Denise K. Comer, Associate Professor of the Practice of Writing Studies and Director of First-Year Writing, Duke University
Of the many writing projects you have completed across your education, which ones were your favorites? Why?
One of my favorites occurred during graduate school, in a Victorian literature course. The professor asked each student to select one of Edward Bulwer Lytton’s letters and annotate it. I spent hours in the library researching Bulwer Lytton’s references, uncovering and exploring the many intersecting layers of history, knowledge, and context.
I felt engaged in meaningful, even original, research and writing. I believed my contributions to our course’s collective knowledge building had the potential to provide unique, important insights for the professor and my classmates. The format of the project was a new and welcome variation for me from the more typical essay term paper. And, I had confidence in the capacities involved in the endeavor: I knew how to conduct research, what annotations should look like, and how to assess rigor and comprehensiveness. Still, the project also challenged me: the letter contained many obscure references, some of which I never did actually figure out, and I struggled to convey complex annotations clearly and concisely.
Hard as it may be to admit, not everyone enjoys annotating Bulwar-Lytton letters, not everyone cares about Victorian authorship, and not everyone has the time, energy, or inclination to learn about and engage in such an endeavor.
All of which underscores a central concept for designing writing projects: No one assignment will carry the same impact for all students, much less across semesters and institutional contexts.
Many complex factors contribute to what makes any given assignment compelling, successful, and meaningful (or not) for any particular student. And, much of what makes or breaks a writing project has less to do with the assignment itself than with whatever else is happening in a student’s life, a faculty member’s life, and/or in a course. Writing instructors sometimes forget that students really do have a lot going on in their lives beyond our classes. If a writing project coincides with a moment when a student is fully occupied with other priorities, be they personal, professional, or academic, then that student might not fully engage, no matter how great an assignment may be.
Bottom line: Different writing projects appeal to different writers, and students come to writing projects with highly varying levels of preparedness, investment, energy, time, and capability.
Nice though it may be, I cannot provide a magic assignment template that can guarantee successful writing projects. By whose terms would I even define and assess “success” “efficacy” or “meaningfulness”? Would it count if all students earned A’s on the project? C’s? If all students received publication offers? If every student right then and there decided to pursue graduate study in your discipline? Invite you to be their mentor? One can quickly see the challenges in developing any universal guidelines.
Writing project design, as with most other components in a writing course, largely resists templates and prescribed criteria. Instead, one should approach writing project design with thoughtful intentionality and with deep awareness of and attentiveness to a wide range of dynamic contextual matters.
Below are several of the most significant:
- Learning Objectives. What are the learning objectives of a given assignment? How are they aligned with the course’s overall learning outcomes?
- Assessment Criteria. How will those objectives be measured and assessed? What, specifically, constitutes the degree to which a student will have met, exceeded, or fell short with the learning objectives?
- Purpose/Significance. Why are you asking students to write this project? What is the larger significance of such work? Why do you value this project and why will you be interested in students’ approaches to it? What are the stakes involved with this writing project? Is it a major writing project or a lower-stakes, smaller assignment?
- Writing Transfer. How might students transfer prior writing and learning knowledge from previous writing projects in the course as well as from other experiences to this new writing project? How will students transfer what they learn from this writing project to subsequent writing projects in and beyond the course?
- Sequenced Components. What are the building blocks, or sequenced steps, involved in the development of this writing project? How will students work towards the final project through in-class writing and discussion, smaller response assignments or bibliographic work, perhaps a proposal or literature review? What is the cycle for pre-writing, drafting, revision, feedback, editing, and proofreading?
- Pacing. Do students have the time they need to move effectively through each sequenced component? Do you, as their instructor? If you are responding to 40 drafts, can you do so in a day or two or do you need to allow a full week for you to provide feedback? Will students need more than one day to integrate peer and instructor feedback into their revisions? What else are you asking students to do on days when a draft is due? Where would you like their energy focused?
- Balance Consistency with Range of Approach. Does the writing project provide an opportunity for each student to approach the project in a relatively unique manner? At the same time, are students basically engaged in a consistent writing effort so they can effectively provide and receive peer feedback and so you can craft consistent learning objectives and assessment criteria?
- Readers and Feedback. Who are the actual and imagined readers who will be reading the students’ writing projects? Why will they be doing so? What, if any, feedback will students receive from these readers at various junctures across the writing process and/or with the final version? When will they be receiving any such feedback and in what form?
- Inquiry. What is the inquiry driving the writing project? What question or problem are you asking students to engage with?
- Models. Can you draw students’ attention to models or examples of this sort of writing? Might the course texts provide such models? How might models help students consider disciplinary approach, writing context, or epistemology informing the writing project?
- Doability. Is the writing project doable within the parameters you have developed? Have you attempted to complete this project yourself under conditions similar to those you are asking of the students?
- Clarity. Is it relatively clear what the writing project is asking students to do as writers?
- Tone. What tone have you adopted for the writing project? Have you mandated (You will…), requested (Would you please…), Suggested (I recommend…)?
- Logistics. What logistics need to be addressed and specified? Do students have the information they need about deadlines, word count, citation style, formality, genre, etc.?
- Delivery. Have you demonstrated care with designing the writing project in terms of actual document design? Does it look appealing and reflect attentiveness? Have you delivered it in such a way as to highlight its significance and allow adequate time for student’s questions, discussion, and clarification?
In the meantime, share your ideas: Do you have or know of any writing projects that you think illustrate any of the aforementioned ideas? What other considerations impact writing project design?
Several of these concepts have been drawn and adapted from the Duke University Postdoctoral Summer Seminar in Teaching Writing. Acknowledgements and credit must include my predecessor of that seminar, Joseph Harris, and my current co-facilitator, Marcia Rego.