If you've taught before, you know the feeling. Discussions have been pleasant and perhaps even (at moments) exhilarating. They ask good questions, post good posts, almost look you in the eye. Some even talk comfortably with you before and after class.
Then the lengthier written work comes in. And whatever your in-class experience, a gap always seems to open up between what you expect of particular students and what they produce. I ran into a little bit of that recently.
It's something like a theorem now (for me, anyway) that students who talk often and often insightfully in class don't often hand in the best arguments. It makes some sense — in-class contribution often consists of shorter, quicker bursts of thinking, whereas even relatively short essays demand coherence and extension. Essays by Good Talkers, then, can be impressionistic, flecked with intriguing thoughts that may not be well developed (or developed at all).
We recommend a backward-looking approach to course design, which is to say we suggest beginning with articulating course goals, then move to particular assignments that embody those goals, and then work backward to provide whatever raw material students will need — skills, readings, advice, etc. — to have a shot at realizing the original course goals. Part of this process involves envisioning how students will respond to assignments, including which prompts they'll likely favor (if given more than one), what mistakes they'll tend to make, and so on. By now, I pretty much have a relatively clear idea of what my students' essays will look like, an idea that sharpens further as the semester progresses. So I more or less saw the in-class/on-paper gap coming, but I hope enough otherwise that I'm still mildly surprised.
Still, the surprise can be pleasant. This time around, I gave four prompts of differing difficulties with the main goal of getting students to engage in theoretical lens use. That is, I wanted my students to draw upon more theoretical readings to expand our understanding of some subjects or questions. I expected most people to go for the ethical dilemma — should elective amputation be permissible* — but I knew that students would find arguing either in favor or against the procedure more difficult than they anticipated. That choice was the overwhelmingly popular one, and good struggles resulted. A brave few students took on a couple of tougher readings —including one that we didn't discuss at all in class — and became usefully puzzled. And one student wrote about which theory of body representation can account for some really strange phenomena (autotopagnosia and somatoparaphrenia, if you must know), which requires some deft analysis. Overall, I was pleased.
Quite Possibly Impractical Tip of the Week: Part of the M.O. for the writing seminars I've taught includes draft conferences where instructors meet with each of their students individually to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of their arguments. Ideally, instructors write a letter to each student (approximately one single-spaced page) and e-mail it in advance of the meeting. That way, the time can be more focused and students can do most of the talking during the session itself. I've found these conferences an extremely useful way of getting to know my students while communicating to them that I take their thinking and writing seriously. I believe that since they feel more seriously taken they're more likely to reflect that seriousness in their work. For large courses, it's simply impracticable to meet with everyone individually for 30 minutes or so. But for, say, 20 or so students or fewer, the approaching-death exhaustion proves worth it.
Lunch Note: This past week was midterms week, so I didn't even ask for lunch partners.
*It's a longish story. Feel free to ask.