Sunday, September 28, 2014

Do You Write Assignments for Colleagues or Students?

Every year the university where I work as a writing consult has a school-wide book that all incoming first-year students must read. They've picked some good books-- The Geography of Bliss, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Devil's Highway, and most recently, Scarcity: Why Having So Little Means So Much. Every year, though, without doubt, we cringe at the department-wide first writing prompt that students are given based on these texts.

The problem is that every year, without fail, the question is convoluted and overwritten. As a consultant, I have to sit there with a pen, highlighters, and paper to try to make sense of what I'm being asked and how to approach the question. There are too many words on the page. The important information is wedged into distracting excess language. Sometimes, there is even discord between the question and the book's message. Sometimes, I feel like I don't understand the question and therefore can't help students. This year, I found the question particularly problematic because it asked students to analyze a specific high school writing assignment. We have a school with many returning adult students and veterans. This would automatically put them at a disadvantage.

Even more problematic is that this department-wide essay prompt is given for high-stakes writing assignments. For the first three years, the questions were used as placement exam questions. Now, they are being used for the first graded paper and a mandatory portfolio entry. When the question is confusing or even at a level they haven't yet been prepared to meet (first essay before class or first essay of class), it's unfair.

Now, it seems to me that the issue here is that question is being written to impress colleagues and those doling out accreditation. The words are overly scholarly. The ideas are complex. It seems that an incoming first-year student, who may never have seen anything other than the 5-paragraph essay, is a distant thought in the minds of the creator. And that's really unfortunate. If the goal of the department-wide writing prompt is to help students bridge the gap from high school to college while having a diagnostic writing sample, this type of assignment does not provide a clear picture of a students' capabilities.

On the other hand, there is a lot of pressure for this department to demonstrate their worth and excellence at all times. For outsiders, "worth" often comes from complexity, a belief that if something really demonstrates high-level thinking it will be hard for the average person to decipher it. It's not surprising that something like this would develop from that academic cultural tension, and it leads me to wonder what kind of choices I make for the sake of "accountability" or answering to higher ups in my writing assignments.

So what would you do if you had to design a book-related prompt for a large population of students in core classes? How would you approach the task? What would you consider the best theories or best practices to apply in this situation?