Report from ISA2017: When Jen goes walking in her students’ shoes… or why her ‘alt assignments’ need a bit more thought

Day one of my International Studies Association marathon in Baltimore and I attended a full day session on creative teaching.  So much to report and so many ideas for future lectures.  However, in terms of the most impactful moment of the day, the hands down winner was a session I participated in on ‘Authentic Writing Assignments’ (I had to leave early unfortunately, but the first half was incredible).  Run by two scholars who are clearly passionate about teaching, the session was taught in the form of active learning.  The facilitators had the participants (a room full of not-yet-fully functioning-academics due to most of us having spent the day before on long journeys)  actually attempt the writing assignments that they were proposing as useful additions to our courses.  In this case, I had to try my hand at writing an internal memo from the point of view of a managing director of a private company working in a conflict zone and then an editorial for a notable publication on a current human rights issue.

Now, incidentally, I had my students write editorials this year in my Conflict Management/Peacebuilding course.  I thought it was a fantastic idea, and had visions of all the wonderfully engaging yet theoretically informed pieces my students would write.  And of course, many of them did– but not before sending me dozens of emails about ‘what I was expecting’ and ‘how to start’ and ‘how it would be graded’ and ‘did it need a bibliography’ and…….  I recall being a bit frustrated at the time. I thought I’d written a pretty good explanation of what I wanted in the syllabus and I spent a whole 5 minutes (insert sarcasm here)  in class talking about what was expected of them. I then got a fair few complaints about this assignment in my formal and informal teaching evaluations after the fact.  I’ve remained stubborn, sure in my belief that this was a good assignment choice– teaching a different type of writing, for a different type of audience that would sever them well in the future.

So then today, my facilitators made me write an editorial.  I stared at my screen, unsure where to start, growing more frustrated by the second.  I knew the facts of the case, I knew the arguments one side would make, I knew the counter arguments that others would present.  I knew where to find all the facts and figures I needed to support either side.  But, the words simply did not come to the page.  I thought, ‘well, keep it simple’ ‘what are the main points you want to get across’  and ‘no academic jargon either– no isms, ologies or izations’.

The best I managed after 5 minutes of staring at my screen  was the following: ‘diversity is good’ ‘human rights abuses have to stop’ and ‘regional actors have a key role to play’.  Nice. Work. Peterson.

Now of course, my students have had more time than the 10 minutes we were given to get started, but still…. It gave me a real flavor of the confusion, discomfort and frustration that my students must feel when I throw some of my ‘alt assignments’ at them.  They finally come to terms with writing in an academic manner in the form of a formal research paper, and then some prof throws a completely new format at them and asks them to write for a totally different audience. It made me realize how much more work I have to do with them to help them develop the skills I want them to develop through these assignments– otherwise it just becomes busy work.

As a challenge to myself this summer, when I am working on my usual course renewal, I will force myself to at least start each of the types of ‘alt assignments’ that I plan to give to my students.  I will do this not because I feel I need to hold their hand and help them get a good grade, but to ensure that the reason I am assigning these modes of writing, the lessons I hope they draw from them, are not lost and the assignment does not just come to be seen as a ‘barrier to getting an A’ but rather an opportunity to learn new skills and material.  Hopefully I do better than I did on my rather sad editorial from earlier today.

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