Rhetoric and Composition
Department Chair:
Laurie McMillin

Phone: (440) 775-6601
Fax: (440) 775-8619

Rice 116
10 N. Professor St.
Oberlin, OH, 44074

The Basics of Writing Assignments in the First-Year Seminar Program

The Basics of Writing Assignments in the First-Year Seminar Program

By Jan Cooper with Laurie McMillin
Rhetoric and Composition Department

What to Keep in Mind:

  • Our choices of methods of writing, reading, and research depend on what we want to know. If, for example, we want students to try to get inside a new idea, summary might be the best approach. If we want students to reflect or ruminate on an issue, a journal entry or another informal assignment might be best. If we want students to pull a variety of ideas and skills together, it might be best to have them write a culminating research paper that goes through several revisions.
  • Integrating writing, reading, and research skills works best when broken down into manageable tasks that build on each other. It is often worthwhile to break down the various skills of summary, reflection, applying a new theory, etc., so that students can gain experience with these; these various skills can then be integrated and built on later.
  • Sequencing and recursiveness help students retain more of the skills they develop in individual assignments. If you have students try something new (e.g., an oral presentation, a critique), let them try it again, so they can incorporate your comments and gain from the experience.
  • Turning in rough drafts as well as final drafts of at least some assignments in the course encourages students to see writing as a process through which they can learn, as well as a product for reporting learning already completed. This is a key step in First-Year seminars; students learn tremendously from having the chance to re-think and revise their work (as opposed to simply editing it). Through revision, they also learn the significance of working with others and thinking about how readers read their writing.
  • One of the best things you can do to improve student writing is also the easiest for you: have them read each other's writing. You can have students post all (or almost all) of their writing assignments on a discussion board before class and assign them to read each other's work; you can do guided small and large group workshops in class; you can have them get together outside of class. Making student work public also helps students to see their work as communication with a real audience (and not just a secret between the student and the professor); it also helps them see their work as revisable.

General Characteristics of a Good Writing Assignment

  • challenges students
  • contextualizes the writing task
  • covers expectations for focus and format
  • makes Honor Code boundaries clear
  • tells students the criteria for response and the form it will take

Types of Assignments that Work Well for First Year Students, from the least to the most formal

A. Journal Writing

  • Sample Assignment 1: from Pam Brooks AAST 215 On Being a Girl (or a Boy)
    This assignment comes in two parts, actually.  The main point here is to understand yourself in relation to gender first, race and class second.  This may be a reconceptualization for some of us: is White a race?  (think ethnicity then, if that's easier); or, has my gender been subsumed by my racial designation?  The important thing is the awareness.  So write about this in free form - that is, don't think about the what, the how, or if your sentences even make sense.  In fact, you don't need any sentences, or punctuation, for that matter.  Just write 'til you get there.
  • Sample Assignment 2: a Politics course
    Your journal should contain reflections upon the readings and class discussions.  These should be recorded at least weekly; reactions to class discussions should be noted as soon after the class as possible.  The journals will be collected at the end of the semester and once or twice during the semester.
  • Sample Assignment 3: Jeff Pence's English 157
    This exercise is intended to support the other projects you will be doing in class between now and Fall Break.  We will be looking at visual and literary responses to the environment.  Our assessments of these works will be better informed by trying ourselves to record and reflect upon our normal encounters with the world around us.  To this end, I am giving you some selections from Thoreau's Journal in which he comments upon the making of a journal in the very process of doing so.  Without necessarily using Thoreau as a model, but more as a platform from which to begin, I'd like you to experiment with a kind of place-based journal writing over the next several weeks.  The results, I think, will be useful for understanding the work others have done in response to place, at least, and might potentially be worth more.

In sum, Journal Writing is

  • unstructured
  • associational
  • an early form of exploration to connect or defamiliarize previous experience
  • tends to be too personal to letter grade (yes, yes, we'll get to how to respond to them)
  • assignments need to be clear about who will be reading and under what conditions

B.  Writing to Explore

  • Sample Assignment 4: Jeff Pence's English 157
    • From Journal to Essay
    • Begin by annotating journal, i.e., finding out what you have. . . .
    • . . . . Find and underline 2 or 3 sections where you think your descriptions are particularly interesting.
    • Look for style of writing and indicate this in the opposite margin. . . .
    • On another sheet, list the topics you have treated. . . .
    • Let's get self-consciousness out of the way: what do you think is wrong with your journal? . . .
    • Back to appreciation: what do you think another reader might find interesting . . .
    • What raw material -- topic, details, style -- seem to offer the starting point for an essay?
  • Sample 5: Mary Garvin and Roger Laushman's Biology 120
    The purpose of this "writing to learn" assignment is to help you to better understand meiosis, a key concept in biology with which many students struggle. In this assignment, you will use some framework such as a personal life experience, a short story, or sporting event to describe the process.  Your account must be scientifically accurate, but feel free to be creative with your example.  In lab, you will exchange your work with a lab mate and assess each other's understanding of meiosis.
  • Sample 6 : From Gary Kornblith's HIST 148
    What Gary wrote:  "[As] a regular part of my courses I require students to post a message on Blackboard before each in-class discussion session.  In the Civil War course [HIST 263], I raised a question (or questions) and students offered brief responses. In the first-year seminar, I have students pose the questions, which then become the agenda for the face-to-face discussion -- a strategy I learned from Sandy Zagarell many years ago.  I find that either way students come to class better prepared to talk than if they just walk in cold, and I come to class with a better of sense of ‘where their heads are at' after they have done the assigned readings."

In sum, Writing to Explore is

  • More focused than journal writing
  • May use structures other than argumentation, such as narrative, description
  • Good for helping students get a better sense of the details or dynamics of a subject
  • letter grade responses may focus a student on superficial style rather than deeply exploring
  • Peer response is especially effective for this writing

C. Writing to explore academic forms as well as subjects

  • Sample 7: Sonia Kruk's POLT 132
    Write a paper two/four pages in length (typed, double spaced, with standard margins and type face) on one of the following questions.
  1. "All Freud does is to give us a more sophisticated version of Hobbesian theory.  He further elaborates Hobbes's account of what motivates man to act, and he also sees that man's fundamental motivations give rise to the crucial problem of how to establish social order.  But as a social theorist, he does not add to Hobbes's fundamental insights or vision." Do you agree with this assessment of Freud?  Explain.
  2. "It is significant that racism is part of colonialism throughout the world; and it is no coincidence.  Racism sums up and symbolizes the fundamental relation which unites colonialist and colonized" (Memmi, pp. 69-70). Explain Memmi's statements.  What relevance, if any, do they still have today?
  3. What do their analyses share, and in what ways are they significantly different? Do you find one analysis to be more insightful than the other?  Explain.
  • Sample 8: T. S. McMillin's English 366
    Correspondence was an important way of communicating and of working through intellectual matters for the Transcendentalists.  Students will write 1-page letters periodically, in which they will articulate issues that interest them in their own transcendental engagements of the world, and will write responses to fellow students' letters.
  • Sample 9: Erik Inglis's ARTS 103 VISUAL ANALYSES
    Students will do three visual analyses in the class.  A visual analysis is a brief, orderly description of a work of art. Topics to consider include both the most obvious broad categories (how big is it? what's it made of? what's the surface like? [smooth or rough or both?]) and more specific ones (is it symmetrical? is it static? or filled with motion? is the texture uniform or varied? what is the relationship between foreground and background? which elements are important to the artist? and why do you believe this?).
    [. . .]
    Your first three analyses, plus a revised version of the 3rd, taking into account comments and suggestions made by your classmate and the tutor.  Please include the comments made on your 3rd paper.
  • Sample 10: Elizabeth Hamilton's German 335
    All of this semester's assignments may be understood as parts of a larger project: to grapple with films produced in the German Democratic Republic from 1946-1989 and consider the significance of their contributions to cinema and German culture. These overarching questions should guide your analysis: How and to what end should we examine East German cinema? Do DEFA films have enduring aesthetic value, or is their value only to be found in their testimony to the failed experiment of the GDR? Keeping these questions in mind, you are required:
    • to view all of the scheduled films and discuss them in class. (20%)
    • to read and reflect upon historical-critical analyses and respond in writing to at least four articles. Submit your one- to two-page reflection papers to the [Blackboard] site. These will not be graded for content or style, merely for completion. Others in the class are encouraged to respond to new postings with helpful comments and constructive criticism. (20%)
    • to complete four five-page analyses in which you examine one film within a given context. One may be presented orally in lieu of a written paper. If you choose this option, please sign up for oral presentations by February 11th. Specific topics for your papers /presentation must come from four of the following categories. I have provided some starting points below each category heading as suggestions for your studies. (Do not choose a category more than once.) (60%)

In sum, with Writing to Explore Forms,

  • increasing focus and structure usually necessitates more drafts from writers, which should be required to be sure students do them
  • discussion of models helps demonstrate what's expected when the assignment is made
  • peer or tutor response to required rough drafts can help students understand the forms, as well as the subjects, more clearly
  • whole class discussions of sample student drafts also illustrates this type of writing well

D.  Writing to develop information literacy

If you want to teach student information literacy skills  -- if you want to encourage students not only to use information and information technology effectively but also to think critically about them - it's clear that info lit must be integrated into the course.  Thus, for example, if you want students to be able to locate articles in academic journals, it's not enough to have them search JStor : you'll want to have them locate articles for a reason, as part of an intellectual investigation, and show them how databases can help them.  Similarly, the teaching of information literacy skills usually works best if it is introduced sequentially and recursively.  Thus, the skills students need to complete a research paper at the end of the semester, for example, should be introduced gradually, sequentially.  

  • Sample 11: L. McMillin's FYSP 168
    The purpose of this assignment is to familiarize you with images from Tibetan religious culture, and to help you develop a critical approach to searching the Web.
  1. Do a search on Google Images (or another general search engine of your choosing) in order to locate images of Tibetan religious culture on the Web; keywords might include: thangka, Tibet, Buddhism, Dalai Lama, or some of the new glossary terms.
  2. Using some of the same key words, search image databases such as Corbis, and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
  3. Do the following subject search in OBIS:  Art Buddhist China Tibet.   Go to the Art Library to look at the images in at least three books.
For class, consider these questions and jot down your thoughts for class discussion.  How do the images you found online compare to the images found in print sources? Are there differences in what you learn from these three sources and how you learn it?  What, if anything, does the exploration of images add to our study?  How does it affect your understanding?  [McMillin's note: students subsequently gave an oral presentation on some of the images they found.]
  • Sample 12: Debbie Schildkraut's POLT 204
Part 1: The Literature Review (50 points; 10 points per question)
For this part of the problem set, you will need the following article, available on [Blackboard] (under "Assignments") and at www.jstor.org: Sullivan, John, James Piereson, and George Marcus. 1978. "Ideological Constraint in the Mass Public: A Methodological Critique and Some New Findings," American Political Science Review. 22: 233-249.
  1. Read just the first two pages of the article (stop at the section titled "Changing Levels of Constraint"). Then provide a brief summary . . . .
Part II: Finding Relevant Literature (50 points; 10 points per question)
For this portion of the problem set, you will need to refer to the dataset you compiled for Problem set #1.
  1.  Briefly comment on the information in your dataset. . . . .

In sum, if you're focusing on Developing Information Literacy,

  • breaking down research tasks into smaller recursive assignments is especially effective
  • discussion of the Honor Code and how it applies to course assignments is crucial
  • inviting students to reflect on the research process and raise questions as part of their assignment may surprise you
  • library staff and peer tutors in Mudd can provide a lot of support

Build Recursiveness into your Syllabus

Recursiveness establishes continuity in a course to reinforce important skills.  It works especially well when new parts of a repeated task are highlighted and their purposes are made explicit.  When used in information literacy learning, recursiveness encourages students to cycle through reflective thought processes, as well as research processes.

  • Sample 1.  L. McMillin's RHET 113 Writing for College and Beyond: The Idea of Place
  • Assignment 4:Pick a place in the world you would like to know more about. . . Look up your place in 2 of the handbooks and 1 of the encyclopedias listed. . .
  • Assignment 5:Find your place in one atlas. . . and find one more regional or thematic atlas that is especially relevant to your own interests or place. . . .
  • Assignment 6: Locate at least three travel narratives about your place that were written before the year 1900. . . .
  • Assignment 9: Find an image in the museum, on the internet, in a book, etc. that seems "American" to you. . . . Write a paper in which you explore the Americanness of the image. . . .
  • Assignments 10 & 11: This project invites you to explore an aspect of place or a place that interests you and to explore it in a way that attends to it as a "disciplinary object" . . . .

Recursive assignments that work tend to

  • loop through skills of increasing difficulty, not merely repeat them
  • make connections between assignments explicit
  • make goals for tasks explicit and specific
  • build in some variety as well as strategic recursiveness

One last thing:
For more help with writing

Be sure to check out the articles on:  http://new.oberlin.edu/arts-and-sciences/departments/rhetoric/faculty-info/index.dot?host_id=f5bcce03-c9ec-4bd1-abe7-d7f8ff8f1664