Complaints about student writing are embedded in faculty conversations across disciplines. What if the issues with student writing, though, are not their fault, but ours instead? In this episode, Allison Rank and Heather Pool join us to share suggestions about writing better writing prompts that provide student with explicit expectations.
Allison Rank is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the State University of New York at Oswego and Dr. Heather Pool is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Denison University.
- Rank, A., & Pool, H. (2014). Writing Better Writing Assignments. PS: Political Science & Politics, 47(3), 675-681. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1049096514000821
- Bean, J. C. (2001). Engaging ideas. The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical.
- Rockmore, E. B. (2015). How Texas teaches history. The New York Times, A31.
- Braver, Lee (2014). How I Mark Up Philosophy Texts. APA Newsletters, Fall, 14,1 Special section. p. 13
Rebecca: Complaints about student-writing are embedded in faculty conversations across disciplines. What if the issues with student-writing though are not their fault but ours instead? In this episode, we’ll talk about writing better prompts to make explicit what the expectations are and how to get there.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an Economist.
John: And Rebecca Mushtare, a Graphic Designer.
Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
John: Today, our guest are Dr. Allison Rank, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the State University of New York at Oswego and Dr. Heather Pool, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Denison University. Allison and Heather are co-authors for an article titled Writing Better Writing Assignments published in Political Science and Politics. Welcome, Allison and Heather.
Heather: Thank you.
Rebecca: So, welcome back to Allison, I think, right?
John: Yes, welcome back, Allison.
Rebecca: So, today, our teas are?
John: Tea Forte, black currant black tea.
Allison: Water again.
Rebecca: It was coffee last time.
Heather: I’m also water because I forgot that this was tea-oriented.
Rebecca: Yeah. Yeah. We have to send out those reminders ahead of time, I guess. Mine is Harney & Sons Paris tea.
John: What prompted your interest in writing about writing assignments?
Heather: I’ll start with that. I was director of a writing center at the University of Washington for a social science writing for a couple of years and then, Allison filled my seat after me. It was after we had seen numerous prompts that our students were coming in and asking for help with, and Allison, after she had completed her time at the writing center, came to me and was like, “I think we can do this. We can do some people feedback about how to do a better job at writing these.” We saw a lot of prompts that could have been more clear, let’s just say that.
Rebecca: Were there prompts that you didn’t understand?
Allison: I think usually we could figure out how to interpret them, but it was very easy to see why students couldn’t figure out how to interpret them.
Heather: Yeah. Right. And so, oftentimes, what happens is prompts are basically dissertations, right? Where you could literally write hundreds of pages on them or they’re so narrow that if you answer all of the questions, then, there’s no space for analysis or creativity or anything like that.
Allison: To add some details, so Heather had that job for two years and then, I had the job for two years. We’ve had four years between us of seeing these various prompts come in across the sub fields of political science and we’re actually seeing a lot of very similar problems and prompts on very different topics, which I think, for us, was part of being able to think about it’s the structure of how we write the prompts and how professors think about prompts is actually a place for an intervention and then, starting to teach our own classes sort of getting the sense that sometimes what comes back from students is on them, but also, we need to be a little bit more responsible around what it is we ask students to do because sometimes, some components of their poor writing may actually be more our fault than we’d like to admit.
Rebecca: I think we can all probably experience the idea that you get something back here like, “Yeah.” “Yeah, yeah, you answered that, yup.”
Heather: Right. Well, and part of it too, just to follow up on what Allison said, is we ourselves were early career and we’re just writing our own writing assignments for the first time. As a TA, you sort of inherit the assignments that people write and you’re like, “Okay, yeah. We can work with that.” But then when it comes to create your own, there’s no roadmap out there at all, and so, you stumble into stuff and you write assignments that the students have no idea how to interpret. And so, on the one hand, it was seeing some things that were out there that we thought, “Wow. There’s problems here. There’s commonalities,” and we can imagine how to get out of that problem and part of it was self help.
Heather: We’re looking for a resource that didn’t exist and Allison’s brilliant idea was like, “Ooh, we could create that resource.”
Heather: And so, that was a huge part of it.
Rebecca: Faculty definitely want students to be good writers …
Rebecca: … but we expect students to come in with those skillsets often and faculty often see themselves as content providers but not necessarily writing instructors. And I think that we hear that a lot even on campuses where writing across the curriculum exists. What role do you see faculty having in helping students develop their writing beyond just the prompt?
Allison: I think that faculty have a really important role to play on writing, but I think part of it comes from knowing what it is that you want to help students improve and having reasonable expectations for what the class that you have set up can actually help students do. In doing our research, when Heather’s saying we had a hard time finding roadmaps as we dug into a lot of the Bloom’s taxonomy literature and trying to figure out if we’re writing prompts that asks students to take particular steps, are we actually providing students a roadmap for those steps.
Allison: So, one of the things that I struggle with a lot is the way in which I don’t recognize that I’ve been disciplined. So, I’ve been disciplined as a political scientist. I ask questions in a way that political scientists ask questions, and then, get mad when my students don’t understand. That’s part of my expectations. But I also never make that explicit in content, even in the content-driven courses. That the way I’m approaching this content is about a political science perspective and here’s how that might be different and here’s how those expectations should then influence the way that you write a paper or approach a question.
Allison: And so, I think that it’s linking up the expectations for helping students with writing to the expectations we have around content-delivery is I think where a lot of faculty should spend more time.
Heather: I teach political theory, it’s not really a testable subject, and I could do a test but I don’t think that’s a particularly helpful way to evaluate people’s engagement with the content. On some level, I actually think it’s a cap out when faculty members say that they’re only content providers in part because I think we learn through writing and it’s not until we’re actually able to write about things that we grasp the kind of significance and the meaning and all of those things and we actually have some research. And I think in being … engaging ideas, I could be wrong, she suggests that we learn as we write. It’s only in the process of actually trying to put other people’s words into our own context that we actually grasp what’s going on.
Heather: And so, to be effective content teachers, I think we need to figure out how to be effective writing teachers as well and I think it’s important to be clear when we’re asking them to summarize and when we’re asking them to analyze and when we’re asking them to evaluate and those are all different things. And we need to give them opportunities to work on those things before we have them write big final papers or we ask them to do all of those without any scaffolding.
Rebecca: So, speaking of those nice keywords, I know that I’ve had conversations with students and they can’t actually tell me the difference between describe, analyze, reflect, things like that. So, can you share a little bit about how you might frame that for students, what those words mean and how you structure that?
Allison: Sure. Now, I’ll say off the top, I think that faculty, a lot of the time, don’t know what they mean when they use those specific terms. And so, part of what we would actually see in the writing center is prompts that said describe, but we read them a no, that if you actually just described, you are not going to get a good grade on this paper. That that was the word that was in the prompt, but I would bet money, if you follow those instructions, you would have problems. So, I think, I occasionally, for students to actually define the terms that are in the prompt, if I’m asking you to analyze let’s walk through in class one day, what would be the difference between summarizing this content and analyzing this content, so, actually walking them through what the terminology is.
Allison: I also think that that’s where having sub prompts after a prompt can be really helpful, where you break down for students that I expect you to summarize or describe a particular amount of the content and then, analyze something so that they have to distinguish for themselves what part of this assignment am I addressing in different components of my paper.
Heather: Yeah, I think that’s great. I do things like I have students do small stakes regular assignments where I have them summarize and then, reflect, and then, ask a question. And so, they’re already thinking about the difference between summary and reflection and then, I actually, in class, will talk about what’s the difference between describing something and analyzing something and one example that I use, because I went to grad school in Seattle is I’m getting off of a plane in Seattle. Seventy percent of the people on the plane are wearing super awesome Gore Tex water repellent gear and 20% of them are wearing wool and 10% of them aren’t wearing coats. So, that’s a description of the situation. But analysis is telling me why that’s the case. That’s trying to explain what we see and to make sense of it.
Heather: So, I then ask them to come up with reasons why, what that description says makes sense or what stories they can tell about why that’s what they see. There’s also a great piece, it’s the Netflix … the new Sherlock Holmes, it’s the lady in pink where he walks into a room and he sees a woman dead on the floor, and then, Sherlock Holmes goes through and comes up with all the stories about the particular things that he’s seeing are what he’s seeing. And it’s a really effective tool for students to be like, “Oh, summary is really different,” right? And many times, prior instructors may have asked them to summarize, and so, they’re relatively good at that, but it’s the analysis part that they really struggle with. Again, I think it’s our job to help them figure out what analysis actually is.
Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve noticed in my own department, we’ve been talking about writing in our department quite a bit lately. We had a conversation … My department is made up of art historians, designers and studio artists that all makes up like an art and design department. So, it seems like it’s all one discipline but we all have really different cultures within that discipline, and that we talk through what’s some of the kinds of writing that we do on our department and discovered that we didn’t really mean the same thing.
Rebecca: And so, we’re working on developing a common language and sharing that out within our own department to make sure that we can be consistent between levels because I think that’s some of the confusion that our students are experiencing.
Heather: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right, and of course, writing across disciplines varies greatly, so we may put these statements in different places if we’re in the Humanities or if we’re in the Social Sciences, we may approach quotes differently and whether or not it’s appropriate to use them or not appropriate to use them, what counts as evidence differs from discipline to discipline. And the way I set that up for students is to say, “You’re going to end up in jobs where you don’t actually know what they want when they ask you to write something, and you’re going to need to be able to figure that out, and that’s actually what we’re trying to give you here is the ability to approach a writing practice and figure the rules out. And there’s different rules in different disciplines and your job is to develop the facility to be able to move between those things as needed.”
Allison: Yeah. I’ve done something in class with my intro class which tends to be … it’s very frequently a general education class. There tends to be students from a lot of different majors and actually, just asking them how do you think you’re supposed to write paper. And you’ll get all sorts of answers about …
Allison: … what a thesis statement is supposed to be, you should never use I. Which is a thing in political science, it’s like “No, I’ve got a correct that right now.”
Allison: You need to tell me I argue X, Y and Z and students are so taken aback, but it’s so much easier if you start, at least for me, by getting them to tell you what are all the rules you think you know so that I know where I need to tell you that at least for this class in this space, that’s not the right rule.
John: But part of it is just being more transparent with students …
John: … and making sure they understand what you expect from them in terms of coming up with good writing prompt. You mentioned scaffolding a bit.
John: How do you scaffold it in terms of the stages of writing? How do you break it up for students or do you have them just submit it in whole draft or what?
Allison: Yeah. I think it really depends for me on different classes. So, for the intro class, before their four-page papers, they write a couple of four-page papers, they do something called reading reflections but it’s really a worksheet where they have to tell me the author or authors, the title, what type of source is it using the Chicago style guide. It’s essentially breaking out for them, everything they would need to know for citations, they have to tell me the research question, what they think the thesis statement would be in their own words, which again, is to get them in this format of saying like Madison argues X, Y, and Z. A couple of good quotations and then, their own initial impression of the piece. So then, when they sit down to write the paper, they already have the stack of material that’s like, “Oh, if I want to argue X, who would I go to as evidence to support that claim?”
Allison: In my advanced classes, I tend to break it down more in terms of the annotated bibliography, so before they would ever touch writing a longer paper, I first want an annotated bibliography and I do it slightly different than a “normal annotated bibliography” I ask for one paragraph of summary, and then, for every entry, I need one more paragraph that tells me the relationship between that piece and at least two other pieces in the annotated bibliography. So, getting them to think through what are the relationships that help them categorize where a literature review could go before throwing literature review on top of what it is that they have to write. And I may have stolen the annotated bibliography from Heather.
Heather: It’s possible, [inaudible 00:13:03] annotated bibliographies, yes. So, yeah, I do some similar things. I started to use Allison’s reading reflection assignment that I’m inching closer and closer to that mostly because I’m a little overwhelmed by grading. I have them do seven of these reading responses, I call them, where they do summary, reflection, and then, ask a discussion question. So, that is getting them to train to summarize stuff, and again, the point is they have to do one of those for each of the authors that we read, so they actually have a pretty decent summary and they have the other 24 summaries from people in the class that they can go to when it comes to writing their own papers.
Heather: And then, for my intro class, I hand a paper out and they need two and a half or three weeks before it’s due and then, I require a draft on say Tuesday, they then do peer review in class on Thursday, and then, the final draft of the paper is due the following Tuesday. So, they have to have a pretty decent working draft a week before the paper is due. And if you make a good effort, then, there’s no deductions from your final grade so it’s not a graded assignment but it is one that if you don’t do it will hurt you, and the same thing for sub [inaudible 00:14:06] good faith peer review. I like that a lot because the peer reviewers catch really irritating things that when I see them time after time after time, I get angry.
Heather: And so, the peer reviewers catch a lot of that where they say things like, “You seemed to have a problem with paragraph structure,” and somehow, when they’re hearing that from their peers and then, they hear the same thing from me when I give them feedback, I then ask them to do a reflection on the feedback that basically enforces them reading the comments, where one of the questions is, “Do you any commonalities in the feedback you’ve received from your peers and myself?” and surprisingly, there often is commonality there. And so, then, I start to get them thinking about what their patterns of error and what can they do to address those patterns of error.
Heather: So, in terms of scaffolding, I make it due early and I make a little stakes draft and then, they have a week where they can talk to their peers, they can come talk to me on office hours, et cetera, so that the paper that they turn in has been seen by at least two other pairs of eyes.
Allison: Yeah. I should say I do in my advanced classes, I have a version of that where there’s a draft due two weeks before finals week and then, students do not get evaluated on their drafts, they get evaluated on the quality of their feedback.
Heather: … what level?
Allison: Like a 5% grade. Yeah, I think it’s 2% you turned in a draft and then, after that, I have a sheet, I was doing it not graded, just sort of the participation points and I would get feedback that was like, “I really liked what you did here.” And I was like, “No.”
Allison: “This is not going to work for me,” and so, changed it to where there’s an actual rubric for me to evaluate the feedback that they provide each other, and that has gotten students to give much more direct feedback to many students.
John: That was something I was just going to ask, have you used rubrics, and what do you see as the advantage of using a rubric for assessment?
Heather: Because we have writing-specific classes, and then, we have ones that aren’t but frankly, all of mine would qualify for the W overlay just because of the percentages. Teaching, I really care about writing, so that’s a simple part of the course but not all of them are Ws and if there are Ws, they have lower numbers of students and I can’t offer only Ws for curriculum reasons. And so, generally, all my classes are really heavy on writing, and so, I’ve moved more and more towards pretty specific rubrics where I basically highlight and bold stuff, and then, have a relatively short comment section. And I’ve just switched to a new rubric this semester and I actually think I like it.
Heather: I tend to over comment on their papers when I’m not constraint by a rubric and constraint by space, frankly. And so, for me, I’m a big fan, right? “This is what an A paper looks like,” “Here are four different categories that I’m assessing you on,” “This is what a B paper looks like,” “Here are four different categories for that as well.” And so, I’m tentatively enthusiastic about pretty specific rubrics.
Allison: I like very specific rubrics for intro classes. I have a hard time using very specific rubrics in a lot of my advanced classes, and I think it’s because I struggle to write rubrics that I think are balanced, aligned on being detailed enough to be a value but broad enough to where students can really sort of flex their muscles when it’s an open research question.
Allison: And then, a lot of my advanced classes, it’s an open question. And so, then, I find I have a rubric but it ends up being like on these criteria, would you be rated as excellent, good, fair, weak, poor. And so, it tells them where they are and then, with comments, but it’s nowhere near the level of sort of fine green value of the rubric that my intro classes have where everyone’s writing on the exact same question.
Rebecca: You are both hinting at differences in the role that a faculty member might play in different levels of courses between intro, intermediate and advanced. Can you explicitly address that and what the faculty member’s role is in each of those kinds of levels?
Heather: Yeah. I think I do something similar to what Allison does with my upper division classes, which I just taught at senior seminar. I have them do essentially two kind of shorter papers that are kind of lit reviewee where I’m asking them of pretty specific question about some segment of the course reading. And then, I have a big where like, you tell me what your research question is and then, they go through a proposal, an annotated bibliography, a draft with a clear pieces and then, a final draft. And that starts basically from the fall … the first one of those is the proposal was basically due at the beginning of November and the final paper isn’t due until the middle of December.
Heather: And so, I’m also a really big fan of if you don’t like the topics I wrote, then, you write one and tell me what you would like to write on, in part, because I think we say this in the paper, I actually am really interested in reading interesting papers. I would much rather read a paper that incorporates the material from the class in a way that you find compelling and that you want to write about, than I would read your [wrote 00:18:40] response to my question that you found really stupid. And so, I do give them that freedom but with a caveat that they do have to come talk to me. And I give students actually that freedom for intro, all the way up to seniors and my most advanced classes. But I do think it’s different when I’ve got a cinema major versus when I’ve got Political Science majors. I talk about writing and use examples in different ways across those levels.
Allison: Yeah. And I think that I, in the same way that you wouldn’t deliver the same content from intro to American government to an advanced American government class, I think it’s the same in terms of writing skills. And so, I tend to focus more in the intro class on these statements. Trying to lay bare some of the relatively, I would think in some ways, rudimentary, the thesis statements are deeply complicated space focusing on the building blocks of being in the discipline. These expectations of writing and then, in the more advanced levels, focusing on the types of writing that I think are in different forms more likely to be both of interest to them, but then, also, let them test skills that are more likely to be relevant.
Allison: So, for instance, I don’t have any full papers in my advanced classes usually outside of the big papers that are due during finals week, but for every book we read in the class, I have them do a critical analysis. It’s essentially a book review, but I found that if I call it a book review, I get book reports, which is not what I want so I call it a critical analysis. And the guidelines are I want no more than a half page of summary and then, up to two and a half pages of analysis. I don’t read anything over page three, with the idea of you need to be concise. I don’t want it to be summary and I give a set of prompts about what you can … here’s some places you might want to go but they’re very open in terms of talking about the content you know from your broadcast communication class that I haven’t read or how does this book help you think differently about some event that happened on campus or is happening in the news.
Allison: Where I think that that type of analytical skills sort of more what I want my advanced students to start being able to do, this thing I read in the classroom connects to some broader literature in political science or literature from another discipline or just the way I interpret the words. And that’s where I see the writing in the advanced classes outside of the research papers as more my responsibility.
Heather: I was just going to follow up with I’m teaching seniors again and they’re on the job market themselves and trying to figure out why they just did a major in Political Science and trying to actually have them answer a question that is meaningful to them as opposed to like I need to know that you know how to read a book and find a piece of statement. And so, really, trying to create space for more advanced students to do more advanced interesting things.
John: In the classes where you use rubric, do you share the rubrics with students? Because I would think that would give them a little bit more scaffolding in letting them know what you think is important and helping them determine how to structure the papers and things.
Allison: Yeah. I would say sometimes I do, and sometimes, I don’t. In introductory classes where I have students that are already very concerned about doing things “right”, I actually tend not to because I find that they then hew to the rubric in ways that are actually really counter-productive. I’ll give them more of what I would consider the left-hand column of the rubric. So, I’ll take into account, when I’m grading, your citations will be 10%. Your grammar and style will be up to 10%. Your thesis is going to be worth 20% so that they know how points are distributed. But I don’t actually like to give the specific boxes that are sort of it’s going to be an excellent if there are x criteria, because I found that that tends to lead to really I think counter-productive conversations about well, how do I meet the standard of that box, as opposed to what makes a good analytical argument.
Heather: I don’t put percentages on my rubrics. I’m a big fan of the visual rubric where I’m like there’s a lot of things in the C columns and what’s a C. There are a few things in the A column but there’s mostly things in the B column, that’s a B+. I’m a political theorist, we don’t really do quantitative things particularly well. I’m a big fan of not sharing that because I don’t actually know how to do that. Some rubrics, I share with them. I share rubrics about their participation with them, like here’s what I expect a good participant in this class to be able to do, and I assess them on that, but I just started using this new rubric so I didn’t share that with them at the beginning of this term, but now, I think maybe I should have. I don’t know if I think it would help them or hurt them, I wonder.
Rebecca: I have detailed rubrics that I use for grading and I just started using our learning management system to use the rubrics and I found that that actually can be really challenging because when they do that on paper, I sometimes circle the line between things.
Heather: Yes, right. Me to. Me to.
Rebecca: And then, you have to pick one …
John: But if you’re doing it in Blackboard or some other learning management system, you can always override the …
Rebecca: Yeah. Well, I was just going to …
John: … if someone works outside the box.
Rebecca: … which I have done. Yeah. And I sometimes will make a comment if I put it in the C column, the comment is to why it’s there if it wasn’t one of the criteria I had originally come up with, and so, it’s very clear. So, I’ve been experimenting with that a little bit. I tend to share the rubric, but I also find that students tend not to look at the rubric.
Heather: Until it comes back with a letter grade on it, and then, they’re like, “But why? What happened?”
Allison: Yeah. I will say that I use the point rubric in Blackboard for classes where the size or the amount of papers … and so, it’s basically just for intro where it speeds grading.
Allison: Right? That’s when I do a points rubric in Blackboard, but even then, the idea that Blackboard defaults you to having three categories and that I always go in and have like no, I definitely need a couple of more point variations, yeah.
John: I usually have four or five on that in mind.
Allison: [inaudible 00:24:20] Yeah, yeah. I have to go in and sort of add because I tried doing it with three ones, and I was like, “Why is everyone getting a 30?” It’s like …
John: Well, you can pick whatever categories or …
Allison: Yeah. Yes, and so, I had to go in. That was my first experience using it last year and I was like, “Well, that’s wrong.” Let’s go back and then, regrade it, and that changed all the rubrics. But okay now, yeah, it takes a little learning.
John: But it can be an iterative process …
John: … where if there’s some work, you can modify it.
Rebecca: Yeah. That’s also why I often don’t put percentages for the categories upfront is because I sometimes see what I get back to see if I need to adjust what I thought the weights were going to be to make it more fair.
Heather: I struggle with the percentages because writing is hard to do in any sort of objective fashion and I worry about the kind of thesis is a percentage, because sometimes they write a not so great thesis and have a brilliant paper, right? And so, then, you’re like, “Well, okay. So, you got 75% on the way there on your thesis,” but your argument at the end was actually really good and so, my feedback is write a clearer thesis because your argument’s really interesting, but it’s hard for me to figure out how to do that.
Rebecca: One of the things that I think we haven’t addressed but hinted at a little bit is not only is there disciplinary ways of approaching writing but there’s cultural ways of approaching writing too. And so, when you’re talking, Allison, about needing to write really concisely, that’s something that’s popular in design as well.
John: And in economics.
John: Like economical writing.
Rebecca: Right. But I often have students who want to write with very flowery language or think the academic writing looks a particular way, and usually, it’s very convoluted, very complicated sentences that don’t make any sense.
Allison: Yeah. Yeah.
John: I wonder where they get that.
Allison: Often, I train political science but I always, in my intro classes and occasionally, in my advanced classes, depending on how many students it would be a repeat for pass out a piece called How Texas Teaches History from, I believe Ellen Rockmore. It was an op ed in the New York Times a couple of years ago about the high school textbooks that had gone out in Texas where all of the “benefits” of a slave-holding society, which is a deeply-problematic framing. Masters taught slaves Christianity has an active phrasing, and then, all of the brutalities of slavery are framed in passive ways. Slaves were beaten, slaves were assaulted. And so, you excuse any actors, and I passed that out to students before we do, sort of when I complained about your grammar, when I correct grammar, I’m not doing it because this is a pedantic exercise and I just want you to meet these standards. I do it because in political science, it is incredibly important that we are accountable for who the agents are that act, and the only way that I know who your agents are is when you tell me who the agents are.
Allison: And I think that sometimes, that tends to help ground at least conversations to about flowery language where it’s a slightly different point, but I can often say, “What you’re doing here is actually obscuring for me who is acting and what they’re doing,” and the most important thing that I need to know is who’s acting and why they’re acting and why it matters. And so, I found that piece actually really hit students in a way, it’s like I never thought about it before, I never thought about why it mattered before, and I found that to be really helpful.
Heather: We both teach in political science and I think that this is particularly true in politics. Instead of the something must be done, well, what needs to be done and who needs to do it, right? And in politics, I think that’s a pressing question in ways that it may be less pressing in other’s field of study.
Rebecca: I find that one of the comments that I read a lot for design students is like you haven’t said anything actually. “There’s only one sentence here that says anything and the rest can go.”
Heather: I do spend a fair bit of time talking about my own writing practice actually in class where when they’re working on the first drafts of their paper, I will tell the story of my first published article, I was like all done and, “Oh, yay, I’m about to send it out,” and then, I realized that the word count was 4,000 words less than the words that I had, so I needed to cut 4,000 words from my manuscript in order to send it in.
Heather: Exactly. Geez, it was the first ignorance. And then, I tell them I got rid of all of the adjectives and all of the adverbs and I cut several paragraphs/pages in total and it made it better. You read the draft that I thought was finished and the draft that was submitted and the second one is way better because I had to be economical with my language, I had to be really clear, I had to be direct, I had to say what I wanted to say and move on as opposed of lingering, loving over the words because they are so pretty. Which is what we as people who write as a part of our job eventually realize that, but they haven’t had that drilled into them in the same way and like, “That’s my job.”
Heather: It’s like, “You kill your word babies.”
Allison: I definitely am a fan of showing students my writing process. So, for instance, when I teach the annotated bibliography, Heather, you may not know this, I actually showed the part of the annotated bibliography I sent you for the Bletchley Circle paper.
Heather: Oh, my God, that’s awesome.
Allison: When I was in charge of doing the lit review for a piece that we co-authored, what I showed to students on how to do a lit review is like, “So here’s the thing I sent to my co-writer. This is when I was doing work with someone else, this is how you do it,” so I showed that. I’ve actually taken to showing my annotated readings in class.
Heather: Me too.
Allison: So, in classes where I want students to annotate, I actually just put my work up on the dot cam, instead of doing like, “Everybody, to page 57,” and then, I just can only see my book. I want them to see that part of writing is also the annotating. So, getting as transparent in some ways about my process as possible I have increasingly done.
Heather: One of the first pieces I assigned in my intro class, it’s a four-page piece. I think his name is Lee Braver. It’s in the journal or the teaching journal of the American Philosophical Association or something, that’s how I mark up texts, right, how I mark up philosophy texts. And so, part of it is just getting them to pay attention to how they’re reading, and in many ways, that gets them to pay more attention to how they’re writing and to how … when they read a text, that they leave thinking, “Oh, I understood that,” it’s usually because the writing is really clear and you want everyone to leave, to finish reading your paper in the same way and have that sense of like, “Oh, I know how it was argued.” And if they don’t have that, then, it’s your job to actually fix it. In the same way that we can read authors and say, “Gosh, I wish Thomas Hobbes [used to 00:30:44] do our words.” But he’s dead, you’re not. You can do better.
Rebecca: What are some tips that you have for faculty who are running their … assignments for the semester or getting ready to write ones for the fall?
Heather: Right. Yeah. We’re definitely working …
Heather: … on our fall prompts. I think it’s really helpful to have other people look at them. I actually think it’s really helpful to have people map in your field and not even in your sub field, look at them, so I will occasionally ask my partner to read prompts and she knows how to do what I do. I’ve definitely sent assignments to Allison to just be, “Does this makes sense?” “Do you understand what I’m asking?”
Heather: I’ve had former students read prompts as well to see if it’s clear what I’m asking them to do. I think a huge part of it is time, like not writing it right before you hand it out, and then, getting other people’s eyes on it who you …
Allison: Yeah. So definitely, yeah, Heather and I send prompts back and forth before the semester starts. I’m also a huge fan of having all of my assignments done before the semester starts. I have everything loaded in Blackboard in the assignments, every assignment is in before the semester begins. And that helps me know, partially, it’s for me with planning a syllabus. If this is what I expect students to be able to do, where do I have to be. What do they actually have to have in order to do this assignment. So, for me, it’s just part of the planning process.
Allison: I also increasingly have a sort of stable rotation of assignments that I like, that I figured out packages for, and I, particularly in the advanced classes where it’s that more sort of open, I want them to be able to do what they want to do. I think figuring out assignment structures that get refined overtime and work well, and then, if they’re open enough, you can reuse them pretty frequently. And the thing I like about that a lot is that, then, the students start interpreting it for one another. It helps them become teachers for each other.
Allison: So, for instance, with those critical analysis assignments, occasionally, when it’s students that I’ve had for the first time, they’ll ask a question. I’ll try to answer it and then, another student will raise their hands and be like, “Dr. Rank, I got it,” and they’ll be like, “So, the thing she wants from you is this,” I’m like, “Great. Thank you for that.”
Heather: I’ve also have taken to, as I’m doing the grading, particularly at this point, for my intro class, I give them two or three options for which topic they want to answer and I will switch generally one of those topics each time because I’ve realized that it’s not actually asking something that’s important for them to think about for the course or it’s really poorly phrase or it’s not directing them to actually answer what I want. And so, if you’ve got something that’s worked relatively well, tweaking it as you’re grading it, you get your first five papers, and you’re like, “Oh, nobody answered the … I thought they were …” it may be me. Like maybe it’s not my students that are … maybe I misstated what I actually wanted.
Heather: And so, I will, as I am finishing grading something, if I realized that I wrote it wrong or that I wrote it unclearly, I immediately go in and fix it because I know I won’t actually remember the next time I use this that I did it badly.
Rebecca: Heather, I’ve also found that to be a really good procrastination technique during finals week.
Allison: Oh, my God. Oh, yeah.
Rebecca: So during finals week, I do so much planning for the following semester.
Allison: Oh, that’s when many assignments get written to go in Blackboard for the next semester, let’s be honest.
Heather: That’s true.
John: Going back to the thing about having a portfolio of assignments that you can rotate in, how do you deal with things like Chegg and Course Hero and other sites where students upload those materials?
Allison: Sure. I think because or what I’m talking about, the prompts are so broad that honestly, if students have my assignment for how to write an annotated bibliography ahead of time, bully for you. I’m really excited that you’re reading this annotated bibliography guideline …
John: Well, what I’m more concerned is …
Allison: … prior to being in my class.
John: … for the final projects and so forth, what prevents students from submitting mildly revised version of something that someone submitted two or three years ago?
Allison: I think that becomes about how often you teach the same class and using the same package for the same class. So, I’d say I have probably three packages of assignments that are scaffolded, that work for different types of classes. And I tend to not use the same package the second time I teach a class. So, you’re getting a good chunk of time between assignments, and again, I don’t teach large enough classes where I’m super concerned about not noticing, if that makes sense. Because they have to give me a research, for most of these, they require what your research topic going to be and then, I’m going to give you some feedback, and then, you’re going to turn in an annotated bibliography and I’m going to give you some feedback.
Allison: So, to some degree, if those are all coming back and you’re pulling them out of something like Chegg, I feel relatively-confident that I’d be able to tell.
John: You’ll recognize it.
Heather: And I also, even for the classes that I recycle topics for regularly, I will often realize between iteration two and three that I asked for three sources from the course and actually, that was the un-doable and so, I lessen it to two. And I actually caught somebody who used the three sources prompt for the two sources assignment that I had given them, and then, I switched the readings out as well. And so, previously, it had been the full book and this time, it was an excerpt, and I don’t think you read all of [Espinoza 00:35:47] to write this paper.
Heather: And so, those minor adjustments that you’re making to your syllabus, it’s relatively easy to catch, and I’m not teaching 250 students a semester. I have maybe 50 or 60 or 70, and so, it’s relatively easy for me to catch the minor variations that I’ve made in my assignments or that I’ve made in the syllabus that they might not think I’ll catch.
Rebecca: What response have you gotten from students about your assignments in the way that your assignments are structured?
Allison: I’m not sure if this is about how the assignments are structured, though in the advanced classes, it might be. I get a lot of feedback from students that my classes are where they get the most feedback on their writing. That they never get as much feedback on writing as they get from my assignments. And I think that is partially because I think … I’m sure this is true for Heather too. If you’re a professor who cares a lot about writing, you give more feedback on writing. But I think it’s also because of that, so many of my assignments are staged. That I feel a real obligation to give a lot of feedback, and then, to give do overs in some ways, right, where it’s just the lower stake stuff first, and then, you can fix it.
Allison: And so, I hear a lot from students about appreciating the amount of feedback. I also hear a lot about appreciating the variable points that I assign for certain assignments. So, I have assignments that are structured so that if you improve more than more than one-letter grade between the two assignments, the point value of the second one goes up and the point value of the first one goes down, and students also talk about really appreciating that.
Heather: I certainly have students who say in my evaluations and I also ask them to do a final portfolio that reflects on their learning as a writer, what are your greatest strengths as a writer, what are your greatest weaknesses, or I don’t say that, I say what are your areas to work on improvement. And so, I ask them at multiple points throughout the semester to do that kind of metacognitive reflective stuff because I actually think it makes them better learners, which means they become better writers. And so, my experience as an undergrad was I got a lot of papers that had a letter grade and like the occasional “Good” or “What?” in the comments, and that was pretty much it. I had no idea what I needed to do to get an A and I wanted to get an A.
Heather: And no one actually took the time to tell me the steps that I needed to take and so, I try really hard to say, “Here are the four things you did really well on this paper,” like, “Oh my goodness, you used those sources really well. Great. Clear possible interpretations of the authors. You have a beautiful writing voice. Your citations were perfect,” and then, follow up with this sort of areas of growth and improvement.” And I also end up always being a cheerleader that I’m like, “You have one more of this,” “You can totally crush it.” And so, students, even if they get a grade that they’re not particularly excited about, I am on their side. I want them to succeed and they know that and they also know that because I didn’t just give them a letter grade.
Heather: The drawback, of course, is this is incredibly time-consuming, and I’m not sure how sustainable it is and I hope it is because I really care about it and it’s one of the places that I find the most satisfaction when I’ve had a student in two or three classes and I look at their first paper that they ever wrote for me and I look at the last paper that they wrote for me and there’s much difference, and I value that so much. But it also just takes so much time, and that’s why I rubrics, obviously. As I’m moving more towards rubrics that have less space for me to write, that becomes a little more feasible.
Allison: I feel like one of the things that I really like about and keep in my brain from the paper that we wrote is to always give that sort of a big question that lets students …
Heather: Yeah, yeah, it’s true.
Allison: … the difference between a prompt and sub prompts. So the prompt is the question that you could write a dissertation on, and then, the sub prompts are the space where you tell students, “To get a good grade on this paper, I’m going to need you to do the following three things. I need you to summarize the framer’s argument or justifications for x component of the constitution. I need you to analyze the differences between the interpretation of the constitution when it was put in place by the framers and the interpretation of it in the wake of the new deal. And I need you to interpret changes and who is allowed to be a citizen or considered to be a citizen in the United States.
Allison: So, there’s a really big question at the top that you could write a dissertation on and then, there are these cues that help students understand what are the important parts of answering that question. Because I often think that’s where students have a hard time distinguishing. They could give you lots of answers for the big question but those of us who are in the field would be like, “That is the least important thing you could say,” like, “That’s the least relevant way you can answer that question,” but it’s an answer to the question. And so, it’s maybe not fair to hold them accountable for that.
Allison: And so, giving the sub prompts helps cue them to really pay attention to the particular things that matter in a way that they might not have before. And then, again, having that ahead of time helps me, as the professor, know what I need to make sure they’re hitting in class. If they’re not bringing those things up on their own, I need to make sure I do it with them so that when the paper comes out, it’s not a surprise.
Rebecca: Sounds like there’s focus on scope and a focus …
Rebecca: … on values.
Heather: Yeah. I think that’s absolutely right. That is one of the things that I continue to do when I’m writing assignments is that … The paper that just came in from my intro class was why is political obligation important for a community. That’s a huge topic and then, I’m like, “According to Socrates, you need to tell me what Socrates says and you need to tell me what Hobbes says and then, you need to make them talk to each other and then, you need to make an argument for why one is better than the other.” And that’s what those sub prompts do that I think is really helpful.
John: I guess our next question is for each of you, what are you going to do next?
Heather: I will take that one. I’m really interested in writing a piece on what analysis is because I feel like we tell them all the time more analysis but we don’t actually clarify what we mean when we say analysis, and I don’t think they have any idea of what they mean when they say analysis. And so, I’ve started including an appendix in my ridiculously-wrong syllabus that is like what is analysis. At some point, I just need to write that up because I think most of us struggle with communicating to our students what we mean when we say that word, and I think being a little more clear about what we mean would actually help them learn to do it better.
Allison: In terms of teaching, the project that I am hoping to work on right now is something that I started maybe two years ago after I went to the Digital Humanities Summer Institute on using annotate with students as a way to help them with the group annotation. I’m trying to work through those annotating skills moving towards better writing. And so, that’s for my American politics classes that I am hoping to get better at. I get frustrated by the tech quickly, and then, drop it.
Allison: So, that’s one of the projects I’m hoping to work on this summer and I’m hoping to do some comparisons in different classes with how students do with group annotations versus annotating on their own.
Heather: Can you explain that? When you say group annotations, they’re all reading the same PDF and then, marking on it?
Allison: Yeah. So, it’s essentially, you load the PDF online and then, you can assign small groups of students to all work in the same version of the PDF.
Allison: And so, they actually can go through and put comments on each other’s annotations and say, “You could find someone else’s interpretation and let them either deepen it, disagree with it, link it to some other part of the text where they can start flagging for each other and having a conversation that is deeply in a relatively small section of a text.” Heather, I’m thinking about this for American political thought, an African-American political thought.
Heather: That’s wonderful. I love that idea.
Allison: Where it’s like beyond, I get some value out of collecting their annotations which I also do in American political thought where I show them how to annotate. I give them that same piece from Braver, and then, for the first couple of weeks, I actually collect their annotated readings and hand them back, and then, I’d like to start trying this group annotation as a way for them to start thinking of reading and working through texts is more of a collective exercise in conversation.
John: What was the software you use for that?
Allison: I believe it’s called Annotate.
Heather: Is it iAnnotate?
John: iAnnotate is an iOS app or an Android app, but is it-
Allison: It’s not an app. It’s a…
John: Web tool?
Allison: … a web tool.
John: Might be hypothesis.
Allison: Maybe it’s that.
John: I know a lot of people use that for …
John: We’ll check on that.
John: We’ll add that to the notes.
Allison: Yes. You should. I found it very interesting to use and then, the one time I tried teaching it, students had all sorts of questions and I basically was at the front of the room like, “I don’t know,” and so, then, I scrapped it and just need some amount of time to go back in and play with it and anticipate more of what the questions would be.
Rebecca: Well, what you did was gather the questions.
Allison: Yes. Let’s …
Heather: That’s right.
Allison: … call it an …
John: A research exhibition.
Allison: Yes. Yes. Exactly.
Heather: Because it turns our much of teaching is not being successful.
Heather: Trying things that didn’t work very well, you’ll do it differently next time.
Rebecca: It’s an iterative process.
Heather: It’s exactly right. Exactly right.
Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for the insights that both of you have provided. I think that gives a lot of faculty food for thought.
Heather: Thanks so much for having me. I’m honored to be a part of the SUNY Oswego crew.
Allison: Yes, I was excited to be back.
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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.