Monday, January 7, 2008

Writing Assignments: The Rhetorical Triangle or The Bermuda?

Although it can make us tutors feel uneasy, much of what we do at the WC is helping students understand writing instructions from their professors. We are uneasy because we don’t want to second-guess professors, nor do we want to undermine their authority and expertise by admitting that we may not understand the assignments. We very often begin and end these sessions with the hearty recommendation to visit office hours and/or email their professors for clarification. Unfortunately, we don’t know how much our advice in this regard is heeded.

As both a writing tutor and instructor, I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to look at assignments from these two different angles. As I try to help students understand other instructor’s assignment instructions, I’m able to reflect on how and why I write my own.

Considerations of the Rhetorical Triangle in Writing Assignment Instructions

In one corner of is the writer – the student; a position that may seem to students a fixed mark. But many freshman are still trying to figure out how to address and communicate with varied audiences and how their own new identities -- as college students, adults, scholars, roommates, etc. intersect.

A Freshman Inquiry professor recently shared with me an email exchange with a student who asked “can u hook me up with an A?” The student promised to do better next term. This talented and very patient professor graciously declined the A and pointed out how the student’s use of slang and unpunctuated text-message lingo undermined her argument. The contrite student thanked the professor, and very likely won’t make that mistake again. I count these kinds of writing incidents: tortured syntax, whiplash shifts in levels of diction, the difficulty deciding when and how to use “I,” as proof of students’ struggles to switch voices, to claim a new identity as a “scholar.” As an instructor and tutor I’m an informant, sometimes introducing students to new genres, the vocabulary and conventions of which may be very foreign to them, as hard as that may be for us to believe.

This unfamiliarity shows up in the Writing Center when we see students trying to decipher the basic vocabulary of assignment instructions. Just consider the word “reflect.” When I instruct students to reflect, it means “look back and analyze your experience and thought process. Look for epiphanal moments and draw connections between your experience and concepts/theories covered in class.” But many students are likely to be familiar only with the general definition “to cast back from a surface; to give back or show an image of; mirror.” In that respect, reflect might mean to summarize or reiterate.

While it is true that part of my job as an instructor is to introduce students to the rhetoric and processes of academia, I’m not sure my courses need be a full immersion program. It makes sense to me to first establish a common language, rather than let students flounder under false assumptions. While I can’t second-guess every word for common definition, I can search my assignment instructions for possible professor-ese. I can also ask students to paraphrase the instructions back to me as a way to turn up potential pitfalls.

Of the three parts of the RT, audience seems the most difficult to pin down for students. It is also seldom addressed in the assignment instructions, nor in the class preparation for the assignment. I usually vaguely allude to it as “a general, well-educated population.” Last term, while working with a FRINQ student on his research paper, I was reminded of the unique and somewhat absurd fiction regarding audience that students must navigate in academic writing.

When I pointed out to this student that he needed to define the term “camera obscura” for his reader, he said, “but my professor already knows what that is.” Fair enough. I explained he was really writing for two audiences, an imaginary general audience, and the real professor, who is watching and judging how well the student is able to present information to the imaginary audience.

I listened to myself and watched his forehead crinkle. I thought about my explanation and suddenly pictured a TV cop show, the interrogation room, and the one-way mirror.

I realized that if a writer doesn’t have a clear idea of his audience – can’t picture them or relate to them in some way – he doesn’t know what kind of evidence is going to be convincing, what kind of vocabulary or diction is appropriate. It becomes difficult to establish common ground or ethos. In order to write well-reasoned arguments a writer needs to have a concept about the values his audience holds in order to appeal to them.

In a class I teach called, “Argument, Logic, and Style,” I have each student choose a specific audience whom she would like to convince of her particular claim (each student has spent a few weeks researching her own chosen topic) and write what I call an “eloquent letter” to that audience. Inevitably this argument is vastly better than their previous papers. I suspected, and they confirmed that they were able to write more convincingly because they were more confident about whom they were addressing. They could build arguments based on that particular audience’s values and needs.

I also have students write their final portfolio essay as a letter to me – by that point they know me well enough to know what I value and how to address me in a familiar, yet respectful way.

Consequently it may make sense to be more transparent about whom the audience is for each paper and to have some discussion about how to appeal to that audience. Or it might behoove instructors to have assignments address a variety of audiences, i.e. one that is directed at the class; one that is written as a position paper to present to an advisory board of a non-profit, one that is directed to university studies faculty, etc.

Donald Murray, in his book A Writer Teaches Writing, lists fourteen elements to consider when designing assignments. He gives Purpose, Genre, and Models their own categories, but to my mind, these are interrelated and connected to each corner of the RT. He advocates offering models to students as a way to define and demystify the genres and forms we are asking them to produce. He points out that freshman “may have no common idea of what is meant by such simple terms as essay, argument, narrative, fiction, non-fiction, or research paper. One student may think essay means argument; another may think it is creative writing – a short story. They may well have a clear sense of what another teacher has meant by those terms, but the students need a model in a closed assignment [one in which they do not choose the topic and form] especially if the teacher has a model in mind.”

He recommends having three models available to students that “present a range within the genre” so students aren’t painting by numbers. At times I’ve taken this idea further and either annotated or discussed these models in class, pointing out where particular moves that I value are being made in the model pieces. I collect student essays from past classes as well as professionally written essays.

When designing an assignment, Murray advocates making clear what the educational goal is. I often see purpose and goals listed on FRINQ assignments, especially in relation to “The Goals.” But I think there are different levels of goal, some that may come out of one’s area of discipline, and still others that we may not be aware of, that have to do at some core level with our own values as writers.

Recently, in a Writing Center meeting we invited an English literature professor as a guest. While discussing what we as tutors can do to help her students complete her assignments successfully, she talked about approaching student papers as readers and introducing them to the idea of motivation. She frames her goal for student writer as motivating a reader (that professor) to keep reading. Although many of her students are perplexed by receiving B’s for competent explication and interpretation of a text, she insists on reserving A’s for papers that provide a reading of the course text that isn’t obvious or commonly held. She asked us-as-tutors to help students-as-writers to think about what professors-as-readers need to motivate them to keep reading. Given that a professor is probably intimately familiar with the text presented, the student is challenged to find a way to tell and show her something she hadn’t already thought of.

While I don’t think this is or should be a goal of every college writing assignment (she admitted that she never has freshman in her classes), it points to the underlying values of that professor as a scholar and writer. She cares about originality, “the close reading,” as well as the ability to apply theory. But if students don’t have some cue about this value system from the professor or the assignment instructions, many aren’t going to figure it out -- at least not right away. If they think the professor wants to know that they read and understood the text, they’ll write a competent explication and expect an A.

Perhaps most important and least considered when designing assignments is the issue of “WHAT KIND OF PAPER AM I GOING TO WANT TO READ 70 VERSIONS OF?” Although it is the students’ responsibility to figure out how to engage with the material and present it in a clear and interesting manner, there are some assignments that lend themselves more or less to innovation, or creativity. As corny as it sounds, part of why I teach is to learn from my students. I want to be moved; I want to read something I hadn’t thought of before; I want them to make me laugh (on purpose). For me, assignments that move beyond the traditional thesis-driven/researched/synthesized/and applied theory of course texts model provide more opportunity for students to surprise themselves and me.

I as an audience who holds the red pen have some duty to let on about what matters to me as a reader. Some assignments really are just a test for competent comprehension. Other assignments may have a goal of practicing or mastering a particular skill, like incorporating source materials into one’s own prose. I consider these assignments performance-based. I also have many assignments for which the sole purpose is to get students writing for the sake of trying something. I want them to write in a way that makes them uncomfortable, as a way to challenge them or get them out of ruts. These I would define as more experience-based. The final product is less important than the attempt.

I’m also learning that my personal values as a writer tend more toward risk and creativity. In some assignments I see revision as an end in itself; I think it’s good for you to write something and make it into something radically different, just to see what happens. But sometimes revision needs to be about making a piece as clear and polished as it can be in a given amount of time. These are all things I try to take into consideration when designing assignments. What will I value in the product and process of this assignment: competent demonstration of a specific set of skills, creativity, originality, attempt, mastery...? An important question I ask myself when designing an assignment is “how will I know if they’ve met the goals of the assignment?” One attempt I make to answer that question is making a grading rubric to accompany the assignment.

When I get back a stack of papers, all from the same assignment, that don’t meet my expectations, that feel directionless and vastly different from one another, I grumble about my lazy students who obviously didn’t carefully read my assignments. Then I return to my instructions and try to approach them as a reader. It’s the same process I ask my students to go through when refining their arguments: Where might I have questions if I weren’t myself?

Lately as I design new assignments I picture a student sitting down with a tutor to decipher it. Is there enough information so that someone unfamiliar with the course material would be able to figure it out? Is there too much information – am I giving too many instructions or suggestions on how to complete the assignment, instructions that might be better used in class writing activities?

This term I’ll continue to ask you to share your ideas about writing and staging assignments. My goal is to create a site where we share assignments, rubrics, and activities to support writing in Freshman Inquiry. Send me any thoughts, ideas, or materials, or stop by the Writing Center, CH188F, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or Thursdays to chat.