In addition to coming up with a new term project for my survey classes, I wanted to find something new to do in U.S. Women’s history as well. In that class last fall, I had students write two short papers, neither of which required outside research. Broadly speaking, they asked students to take the material we’d worked with and make arguments about intersectionality and change over time. Both papers worked, in a sense, but the change over time stuff was still a bit of a struggle; for many students, that conceptual framework was still rather foreign at the end of the semester, which led to the flattening of time in their papers, so to speak.*
I also think that the familiar structure of a paper can provide too much opportunity for vamping and fluffing and avoiding telling me what a given source is actually saying. This line of thought has shaped the new assignment I’m thinking of: a small digital project that will integrate another assignment from the class that worked well and that we all liked – keeping commonplace books.
I gave all of my students notebooks at the start of the semester that they used for copying over and commenting on passages from our primary and secondary readings. In addition to helping students think about what constituted a “meaningful” quote, they also were a great way to think-pair-share and start discussion in general. Many of my students liked the process, and most of them said they noticed themselves getting better at picking out the good stuff. They loved it when they discovered that a bunch of other students picked the same quote.
I had considered digital commonplacing using Tumblr, but ended up going with the hard copy, and I will stick with that, but given the good things I’ve heard about public writing, I want to do something with that in the digital realm. My thought is that students could each use WordPress to curate (ugh, that word) a set of excerpts drawn from the class materials, with accompanying analysis/contextualization, beginning around the midpoint of the semester. They would then have to comment on each other’s posts, and as the final “paper,” produce a sort of introductory essay post that would guide the reader through the selections. It’s not much of a deconstruction of form, but it might work? I think I need to ponder a bit more.
I know there’s a strain of thought that says things like blogging take away from formal writing (i.e. essays) and that we can’t “let students off the hook.” I don’t think I’d be doing that. I don’t know that the stakes are very high for an essay, no matter how “formal” it is, that students know will only ever be read by me. Moreover, in our webinar on Hypothes.is annotations, we discussed the merits of public versus private annotation, and Jeff McClurken argued that he finds that student writing is more careful and considered when it’s public.
Is writing for the public a thing they’re going to have to do in their adult lives? Absolutely! If it is, we should be teaching it and having students do it. Frankly, if not doing it right can get you fired someday, it’s as least as important as the five paragraph essay. I suspect some of them will find it challenging to write for the public like this – after all, when they write for me, they’re writing for an “expert.” It’s challenging to write about a complicated thing for a non-expert audience. I also suspect this form, with appropriate guidance and comments from peers, might also help strip away so much of the extraneous material we find in papers. Wishful thinking? Perhaps. In need of more thinking? Certainly! I’d love thoughts
*Side note: Teachers of history need to talk about this and think about this more. Chronology and causality are so important to us and function as second nature, and we assume they function the same way for students, but I can’t be the only one who has to explicitly say that history papers showing change over time should, for the most part, be in chronological order. I don’t think students turn in papers that go all over the map chronologically because they’re lazy, I think that chronology just isn’t as innate as we hope it is. I talked about this so much in one class they bough me a Tardis travel mug.