Information Sheet #101

September 20, 1996

SELF-REFLECTIVE ASSIGNMENTS

[On August 25, the last Friday of freedom before the arrival of orientation and the beginning of school, 14 Coe faculty participated in a seven-hour retreat at the Clark Alumni House. Our topic was self-reflective assignments which ask students to comment on their writing/researching processes or final products. While these assignments are certainly not infallible, they do offer rich possibilities for improving our insight into students' thinking while helping them better understand why they are doing what they are doing. What follows is a condensed version of a retreat handout which describes possible models for designing self-reflective writing assignments. I have been playing with such exercises for several years and would be glad to talk with anyone interested in considering how these assignments might be reconstructed to fit with a different type of class. --Bob Marrs]

A Sample of Self-Reflective Assignments:
Students Write about Their Own Writing

-- Self-Portrait as a Language User. Directions for students: Write a meditation/description/ analysis of yourself as a language user. You may discuss your history as a writer and reader, an evaluation of your language-using skills, the types of reading you enjoy, an analysis of the writing you did last year [or term], etc. Provide whatever information and insight would help someone understand your relationship with English (plus other languages you dream in).

-- Advice. An assignment for early in the term. Directions for students: On a sheet of paper list all the composition advice and guidelines you can remember having received on your writing (e.g., "the letter I before e except after c"). These items can be broad generalizations or advice on commas and spelling from previous teachers, parents, friends, enemies, textbooks, newspaper article, Seinfeld, a pet parrot, whomever. When you have generated a healthy list (20 or 30 items), write a 1-2 paragraph commentary on the advice.

--What patterns do you see in these items?

--Any idea why you have remembered what you have remembered?

--What advice is worth remembering?

--What writing guidelines have proven helpful and sustaining?

--What probably needs to be forgotten or used with some care?

--Constraints That Enable. Consider this Erving Goffman quote:

In our society...it is felt that, with the possible exception of pure fantasy or thought, whatever an agent seeks to do will be continuously conditioned by natural constraints, and that effective doing will require the exploitation, not the neglect, of this condition.

And this quote from the poet Ted Hughes:

Artificial limits create a crisis, which rouses the brain's resources: the compulsion towards haste overthrows the ordinary precautions, flings everything into top gear, and many things that are usually hidden find themselves rushed into the open. Barriers break down, prisoners come out of their cells.

The assignment is to write a short text (can be in-class or for next class) whereby students introduce themselves to each other. One constraint: no sentence can exceed eight words. The self-reflection comes in the commentaries. Students will have something to say about how this constraint affected their writing and thinking. And a pleasant surprise: you will often find some extraordinary pieces of writing.

--Commentary on Submission. Basic directions ask students to provide a "preface" or "after words" attached to their paper, presenting a brief history of relevant factors influencing its composition and what issues they think need to be addressed in any future revising. These directions may be left open-ended or the instructor can request specific kinds of commentary (e.g., ask writer to identify best paragraph or most effective passage and explain choice; identify least successful passage)

--Submission of First Draft, Revision and Commentary on Revision. Author discusses important changes, deletions, addition in the new text; expresses current opinion of the paper and how it is developing. Identifies 2 or 3 major issues in paper (style, organization, use of evidence, etc.) deserving/requiring further attention.

--Five Questions. Same assignment as above, but student concludes commentary with 5 questions for the reader (instructor or peer readers) about the text.

--Comparison of Peer Texts. Class divided into small groups, 3-5 students per group. Group members exchange papers and have 5-7 days to write a commentary on each paper and a summary review of all the papers:

What commonalities do they find among some or all of the texts?

What unique points were made?

 What are the primary issues that group members need to address while revising these texts or preparing for next assignment?

--A Conversation Logbook. Directions to each student: During the term, keep a logbook summarizing and commenting on your conversations about writing. Average one conversation a week. Two conversations during the term with me [the instructor] are required. I would also ask that you have at least two conferences with other class members and at least two conferences with the Writing Center staff. Beyond these guidelines, you choose whom you see, when, and why.

 The logbook should include the following basic data: conference meeting time, the name of the person you talked with, and some insight into the conversation. The logbook can literally be notes of the discussions, what questions you asked, what answers you received, what you learned in the conversation, how the conversation ended, etc. Please be specific. Don't just say that 'we talked about organization.' Record what was said about organization. Conclude the logbook with a 1-2 paragraph retrospective.

--What did you learn from the conversations?

--What role did these talking sessions play in your revising or reconsideration of your papers?

--Any ideas how to make these future conversations more useful?" [Note example of logbook at end of this information sheet.]

--Review of Term's Writing. Directions for students: For this assignment look through all the papers where readers have responded to your writing, both in this class and other classes. These readers can include other instructors, students in the class, Writing Center staff members, students in the dorm, parents, etc. Sort comments into a classification system to help structure a detailed discussion of your comments.

Be Specific. Don't just say that people complained about missing commas. Define your comma troubles and give examples of problematic sentences. Don't worry about grammatical jargon (you don't need to apply English Teacher labels--such as 'comma splice' or 'dangling participle--unless you know the terminology) but develop some form of descriptive language so you can identify where the writing has taken its wrong turns. Be sure to include in this review the troublesome words that readers spotted in your writing (such as confusing 'have' and 'of' or 'its' and 'it's'). Also include larger issues such as organization, development of ideas, transitions, clarity of argument, etc. Make your lists as thorough and comprehensive as possible, including samples of passages from papers in other classes. The more detailed and inclusive, the more useful you will find this exercise.

When you are finished you should have several pages identifying the problematic issues in your compositions. The next step is to explain what you discovered. Discuss the following:

--What patterns do you see in the problem areas you have identified?

--What steps can you take to improve in these areas?

Note: similar assignment can also be devised for analyzing the best work of the term.

--Summary of Suggestions. Directions for students. Summarize the suggestions you have received this term concerning your compositions and your processes for writing. Provide a thorough list, bringing together recommendations and insights from all your different sources, Coe faculty and students. Feel free to include both oral and written comments. It might be most helpful if you provide this information and then offer your commentary on the different suggestions.

--Which suggestions have proven most helpful and why?

 -Which ones appear to be misleading or inappropriate and why?

--Students Read Their Own Journal. This assignment came from the following passage by David Bartholomae at the University of Pittsburgh:

A teacher at a school I recently visited gave what I thought was a wonderful assignment--and she gave it knowing that her students, at least most of them, would have to write their papers over again, perhaps several times, since in many ways it was an impossible assignment. She asked students to read through the journals they had been keeping over the semester and to write about what they had learned about themselves from reading the journal. What I admired in this assignment, and what makes it such a difficult assignment, is that students were asked to write about what they had learned by reading the journal and not what they learned by writing in the journal. This is a nice stroke, since it defines the journal as a text and not an experience, and it defines the person writing as a composite of several people and not as a moment of feeling or thought. The assignment defines the student as, simultaneously, a textual presence--the "I" in a passage dated September 3rd and the "I" in a passage dated October 5th--and as an interpreter of texts, someone who defines patterns and imposes order, form, on previous acts of ordering. Who is to say quickly what that person might learn.

--Study of Self as Reader. Directions for students: What do you think you were supposed to learn about reading in this course? Let's suppose that I had ten basic points I want you to remember about reading and how to become a more effective, insightful reader of academic prose.

--What would be on that list?

--After considering possible expectations for this course, what is your opinion of this list?

--Consider the texts for this class. What reading skills did those texts require?

--What makes sense for you?

--What was new or surprising?

--What doesn't fit with your style for navigating through texts?

--Submitting a Plan for Revision. Directions for students: After writing your first draft, have three people read your text:

 (1) a Writing Center staff person

 (2) another student in the class

 (3) a third person of your own choice (roomie, lover, parent, child, Dean of Faculty, etc.).

Prepare for each conference. Think of two or three primary issues that the reader should focus upon while reading the text (can be same issues for each reader or you can move to different issues depending on reader and what you discover from prior conferences). Following these three conferences, write a commentary on the advice and guidance you received from your readers. Did they give the same responses or did you receive a variety of commentaries? Conclude your page by discussing your plans for revising. What do you intend to work on between now and when the paper is due next Friday?

Example of Student's Logbook:

2/26, 4 p.m. I was nervous about this conference. I had chosen such an emotional subject for my paper. It's not that I have not learned to accept the memories I have of the divorce and the events surrounding it. However, as Dr. B. expressed in our conversation, I divulged my vulnerability in this paper. I let my defenses go and open a precious, powerful memory to the scrutiny and criticism of others. I do not regret writing about this memory, but I have had many second thoughts about showing it to people. I think to myself, 'How can anyone tell me to change this? It's my memory, and I can explain it in whatever way I choose.' I know, thought, that this is the wrong attitude. Writing should be done for oneself; but truthful, beautiful writing both reflects the author and speaks to a wide range of readers. . . .


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