Rebecca Weaver (@WeaverRew) is an Assistant Professor at Georgia State University-Perimeter College, where she teaches composition and some literature. She has published articles about teaching in Recursive and TechStyle. A specific assignment sheet example is in her most recent article here: http://sites.gsu.edu/cetlsotl/2017/07/12/228/ --JBJ]
It’s about that time of the semester when many of us have graded and returned first papers and are about to get the next round and grade them. Often, in faculty meetings, it’s also the time when composition professors are prevailed upon for advice when professors from other disciplines learn that we teach composition. I’m a composition and literature instructor, and when this happens to me, I tend to give a lot of advice about creating clear and effective assignment sheets.
While composition instructors are not immune to ineffective assignment design, and while history or psychology profs have learned to teach history or psychology and not composition, all professors who assign writing are also teaching writing in their field. As Elizabeth Wardle argues in her essay in Bad Ideas About Writing, “writing is always in particular,” and taking a composition class does not “inoculate” students from making writing mistakes in their other classes (30). Instead, composition professors teach students how to think like writers and how to approach new writing situations. But we cannot teach them all of the genres of writing, as much as we may wish to. A well-written assignment sheet or document can help profs from across all disciplines receive better papers.
One of the commonest mistakes that students in my classes make is to assume that their readers are in their heads with them. Professors, too, are sometimes guilty of this. We should resist it. Thinking our students are in our heads with us is an especially dangerous habit with first and second year students who are still acclimating to academic culture, though they may have successfully passed composition before taking other classes. We should remember that the academic conventions and disciplinary discourses we take for granted are new to them. In Kenneth Burke’s famous parlor metaphor for the academic conversation, new interlocutors need time to work their way into the inner circles of that conversation. Assuming that our students are already masters of this new community and its discourses after just a brief time in the parlor is unfair; it holds them accountable for expectations that they neither know about nor know how to meet. Assuming that we don’t need to be explicit about assignment expectations creates frustration for students, and for us: we won’t get the papers we want to read.
An assignment sheet is not just a document that tells our students what we want, when we want it, in what form, and how long it’s supposed to be. It’s a document that explicitly expresses our goals for the students’ development in the course of the assignment, and, most importantly, it reinforces our pedagogical philosophy. In other words, it’s a user’s manual to the project and goals of the assignment as they connect to the overall goals of the course. We all want our students to create good papers and projects; we want them to learn and develop specific concepts and skills. Assignment sheets that clearly explain the purpose, objectives, suggestions for starting, timelines, resources, and evaluation criteria helps students write better papers.
In the spirit of collaboration that helped me develop good assignment sheets, I’d like to offer an assignment sheet for assignment sheets. I’ve based the sheet on my actual assignment sheets. These have been adapted and adjusted over the years as students have asked questions or have turned in papers that didn’t do the thing I expected them to do but which I didn’t clearly state.
As we wish our students to understand, what we write needs to attend to the specifics of any writing situation. This version of an assignment sheet may not be universally appropriate; please feel free to adapt or adjust as necessary. But here I try to describe, as clearly as possible, a method through which we can help our students create better projects and help ourselves (make our jobs easier) by creating good assignment sheets.