Thursday, April 10, 2008

My Favorite Assignment

Last term my favorite assignment was a three-draft paper involving research and analysis. We called it the Biography/Dialogue. My goals for the assignment were to have students to get some basic practice in research, citation, incorporating sources, summary, analysis, global and radical revision, and thesis development.

Here were the steps, in a nutshell:
1st Draft
Choose a historical or well-known influential figure who experienced a transition in his/her life (we'd been reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X and talking about the heroic journey). Research this figure's life. Write a 3 page narrative that identifies what this transformation was and why it mattered (thesis). Use at least one primary and one secondary source.

2nd Draft
Imagine a conversation between your chosen figure, yourself, and one of the theorists or characters we've read, i.e. Erikson, Malcolm X, Mary Shelley, etc. Write a 3 page dialogue between these three people in which they have a discussion, i.e. they agree, disagree, draw connections, extend ideas of one another.

3rd Draft
Write an explanation of your dialogue. Explain why you think each person would have said what he/she said by supporting your ideas with actual quotes from the source. Determine what the main point or what conclusion might be drawn from the conversation. This will be the thesis of your Explanation draft. For instance, "Although ______ and ______ would disagee about _______, they would agree about _______."

What I liked about it:
Impossible to plagiarize
Don't get me wrong, plagiarism was rife in the first draft. That was, partially, the point. Because it was a report, almost none of the text was their own ideas. It should have been littered with in text citations. It was a great opportunity to talk about common knowledge and when to cite. But the second draft couldn't be plagiarized. They were to use no sources, just their imaginations and astute observations about what and how others thought.

Creative and difficult
Oh, they moaned and fretted about the dialogue! Moaning is often a good indication to me that I've done something right. So often my students want a clear template of exactly what I want them to say and how I want them to say it. This time they had to take a risk, use their own imaginations, and see what happened. I couldn't give them a here's how you do it exactly.

Separates interpretation and reporting
A difficulty I have with the traditional research essay is tearing open students' white-knuckle grip on their sources' words. I find it difficult to "teach" them how to not just say what other people said, but interpret/analyze what it means. This assignment allowed them to walk into the second draft alone, then invite their sources back into the third draft, but with the student as the driver of the information, not the sources.

Forces dialogic thinking,
a process critical to other necessary skills like taking good notes and having meaningful class discussions, not to mention creating a good thesis statement.

Mistakes I made
It would have worked better had we not let them duplicate public figures. I'd have liked to have more variety in figures, and have pushed them to have to search a little harder for lives that piqued their curiosity.

What helped
They had time to generate ideas in class and mentor session, to practice freewriting from different points of view. They were encouraged to notice and practice not only what their sources might think, but why and how they think and speak.

How else I might use it
I can imagine using the dialogue as a low stakes writing exercise for other papers, rather than something they turn in. Students could also "perform" these dialogue for one another: an alternative to traditional class discussion or presentations.

What is one of your favorite writing assignments or activities? Have you done something similar to the Biography/Dialogue?

Please pass yours on, even if you only have time to give us the nutshell. I'm an avid collector of good writing assignment ideas, and I know from meeting with many of you that there is a wealth of innovative ideas in UNST, even if we don't all have time to meet and share.

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