Orientation: Day 1 (mostly thinking about assignments)

I apologize for not posting regularly the last few weeks. I got distracted by the amazingness of my NEH seminar and working on my dissertation (it’s done, except for proofreading a final two chapters), and once I was home in the states, my grandfather died and I went home to be with my family.  Now I’m back, and just about to head into a new semester.

This week, though, is the official prelude: New TA Orientation week for Freshman English. (I apologize in advance for the somewhat rambly nature of this post–I’m mostly reflecting on what I was thinking about today.) This is my 7th Orientation since starting grad school.  The first I attended as a New TA myself.  The second I attended because I felt I had already forgotten a lot from that first time through, but now had a practical context for understanding what they were actually talking about.  I’ve been on staff with Orientation five times since. For a few years, I served as co-chair of the oversight committee that plans the orientation, but this year I’m back to just being an oversight staff member.

I really love both the planning for orientation and orientation itself, even though both are an incredible amount of work.  The planning for orientation is a collaborative effort that really makes me (and everyone else, I assume) think through our pedagogy in really complex ways.  How do we explain to brand new teachers what it is we do, and why we do it? It’s hard, but very useful because it prevents me from becoming complacent about doing things just because it’s what we do; I have to be able to articulate why we do it. Because it’s a collaborative planning process, we’re forced to really refine down what we say to core principles, because there are so many different ways to achieve what we’re trying to do. I also get exposed to some of those different approaches and learn a lot from my fellow orienters.

This year, we took a slightly different approach than we have in the past. We identified three “through-lines” or guiding principles, and made these explicit from the beginning of orientation (why we never did this before, I have no idea):

  1. We want to teach writing as a form of dialogic inquiry.
  2. We want what we teach to be transferable as possible to other contexts.
  3. We want to be self-reflexive in our teaching, and we want students to be self-reflexive about their writing.

We had our first day of orientation today, and we spent our time introducing the new TAs to these principles. We also talked about the element that has become the core of our pedagogy: assignment creation.  We did an assessment a few years ago that showed that stronger assignments–those that emphasized inquiry, textual engagement, and the students’ development of their own argumentative “projects”–resulted in much stronger, well-written papers. As a result, we spend a lot more time talking about how to create strong assignments.

What struck me most about the assignments we looked at was how much more complex the projects they encourage students to develop are from what I was asked to do as a Freshman myself. These assignments would probably have terrified me, in the best possible way: it would have been the terror of finally confronting an assignment that wasn’t firmly in my comfort zone. But I suspect that these assignments would have also energized me because they would have allowed me to bring in my own interests and expertise.

I have to perpetually keep this in mind when I write my own assignments for students: I need to provide them with assignments that will really challenge them, that will move even the strongest students out of their comfort zones while providing the weakest students with the room to feel that they can accomplish something. It’s not an easy balance to strike, but one I want to really work on.

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5 comments on “Orientation: Day 1 (mostly thinking about assignments)

  1. Christiana says:

    Very glad to know the assignments panel inspired such interesting thoughts! I hope it went okay and was helpful to the new TAs. I too love Orientation – it’s really challenging, but so rewarding, to force yourself to articulate your way of going about teaching and *why* something things work and somethings don’t. It’s also a great chance to steal other people’s best ideas 🙂

  2. MJ says:

    It’s one thing to create a “strong assignment” (this needs explaining, right?), but to expect students to turn in “strong” essays based on these assignments is like whistling in the dark–I’m never sure how my prompts will be understood by the majority of my students as after all, I plan my syllabus in my head minus any real student input. In the real world, I find that receiving an amazing essay is usually a serendipitous occasion from which my preconceived ideas played but a small role. The key is to keep trying to perfect a venue that encourages some kind of collaborative effort between student and instructor, but the variables are always sitting right in front of me come the first day of class and while I may expect the best from them I have found that planning a syllabus for a semester of academic writing is like engaging in a careful, intricate dance: I must continue to lead the dance, but also keep in mind that my partner’s steps should anticipate my next move–and my partner is very fickle. Sadly,I usually find that mostly the semester turns towards a train wreck when it comes to my earlier ideas and what the students actually produce in terms of writing, but realizing this, I also have learned to sift through the wreckage for those gems that my earlier thinking would simply discard-teaching academic writing is probably more of a learning experience for me than it is for the students sitting in my class.

    • Sapience says:

      To a certain extent, yes, but when there was this strong of a correlation between writing a strong assignment and getting strong essays back, what I think is actually going on is creating necessary pre conditions. It doesn’t guarantee a strong essay by any means (I mean, really, that would be putting too much responsibility on the teacher rather than the student), but without the strong assignment, you’re making it harder for the student to do his or her best work.

      Though I absolutely agree with you that it’s a lot like a complicated dance that requires a lot of collaboration between teacher and student, and necessarily requires quite a bit of adjustment once you hit the realities of the semester and the particularities of any one group of students.

  3. MJ says:

    If by strong essay assignment you mean one that (among other things) asks the student to move towards a level of thinking that challenges her ideas about the world (or brings her face to face with these ideas for the first time) then I am definitely in agreement with you. I’ve found though that in writing such an assignment I am often on the outside–I experience what Rumsfeld called the “unknown unknowns”– because I do not possess the knowledge that I am pushing the student toward, and yet while I know that something is out there, I’m not sure what it is–well, I have my own ideas based upon my own bias, but I really need the student to expose, and articulate in her writing that which I do not see. Ranciere has this great line about the ignorant schoolmaster who sends his students out into the forest of things and signs so that they can bring back what they have found, they can “verify and have it verified by others”. In this respect, for me at least, the strong assignment is one that actually prompts the student to make this journey–it has to be able so somehow communicate the reality of the forest so that the student can decide on making the journey. I love the idea of the strong assignment, I just don’t think that there is a specific formula that one can use to generate it time and again. I do agree with you that preconditions are helpful in generating assignments, but for me the precondition means that I eventually, through much trial and error, somehow intuitively learn (sounds contradictory, I know) to make room for the possibility for exploration and to do this I need to learn to place my own ideas about what’s out there behind me because only then can the student make her own way. Thanks for the response!

    • Sapience says:

      Sounds like we’re in total agreement. A strong assignment sets out an intellectual project (what you call the journey, I think), not a particular end goal or result, and somehow help students have “buy-in”. And there’s no one formula, of course, but there are some things that are just generally better: assignments that don’t just propose binaries and ask students to choose a side, but instead ask them to choose something to explore, though it may give them a few tools to help them do so.

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