What’s an assignment for?

This year I’ve been experimenting with a variety of digital replacements for my conventional “3 explication papers + one short paper + one medium-length paper” assignment set; for the purposes of this experiment, I’m not requiring formal papers at all.  This has had some hits and misses, and I’m looking forward to ending this experiment soon and moving back to a mix of born-digital and conventional assignments.

One student this summer took a look at the assignments and bolted, but not before sending me an e-mail asking “What ever happened to discussing works in class and then writing papers about them?”  I’ve gotten similar questions from some colleagues and friends.

My first answer is that nothing’s happened to them–there are many such courses on offer in our department.  But my real answer is to turn the question back on itself: Is the point of a literature class “learning how to write papers,” or is it “learning about literature” and “learning to write”?  In other words, I don’t think that the learning outcome of English classes ought to be, “learn how to write critical analysis papers at X pages in length.”  Instead, people assign papers because they think that the sustained work of writing a paper might facilitate other learning goals.  But papers are, or ought to be, just a means to an end.  Certainly they’re a means we’re comfortable with–but there’s nothing magical about them.

Speaking for myself, this  has been a real benefit of working on assessment over the past year.  In the past, when pulling a syllabus together, I would start from the probable due dates of papers, and work backward from that. “It’s an English class, so there should be papers.”  (Note: I still think that “It’s an English class, so there should be *writing* of many forms.”)  I’m trying to get better at fitting assignments to the learning outcomes for a particular class.  Thinking more seriously about why I’m choosing assignment X over assignment Y–and what the tradeoffs are for each option as the class tries to achieve certain outcomes–has helped the design of my classes significantly.

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