As I responded to students’ coursework proposals this week, I concluded that giving students more choice, as I explained in last week’s post, has led most of them to choose meaningful projects that connect directly to their career goals. Generally, it seems like a good assignment, but I have realized that I need to make some changes before I use it again.
Add More Explanation and Examples
In the original assignment, I included this explanation of the requirement for the proposals students were writing:
Write a proposal that outlines the three major projects you will compose to complete the requirement for five major projects in this course.
Beyond that statement, I added this basic advice:
Think about your career goals and the kinds of writing that are critical to your future plans. If there are particular kinds of writing that you know will be important to your success, they may be your best choice(s) for the work you will complete.
Students needed more information to understand their goal. Looking back now, I’m not surprised that about a third of them emailed, posted in the course forums, or came by during office hours to ask for more information on the assignment. If anything, I’m surprised that there weren’t more questions. Next time I will add more details and include some examples, like the computer science student example I included in last week’s post.
Address Audience, Purpose, and Context
I’m ashamed to admit that I hadn’t fully realized the rhetorical demands students would face when they worked to choose their own projects. The challenge became clear to me as I responded to students’ work. The strongest proposals were written by students who wanted to focus on real-world writing projects. These projects related to things students were already involved in, such as clubs, Greek organizations, internships, and philanthropy activities. These students had a clear sense of what they wanted to write, why they were going to write it, and who would read it when they were done. Additionally, they were engaged in the projects. They had a real reason to complete the work, beyond getting credit in a course.
Students who struggled with their proposals had to determine not only the genres of writing to explore but also come up with their own audience and purpose for the activities. Their contexts were sometimes completely fictional. I read only a few such coursework proposals before I concluded that I hadn’t given students enough support for defining the rhetorical situations for their projects. Even if I encourage students to search out clients or engage in service-learning style activities, I am sure there will still be students who cannot find a real-world focus for their projects.
I’m still trying to decide on the best way to deal with this challenge. I can certainly urge students to propose projects that connect to real situations, but there will always be students who will not have a way to connect concretely with their fields. I could offer a range of situations and clients for the tasks, but I want the activities to be students’ choices. I cannot possibly create an assignment for every possible kind of writing students might choose.
I can and will spend time directly discussing concepts like audience, purpose, and context. Students could benefit from expanding the simple identification of audiences and purposes from their investigation of writing in their field. Asking students to create profiles for each category of audience (e.g., coworkers, managers, clients) should be a useful step between identifying general audiences in their field and proposing to write something for a specific audience of readers.
I have more thinking to do obviously. I do like this assignment and the choice that it gives students as they learn about writing in their fields. My challenge at this point is determining how to give students the support and information that they need to do their best work as they make their choices. If you have a solution, please share it with me. I could use some help here.
Photo Credit: IMG_1760 (Sign seen in Santa Cruz) by Robert Couse-Baker, on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license