Tuesday, September 25, 2007


As a student and a new tutor, I can’t help but think about particular assignments that professors have given out to my peers and me. Sometimes I feel as though I have completed my fair share of essays and writings that have, in the end, led me to question what purpose was served to complete them. To make this feeling even worse, some of them become so structured and restricted that I feel like I am simply filling in the blanks like I would on a math test. When I am finished, I turn it in with my name on it and get some sort of grade for an assignment that I feel like the professor actually did more work in preparing than I did answering. It seems sometimes that some professors are giving out assignments that blatantly follow a set of guidelines and instruct you to do the same. Where is the productivity in that?
I know that we have all felt like this before, and will continue to feel like this many times in our life. It seems so easy to jump on the bandwagon and say that professors and the institution are trapping us in cages and taming our otherwise flourishing abstract and cultural nature into university standardized robots. It seems too easy to categorize many of the policies of the particular institution we attend or professor with which we study into an anti-progress, anti-individual expression, hugely boring bombardments of accepted rhetoric and pedagogies. I may even have been inclined earlier in my college career to jump right on and say, “Screw the assignments! We are all adults here, and we don’t need worksheet-type essays to go home with and fill in the blanks. We need the professors to give us ideas and let us roll from there, in which ever way or style we want.” I suppose this seems like a good idea, and I think it is necessary for some particular classes to let us go about this method. I am a huge advocate of individualized study and will agree that individualizing one’s work is an immensely important thing. However, when we get right down to criticizing everything the university does along with its professors, I feel like we forget the very simple fact that they are not stupid.
We have to bear in mind that professors and the policy makers are very well educated people. Most have about four to eight years of schooling behind them and are charged with a mission at the end of it. That mission is to teach. Unless a professor simply falls asleep through the class and honestly does nothing, I think we need to watch how critical we are of their assignments.
Anyways, what does this have to do with the writing center? I think that sometimes we may look at an assignment a student carries in and think how ridiculous it is that that student was assigned it. What does this have to do with this course? Why is it so structured? The student probably will agree with us on that. I just think we may need to realize that there is most definitely a purpose behind that assignment, whether we can see it or not. I remember a math teacher of mine in high school telling the class about the nursing program at BSU. Apparently there was a very difficult math class you had to take in order to graduate with a nursing degree. What the heck? Well he said that the class has nothing to do with the practice of nursing, but had everything to do with weeding out those who did not truly want to be in nursing.


I’m hoping this makes sense to whoever reads it. It is something I think about when I hear people in the halls say how worthless certain assignments or classes are.


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  2. It does make sense Ian, and I think that this loosely ties in with Zach's post about questioning teachers. It can be hard to consult a student that doesn't agree with a given assignment--it can also be hard to consult when an assignment seems to make no sense(at least from our point-of-view). There's purpose in most everything, sometimes we have to just grin and bear it (sorry for the cliche--been dishin' out a few of those lately)and see what happens.

    I think that this directly relates to tutoring as well. When students come in and have the questions, or attitudes that you've discussed here, we need to concentrate on the assignment at hand. It's kinda like the mock consultation that Timm and Zach had today--the student may not agree with the teacher's approach to teaching, or see the point in a given assignment, but exploration and possibly something FUN can come out of the experience. I think Timm did a great job of how to illustrate that, and the experience with the highschool teacher can be one that I, you,or other cunsultants can bring into real situations similar to that one.

  3. To take this from the other perspective (that of a teacher), I would offer that professors have very specific pedagogical goals for their assignments. Some may seem dull or overly-structured, but that is often used to ensure that all students are focusing on the same area. As a teacher I much prefer allowing students to make all the decisions about their writing, what I have found, however, is that not all students are ready to do that. You have to learn what your choices as a writer before you can can make those choices, if that makes any sense at all!

  4. hi Ian,

    this is right up my ally...

    i'm a peer tutor at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth. i also tutored at UMass Amherst (been at this a while) and a community college on Cape Cod.

    i am, simultaneously, a teacher here at UMass Dartmouth. i teach two sections of a business communications course (the english/writing req for business and m.i.s. majors).

    note, i'm also a (graduate) student.

    i'm wearing three pairs of shoes at once, and sometimes it gets really hard to walk.

    as a student, i'm required to put up with the same frustrations you posed about not being given the amount of freedom with assignments you would like (although there is *much* less restriction at my level of study).

    then, as a teacher, i continuously guide and (at times it's necessary to) restrict my students. granted, i'm teaching a very specific kind of writing and i have very clear objectives for the course, students still try to break the mold every now and again due to frustrations with assignments. (this frustrates me as a teacher with very specific goals and intentions. it goes both ways.)

    THEN! i walk into the writing center and find myself empathizing with both sides of the battle (in situations like the one you bring op in your post).

    it is so valuable to be on both sides while in the center, but it's also tricky.

    one technique i've adapted for frustrated wanna-break-the-rule writers is to really analyze the assignment in relation to the course objectives (if there are any on the syllabus the prof/teacher gives out, this makes the job a lot easier). truth is, there is always a reason why. it's just helping your peers find the answer. once found, the assignment becomes less painful and that particular student can reach the objectives very easily. also, if students understand the needs of the teacher and course, they can perhaps even discuss alternate assignments with their instructors.

    this is really where your role as bridge between student and teacher comes into action.

  5. I do think that the underlying purpose of assignments is not always clear, but that there is always a purpose (whether or not it's the intended purpose). Tons of study has gone into developing educational strategies, but even if a strategy is not particularly effective for you, you still have an opportunity to learn from the experience. You wrote specifically about overly- structured assignments. I think that part of this goes back to the idea that you have to learn the rules before you can break them.

    As we all know, clearly communicating your ideas, whether in a consultation or in a paper can be a challenge. How do you know if your on the same page as your reader? Did you notice that the literacy narrative that Mike assigned (BSU students) didn't come with an assignment sheet? Then, after we turned them in, he provided us with a sort of grading rubic with points that we should have effectively addressed within the essay. I hadn't written with any sort of conscious concept of meeting certain guidelines, but I think that my paper did align with the rubric. We have these internalized rules, but they weren't always internalized.

    You can also view a restrictive assignment as a challenge as far as effectively expressing yourself (and your individuality) within the confines of the paper. I thought that it was interesting that when Mike asked us to meet a certain word count with our responses to Boquet's Noise, I actually felt a lot more freedom to express myself. I forgot about other confines of the assignment and I thought, "I don't even have to use complete sentences." I ended up writing a sort of play within my response to describe a tutoring event. What did you think of the word count assignment? Was it restrictive or freeing? I think that it could be viewed several different ways.

    I also think you made a good point about the nursing math class. Even if it doesn't seem like the class or assignment will serve a real utilitarian purpose, you are still being challenged and are still learning.

  6. Cool observation with the literacy paper, Sarah. No, I didn't notice that, but it's an interesting fact. Hmm, I think there's a paper (or four) in that for you...

    Again, very cool.