Narrow vs. Broad Writing Prompts [or] Full-Class vs. Individual Writing Instruction

In my first few semesters of teaching Freshman Composition, I wanted to assign papers that weren’t just boring, fill-in-the-requirements topics. I wanted to give my students the opportunity to explore topics they were interested in themselves.

After all, I reasoned, although I organize my syllabus around a specific topic (usually language, although I’ve done fairy tales a couple of times), this is first and foremost a writing class. It’s a class designed to prepare students for writing throughout the rest of their college years.

It makes sense, I argued to myself, to allow a class with diverse majors to each choose a topic that will interest them and benefit their future writing.

As I quickly discovered, providing a very open-ended essay prompt leads nowhere useful. I’m equal parts amused and horrified at this assignment prompt (look how cute I was, trying to run a 20-student class as a small intimate group):

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In a later semester, I provided a list of topic ideas, based on the syllabus and what we’d been discussing all semester long.

(Note: The assignment below was for English 111, which has no research component. The assignment above was for English 121, the second semester of Freshman Composition, which does include a research requirement.)

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This is a lot better than what I had started out with. But it still resulted in frustration on my part and my students.

They wanted more direct instructions. I wanted them to tap into their own interests and areas of knowledge.

They wanted to know how to get a good grade. I wanted them to delight in the process of research and discovery.

For the next few semesters, I continued tweaking the assignment prompt, trying to find the balance between providing specific, narrow, limiting, boring prompts and broad, exciting, open-ended prompts.

This semester, I think I finally got it right.

After each small addition and change over the past few semesters, I am satisfied with the process.

My students were excited about the research process (okay, most of them were , not all!), and they were not frustrated with having to come up with their own specific topic; I enjoyed their process of discovery, and I was not frustrated by their focus on grades or the inevitable bore of grading 25 papers on the same topic…

The key, I found, lies not in the assignment prompt itself, but in the way we work on the paper.

Last fall, I discovered that my school has a laptop cart that I could reserve for a class, allowing each student to have their own laptop. I used the laptops for peer review and group work, and loved it. And I realized that this is actually essential to teaching writing (at least the way I want to teach it).

In the past, when I walked my students through the research process, it was via one computer screen that was projected to the board at the front of the class. I would ask for one or two volunteers to explain their topics or research questions, and we would use keywords to search the library website, we would open some links, skim some abstracts and articles.

I would try to model how a research question could change as you discover more information and sources, and how you could modify your searches if you’re not getting anything relevant, etc.

And then I would tell my students to go home, and come back for next class with two tentative sources.

But when every student has a laptop in front of them, when they each settle into their own head-space and the room goes quiet except for the tapping of keys and scratching of pencils, a number of good things happen:

1) students are working in a quiet environment, which (by their own admission) doesn’t happen very often;

2) students are spending more than fifteen minutes scrambling for any random sources they can find before class;

3) I am able to circulate among the students and spend time with each one.

Of course, the third is the most important, although the first two benefits are nothing to sneeze at.

My process this semester:

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Part 1:

I assigned the paper, and we read through each prompt as a class. I asked if anyone had ideas about what they want to write about. A few students, who had been laser-focused on a specific topic all semester long (and from whose papers I had drawn some of the details of each prompt) had ideas. The rest did not.

I then asked each student to take out a sheet of paper (or open a new document on their laptops) and to write “Pygamlion / My Fair Lady” at the top of one side, “Language and Science” halfway down the page, and “Language and History” at the top of the second side.

I gave them these instructions: “For each broad topic, we’ll do a five-minute free-write. Let your thoughts about each topic flow – and if you don’t really understand the topic or prompt, write about your lack of understanding! Ask yourself questions, talk about some things you already know about this topic, wonder about some details you might already know but want to know more about…”

After fifteen minutes, during which they wrote about each topic for five minutes, I asked them to look over what they wrote and take any additional notes that come to mind as they reread their scribbles.

I then randomly called on a few students to read what they had written for each prompt. Most prefaced their comments with “but I don’t know if I want to write about this,” and I emphasized again and again that that’s fine – we’re at the stage of exploring possibilities now. No one needs to settle on a topic just yet.

After we heard rambling thoughts from a few students for each topic, I asked the class to look over their notes one more time. By this point, about half were able to say they were leaning toward one topic or another. More than a few students pointed out that their classmates’ thoughts had sparked ideas about their own notes, and had shown them how they might think about their own potential topics from a new angle.

For the last half hour of this class, I asked a few students who had clear ideas about potential topics to allow me to use their ideas while I modeled how to look for sources online, as I did for the first research paper they wrote earlier in the semester. The assignment for the next class session was to continue thinking about their topics.

But I did not ask them to have sources ready for next class.

Part 2:

I couldn’t get the laptop cart for this class… But I had told my students that they should bring their own laptops if possible, and that they should use their phones if that wasn’t possible.

We went around the room and each student briefly told us what their chosen topic was. A number of students were still unsure what exactly they wanted to write about, and a few had multiple possibilities. I responded with guided questions, sometimes leading students to think more broadly about their topics and sometimes more narrowly, and at times asking whether the multiple possibilities were not in fact two prongs of a larger argument…

After a brief review of the skills we had discussed in the previous class, I let my students settle in and begin to look for their own sources. I did not take questions for the first fifteen minutes (because there were a few students in this class who relied on my guidance too much, who were so anxious about getting it right that they didn’t see how much they can do on their own).

And then I began circulating, spending time with each student as if it were a session in the writing center.

First of all, I absolutely loved being a writing tutor as an undergraduate, and I jump at every opportunity to sit and work with someone individually on their papers.

But it was also really useful to my students, because the kind of guidance I can give about narrowing one’s topic or using sources to refine one’s argument, etc., is limited when it’s in a full-class setting. When I get to sit individually with each student, on the other hand, I can teach these skills much more usefully.

For the last fifteen minutes of class, we did another round-the-room, where I asked students to read the titles and authors of at least two potential sources they had found. This was partly to make sure they wrote down the titles and authors, so that when we discussed proper citation in a future class, they would have that information available. It was also to see how their topics may have changed.

That was perhaps the most rewarding exercise of this whole process.

I joked a few times about how clear it was that the writing process is a learning process, that “do you see now why I kept telling you that if you start with a rigid thesis, your research will be frustrating but if you go into it with a semi-question, it will be rewarding?”

They groaned at my ridiculous cheeriness, but they did see.

Part 3:

The papers they wrote were varied in topic, with theses that were quite obviously unique and specific to them. Many wrote about the language histories of their own backgrounds and cultures (the politics of why the same island speaks both French and Spanish; the development of Californian-Spanish from the early twentieth century to now, based on demographic changes and political events; the extinction and survival indigenous languages in the Dominican Republic; the history of Mixtec), or about biological or psychological issues they care about (a number of students in this class are psych majors – they wrote about effects of parent-child language patterns, about the effects of hearing loss, about sign language versus cochlear implants), or about aspects of Pygmalion and / or My Fair Lady that got them fired up (one student who is passionate about fashion wrote about the clothing styles and how the fabrics and cuts of Eliza’s dress signify class difference). A few wrote about topics obviously chosen just to fulfill the assignment, and that’s fine too.

The best part of all this is that the papers themselves are more than just the five-paragraph essay, that they are researched well with far more effort than I’ve ever seen before, and that they are written with a combination of personal passion and “objective” argumentation.

My conclusions:

  1. the assignment prompt itself needs to be balanced between broad and narrow (duh);
  2. and even in a fairly large class, when students don’t have time to come to office hours, it is still possible to provide individualized writing instruction.

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