Assignment Sequences

In thinking about my own teaching practices, I’m hoping I might get some responses from other first-year composition teachers to a few questions. First, how many folks teach something resembling a ‘personal essay’ (as opposed to, say, a research paper or a persuasive essay or a response to a text or a rhetorical analysis or what-have-you) as the first unit in a semester? Second, how many folks teach a variety of fairly identifiable genres, like those I mentioned in my first question? Third, for those who do teach something resembling a ‘personal essay’ as the first unit in the semester, what are your reasons for teaching it first — and for those who don’t teach it at all, what are your reasons for not teaching it? Fourth, how many folks teach a sequence of assignments that asks students to make major choices about which essays they will significantly revise and which essays they will leave behind?

I know there’s considerable literature in our field devoted to this topic, and since my first year of teaching, I’ve felt like I’ve had a decent sense of what the arguments were for the various practices, even as my own practices changed and shifted and evolved according to what I’d read, to my sense of my students’ shifting needs, and to institutional pressures — but in the past few weeks, I’ve been seeing some significantly recurring phenomena in student essays that make me call some of that into question. I’m still trying to sort this stuff out, so I can’t really be more particular right now, but just hearing about what other people do, and why, would help me to put what I’ve been seeing in student papers into perspective vis-a-vis my own teaching practices.

That said, I guess I’d better at least offer a little bit of rationale: for the past four years or so, institutional pressures (I’m at the UMass Amherst Writing Program, former home of Walker Gibson and Peter Elbow) have turned me towards seeing the personal essay as a way of asking a student to take an initial stake in the writing that the course asks them to do, and towards seeing the personal essay as something accessible and open. Such a perception understands the personal essay as somewhat loose, rambling, or discursive; the diametrical opposite of the impersonal cut-and-dried five-paragraph theme. The essay sequence I’ve been attempting to refine since 2000 moves from introspection to public engagement and back again, and I’ve lately begun to wonder if such a sequence is based on some problematic metaphors of writerly ‘development’ that simply don’t work — too blithely Lacanian? too literalist a take on Dewey and Britton? — for college-age students, especially in an age when process pedagogy has long since become widespread even in secondary education.

This semester, I’m calling the first essay “Experiences, Contexts, Perceptions”; from the title, I hope, a fairly obvious request for students to examine how what they’ve lived and where they come from affects their view of the world and others’ views of them. I ask them to incorporate some of these observations into the next two essays, “Reading and Writing Difficult Texts,” which is my attempt to revise Peter Elbow’s take on the back-and-forth between the personal and the textual. The next assignment, called “Subjects and Perspectives,” is an attempt to take the personal and textual work of those first two essays into the public sphere with a rhetorical analysis of the range of discourse on a particular subject, and serves as pre-writing for the following assignment, which asks students to take a personal position on the subject they’ve chosen and use documentation to support that position. So, clearly, I’m favoring certain kinds of writing as somehow more ‘basic’ and others as somehow more ‘advanced’ — and I’ve lately begun to see that as problematic, especially in the way I feel the need to offer certain similar responses to so many student papers.

I haven’t mentioned the types of assignments I taught when I was at Pitt, but if you’ve encountered Bartholomae and Petrosky’s Ways of Reading, you might have some sense of how the institutional pressures there were radically different from the pressures here at UMass. So maybe one more (perhaps deceptive) question: there, at Pitt, first year composition was called “General Writing.” Here, they call it “College Writing.” What might that say — and how is the first-year composition course ycleped at your institution?

Assignment Sequences

14 thoughts on “Assignment Sequences

  • November 16, 2004 at 7:58 pm

    I’m not teaching anything I’d lump as “personal essay” or “personal narrative” this semester, but I’m at a new place, teaching a mostly generalized syllabus. In the online curric. for Park, the first semester of the first-year sequence has the personal essay inscribed into the course description, and although _Ways of Reading_ is fixed to the course, students write an autobiographical literacy narrative while reading Rodriguez, then a biographical portrait while reading Baldwin, and so on. Frankly, the online curriculum has several rough edges that make me feel unsettled, but I see it as a work in progress, endlessly shifting around. SU’s WRT105 aims students toward analysis and argument essays. Writing from reading difficult texts (text and images, really) and complicating argument as an extension of analysis: the lower division design places value on these. The analysis essay I tried this semester privileged students’ knowledge of local (hometown?) sites while mixing in social geography and spatial analysis. The pace is generous–just three projects in the semester–so it’s possible to work more carefully with multiple drafts.

  • November 16, 2004 at 11:51 pm


    Here’s a post I made a couple days ago on the “Teaching Basic Writing” listserv that addresses your query about sequences for comp classes.

    When a course has an announced theme, that can force both students and instructor to seek confirmation of the theme rather than find their own arguments in relation to the theme. I realize that is not inevitable, but it’s often difficult to resist. I like to think of a sequence of related topics, letting students find their own themes. I’ve made points like this on the list before. Based on looking at textbooks and common discussions, we give much more emphasis to organizational schemes and editing conventions than we do to invention. Yet the essence of writing lies in finding your own ideas, your own arguments and elaborating and defending them to others.

    In my writing courses, I try to find an underlying conceptual structure that guides the choice of readings and the sequence of writing assignments. That allows me to claim to my students that each writing task will build on the previous one. It will not be a matter of switching topic and writing another formulaic essay on the new topic.

    In my developmental course, for instance, the sequence of topics is roughly developmental (more or less in the sequence a person encounters them in their lives): FAMILY, PARENT/CHILD, FOOD, TELEVISION, MUSIC, CONSUMING, DRIVING AND RIDING, WORK, MEN AND WOMEN. Notice that the topics are deliberately concrete. Many basic writers are still moving from Piaget’s concrete operational stage to the formal operational stage. That’s why I use concrete topics as the starting point, and then encourage them to develop their theses (their abstractions) from our readings and discussions.

    In my first year comp course, the underlying structure is SELF, OTHER, GROUP. Both the readings and writing tasks move in that direction, each time incorporating insights from the previous work. By having such a conceptual framework, my course becomes my argument to my students on how best to develop as a critical reader and writer. I can avoid arguing for my theme in this way.

    I can imagine many different conceptions to organize a composition course. But whatever one chooses, it should be grounded in what we know about language development (including rhetorical development) and learning theory.

  • November 17, 2004 at 1:27 pm

    Mike, you asked:

    “Third, for those who do teach something resembling a ‘personal essay’ as the first unit in the semester, what are your reasons for teaching it first – and for those who don’t teach it at all, what are your reasons for not teaching it?”

    This question is on my mind a lot these days, as I’m working on an updated teaching philosophy statement right now. My answer will likely fly all over you, but I’m going to be forthright about it. Here’s the deal: Although I strongly encourage students to bring personal experience into their research papers when applicable, I don’t assign personal essays. I have before, when I taught at Tennessee and again at Roane State Community College, but in my current program, they want a lot of consistency across sections of FYC, so the course is designed in a pretty specific way (see “Genres”). So I can relate to you, Mike, when you point out the “institutional pressures” informing your views. However, my resistance to the personal essay goes back to high school. When I was a student, I never saw being required to write a personal essay as “a way of asking a student to take an initial stake in the writing that the course asks them to do, and towards seeing the personal essay as something accessible and open.” I already had a stake in the writing, and to be perfectly honest, God. I . Hated. Writing. Personal. Essays. for two main reasons: First, I felt that writing such an essay was a purposeless activity, really just done as a kind of minstrel show for the teacher with (as I perceived it at the time) an inappropriate, voyeuristic desire to pry into my personal life. A lot of eye-rolling accompanied my writing back then. I always got high praise for my narrative essays on such topics as my grandmother, who was at the time the primary caregiver for my grandfather, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, and the time I won the school spelling bee in fourth grade, only to choke when I competed in the county spelling bee, quashing my dreams of winning the National Spelling Bee, appearing on The Tonight Show, and meeting Johnny Carson, etc. Which leads me to the second reason: I didn’t feel that I learned anything whatsoever from writing those essays. My grandmother is a person with immense inner strength, loyalty, and virtue, but I already knew that. My experience with the spelling bee was the first time I really failed at something, and it taught me a lesson, but again, I already knew that. I loved to write, but I wanted to learn something new through my writing, and I felt that personal essays were an enormous waste of my time because I didn’t acquire any new knowledge.

    Okay, I know, I was an closed-minded outlier with a truly shitty attitude. I’ve learned since then that most people get a lot of satisfaction and empowerment from putting what was once inchoate into words, getting it all down on the page, and some writers engage more powerfully and authoritatively in personal writing. Like I said, I’ve assigned personal essays before, but my heart simply isn’t in it, and my friends joke that because my sincere enthusiasm is so strong, it’s impossible for me to feign it. That being said, it’s not that I can’t be turned around; it’s that I haven’t yet come across an argument or a theory that has inspired or persuaded me, one that has sold me on the value of personal writing in a writing class, one that has set my imagination on fire with ideas of what I would do in the classroom. If you want to give me a brief reading list, I’d definitely look into it; to what specific works by Elbow are you referring?

  • November 17, 2004 at 1:52 pm

    One more thing: It’s relevant, I think, to point out that when I was in high school and undergrad, teachers were using “the modes.” So maybe it was more the “personal essay for personal essay’s sake” that was the root of my frustration. Writing personal essays might have been a more worthwhile activity for me if I’d been encouraged to explore my connections to society and locate myself in a social and political context. But one problem remains: Assigning a personal essay that way still feels a little like a hermeneutic unveiling: “In other words: write a paper showing not that you understand what’s taught in academia, but that learning the methods of academia have in some way changed you.”

    In that post, you articulated what could be a problem with almost any kind of pedagogy, though.

  • November 17, 2004 at 3:37 pm

    What a rich discussion! I think that what Clancy says about teaching and writing personal narratives simply because they are one of the modes being taught is a good point–these days I prefer using the personal in journals and other activities that lead up to some kind of synthesis of the individual student’s world with the academic world, the “real” world and so on. I like for there to be a reason why the student is writing about himself–to connect to something larger, to discover what he may not realize that he already knew–and some of that comes from my own interests as a reader and a teacher. Narratives that are too wide in scope( i.e.”write about a time when you learned a lesson”) lead to mind-bogglingly bad writing, including the pefunctory “A” paper written by the savvy student who knows how to play the game. But right now I’m recalling all of the bad high school essays that I read for 15 years and am forgetting the good, of which there were many.
    The good stuff about personal narrative writing is that students may be interested enough in what they’re saying to invest energy in learning how to write, especially if, in talking about their writing, they can “bond” with the instructor. The downside is that being asked to share something personal with a new instructor can seem intrusive, formulaic or therapeutic, all of which are resistable. And, if we are teaching the modes, the narrative is generally the first major paper of the semester, so we are asking students to share the personal and then get to know and trust us.
    Mike, I’d like to hear you explain what you mean here: ” and I’ve lately begun to see that as problematic, especially in the way I feel the need to offer certain similar responses to so many student papers.” It’s the “certain similar responses” that interests me. What are these responses and why do you feel that way?

  • November 17, 2004 at 4:01 pm

    I was just having a conversation with a good friend last night in which she joked that she’d like a set of rubber stamps with comments in her handwriting like: “Be more specific,” “Can you provide an example to support this point?” etc. When I assigned personal essays, I found myself writing the same things (like “Be more specific,” “Can you provide an example to support this point?” etc.), which sort of led me to think that personal essays aren’t that much less formulaic than other essay genres (and I am inclined to agree that the personal essay is a genre).

  • November 17, 2004 at 6:21 pm

    When I was teaching FYC, I hemmed and hawed for close to three years on ditching the personal essay for reasons Clancy’s echoed above, with the additional reservation that the personal essay at the front of the class paid lip service to bringing voice and personality to college writing, but the modes orientation of the rest of the class made it seem that we would first get the navel-gazing out of the way, and then get to the real meat of the course. Either, I thought, we should make our personal take on things a central tool of the class or we shouldn’t. No more of this namby-pamby mollycoddling.

    And yes, many if not most essays started out as painfully self-absorbed paeans to ME ME ME in various ways. Some were stunning in their insightfulness, and the point, in retrospect, always seemed to be not so much to tell a story, but to own the telling, warts and all. Lots of students didn’t get it–didn’t understand how their experiences could or should be up for revision and evaluation. A few of them got it, and that was usually enough. At my last gig, though, I pretty quickly ended up with sections of Advanced Expository Writing (juniors & seniors) and no FY Comp at all. I used Ways of Reading for that, which brought a whole new raft of fun.

  • November 17, 2004 at 11:01 pm

    Wow — thanks for all the great comments. Joanna, there’s some institutional encouragement at UMass for instructors to lead with some form of the personal essay (although the WP director and resource staff certainly do some critical complication of the genre; some variants that folks do include “self in contradiction” or “self across contexts” assignments), and that’s part of the reason for that first essay assignment I described. The thing is, that kind of a first essay tends to be quite discursive in nature, which is fine — I enjoy writing and reading long introspective intellectual rambles that take complicated turns and branch off in unexpected directions, and from past experience, it seems to be type of writing that’s relatively unfamiliar to many students. The only difficulty, it’s lately seemed, is that such an assignment seems to strike a tone for the whole semester, so when I get to the rhetorical analysis assignment, I find myself doing some of the rubberstamping Clancy describes: over and over again, my suggestions for revision are largely structural, encouraging students towards a much more schematic writing (set topic and exigency, analyze individual sources according to certain criteria, move to investigating trends and commonalties and differences across those analyses, draw conclusions about the range of discourse on the topic based on that investigation). But I do think, Clancy, that yes, any genre of essay will bring with it certain unfamiliarities that will result in teachers having some fairly common types of responses to them.

    I like the personal essay if it goes beyond the merely personal; if not, it certainly risks the kind of teacherly-demand-of-authentic-emotional-experience described by Clancy and MrBS. In the issue of College English that showed up in my mailbox today, Julie Lindquist describes the problematic ways in which asking for authentic “emotional responses for the purposes of academic rewards becomes, for students, a matter of producing the ‘money shot’ on demand” and offers the example of the canny writing student who spins a wholly fictional “tragic account of his friend’s car accident and death” (197) to please his teacher. And Joe Harris acknowledges that certain varieties of the personal essay make grading into little more than a gut check: you either like the student self represented on the page or you don’t. But then, Lindquist also talks about the ways we tend to privilege rational analysis and devalue emotion and affect, in much the same way that Suzanne Clark problematized composition’s distaste for sentiment several years ago, and I think the argument that we ought give value to the personal and emotional in our assignments just as we give value to the academic and the rational is a powerful argument.

    Clancy, you asked about sources — the big one, I think, is Peter’s exchange with David Bartholomae in the February 1995 CCC; his introduction to Landmark Essays on Voice and Writing is also worth a look, as is “Closing My Eyes as I Speak (College English January 1987). It’s been observed that Peter’s so-called ‘expressivism’ builds significantly on James Britton’s ideas about discourse in Language and Learning, which makes the most compelling case I’ve seen for the value of personal writing.

  • November 18, 2004 at 12:42 am

    The strongest argument for beginning with a “personal essay” (a redundant term in my taxonomy) is that students all know narrative structure (typically learned by age 9) and it’s a way to begin, where you can address other matters, such as tone. I assign a first essay in FYC that focuses on SELF, asking students to recall some earlier experience that remains significant. Their burden is to show the significance. From there, each writing task moves to material increasingly outside the writer’s direct experience and not accessible through memory.

    That said, all writing is personal. All good writing conveys a sense of the person who produced it, including good academic writing. The writer must always negotiate her stance with the material and the audience.

    And I think the reason Mike’s students are finding it difficult to make the move to more analytical prose is because that’s what they don’t know and they are now learning. Students faced with an assignment they aren’t sure of frequently go back to strategies that have worked in the past. I had this happen with some students at UC Berkeley 15 years ago when I did a semester there. I interviewed a segment of these students late in the term. I asked them why, in the face of very explicit written direction, they had not written the paper assigned. Almost every one that did this said, “I didn’t really understand what you wanted, but I knew how to do the other kind of paper (essentially a 5-paragraph dealie).”

    Good discussion. Greetings from Indy!

  • November 18, 2004 at 9:31 am

    I’ve written here about affect and the sentimental and here about a passel of other composition-related issues I’ve been thinking about.

    (Mike, I know you must be sick and tired of WordPress-tweaking, but if you decide to do some more of it soon, would you consider installing a module that would give us a preview option before posting comments?)

  • November 18, 2004 at 9:45 am

    Praise works. Especially overheard praise. Encouraging praise, not hyper, cheerleading praise. For instance, talking with a student about her paper and pointing out that in a particular place she has done some good analytical thinking and why you think so. Building on what they know and have shown you they know about writing by the quality of their personal narratives–things like discernment, stylistic choicemaking, overall control of the writing. I’ve found that during the time of change from personal or from high school writing to college writing (analytical? academic), we have to just hang in there with our students like midwives, and weather their pain and angst as part of the process. The first few attempts at analytical prose may be rocky to deal with, but assuring them that it’s supposed to be is useful in getting them to try. As the teacher, I step back from the fray and look at the metawriting/cognition that’s ocurring and try to figure out what I need to say to the class to reassure them. Lately, with my Basic Writers, I’ve been encouraging them to go back and read the first few papers they wrote in September and compare them to the work that they are now doing.

    Onward and upward.

  • November 19, 2004 at 2:27 pm

    I think one of the reasons we end up with lousy personal essays is because we assign them first. The idea that it is easy to write well because the topic is personal is false; I think the best writing students do most often comes when they are struggling. Why do most students want us to let them write “what they are interested in” or “what they can relate to”? Because it’s easy; there’s no intellectual reaching. The result is often schlock (sp? I need my Jewish boyfriend here, but he’s at work ;-)).

    When I assign the personal essay later in the semester, after they have read and worked with texts and thought about things, it is inevitably better.

  • November 26, 2004 at 8:19 am

    I’m late to the discussion, but it’s a fascinating one, so I thought I’d weigh in anyway. I’ve thought a lot about so-called personal writing over the years, and I have moved away from using a personal essay first. Instead, if I assign it at all, I do what Cindy does–I assign it as a third or fourth formal essay so that they have some experience of writing persuasively and with an argument first. Usually I structure the personal essay as a reflective one where they read over the first two/three papers and reflect on how they arrived at this point in their writing (academic/institutional/personal) career. I require specific examples.

    I should add, though, that all of the essays I assign are personal in some sense because I encourage students to position themselves in every essay they write for my class. When they arrive at a more typical personal essay (“write about your own experience”), there’s no surprise and they understand that every essay must be grounded in something real and concrete.

    Most of this evolution in my paper assignments has come from my experience of reading way too many hackneyed papers like the ones you, Mike, and others above describe: my favorite grandmother, the time I stole something from Kmart and learned a lesson, what it was like to make it to the varsity baseball team, etc. Ick. I hated writing them and I hate reading them. Reflective essays, however, I love reading and still enjoy writing–I think it builds the habit, too, of being self-critical. In fact, this semester when they turn in papers, I’ve had students write an introductory note of a paragraph or so that reflects on how they feel about the current draft. What process did they go through? What still needs work? Of what are they most proud? I’ve enjoyed the responses so far.

    Lastly, I let students revise all but one essay for their final portfolio, allowing them to leave one essay behind (because there’s always one that doesn’t “work” as well as the others).

    Great discussion–thanks!

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