Nancy Maloney Grimm in Good Intentions: Writing Center Work for Postmodern Times shares how for her “…one of the satisfactions of writing center work is figuring out the tacit expectations of academic literacy and making those expectations explicit for the students who want to ‘make it’ “ (1999, xv). As a writing coach at our community college, I echo that sentiment and draw energy from it weekly. Yet, as inspiring as it is, I say it isn’t enough. That work of “figuring out tacit expectations” shouldn’t begin and end at the doors of the writing center. While I hope that it continues to fuel writing center work, I argue that this work needs to seep beyond writing center walls and find its way into the writing classroom. As a writing instructor, “making those expectations explicit for the students” should be my goal as well. Examining the writing we do in class–both my students and I–may be a good place to start.
Academic literacy, or perhaps more specifically, North American academic literacy—both reading and writing—has well-defined boundaries. It is an established discourse community, with clear expectations of its members as well as of those intending to enter it. These rules, standards, or conventions are known and understood by established members of the academic discourse community, but often remain a mystery to those new to it. Who might those be? Some of them might be first-year college students, developmental students, returning adult students, or English language learners. Some of them might even be currently enrolled, continuing students who go through their coursework without gaining much clarity on this “thing” called academic discourse—the understanding of what it means to produce effective and meaningful writing within the academic discourse community.
As an instructor of developmental reading and writing, I ask myself how I respond to this gap, this asymmetry of understanding. Does my instruction open up space to enable the decoding of these expectations? Or do I inadvertently “muddy up the waters” for my students, making academic reading and writing even more mysterious and unattainable? I believe that no one goes into the teaching of writing with the intent to confuse students. At least, I hope not. At the same time, having good intentions is never enough. It is essential to translate those intentions into purposeful instructional design towards the outcome one intends: writers who demonstrate a proficiency in academic discourse. And how is this possible? Of the many routes instructors can take, I would like to focus on the assignment sheet.
An instructor’s assignment sheet introduces, situates, and explains the written work that is expected from students. It is what links students to the different genres within the academic discourse community, and as such, directly impacts the ease or difficulty with which students become familiar with these different genres. These assignments sheets can direct students to engage in the process of writing a reflective/exploratory essay, a literacy narrative, an argumentative piece, or researched writing accompanied by an annotated bibliography. These are common genres a student encounters in developmental writing classes or early first-year composition classes. As a writing instructor, I know what I expect from my students’ work. I am aware of the rules and conventions these genres impose—each genre with its own set of demands from the writer. As I put together my assignment sheet, do I readily assume that my students realize these as well? Or am I able to frame the assignment in a way that recognizes their uncertainty? Does my assignment sheet allow for questions and gaps in genre understanding to surface and be identified? If the assignment sheet recognizes these unknowns and makes them known, it can provide clarity and direction as students build their understanding of a genre. And if not, it can leave students further entangled in confusing instructions.
Because the assignment sheet is written by the teacher who usually, as James Porter (1986) explains, has long been socialized within the practice of the discourse community , these “tacit expectations” and hidden rules of academic writing make sense to the teacher. They are evident and predictable, and as such, assignment sheets can often be written in a way that is readily understood by the teacher but still remains inaccessible to the learner. Terms like “analyze”, “synthesize”, “compare”, “contrast”, “refute” carry with them clear demands to the teacher planning the assignment requirements, yet to a student who has just begun to wade into that world of academic discourse, these terms need to be broken down and decoded in order for students to engage meaningfully with the work of academic writing.
Amy Devitt (1993) maintains that “genres develop…because they respond appropriately to situations that writers encounter repeatedly”. So, if we consider the assignment sheet as its own genre, and we realize how students are often bogged down by confusion over these assignment sheets, it forces me to ask, “As a writing instructor, how do I go about the work of responding appropriately to these repeated situations?” How do I develop this genre of assignment sheet-writing so that it responds more appropriately to the demands of its context?
There is much to be understood and explored in order to answer these questions in meaningful ways, and as I progress in my courses, these will become clearer. Some of my initial exploration has led me to helpful resources like the following:
- http://writing.umn.edu/tww/assignments/designing.html (University of Minnesota’s Center for Writing),
- http://wac.colostate.edu/intro/pop2i.cfm (Colorado State University’s WAC Clearinghouse),
- https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/688/1/ (Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab)
- Irene Clark’s “A Genre Approach to Writing Assignments” (http://compositionforum.com/issue/14.2/clark-genre-writing.php) provides vision and direction as well.
These resources invite me to slow down and think about what it is that my assignment sheet needs to accomplish and ways that can be achieved.
The assignment sheet is a genre that places certain demands on me and my role as a writing instructor. It exerts a force that shapes the identities of the students who sit in my class. As they construct their identities as writers, their process and text in turn, shape my response: How do I structure my assignment sheets so as not to frustrate or confound, but to serve as a tool for access and a resource for demystifying academic writing?
Devitt, A. J. (1993). Generalizing about Genre: New Conceptions of an Old Concept. College Compositionand Communication, 44 (4), 573-586.
Grimm, N. M. (1999). Good Intentions: Writing Center Work for Postmodern Times. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc.
Porter, J.E. (1986). Intertextuality and the Discourse Community. Rhetoric Review (5). 34-47.