Writing Center. Think about how you will build that into your class time so that you are guiding, helping, struggling with them as they see others struggling.
  • Remember, the “holding environment” need not be in conflict with covering course content. That is, consider ways thatwriting can help student learn course material.
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