Wednesday, September 22, 2004

A Topic on Topics

I've always operated with the belief that if I let my students choose their own topics for their papers, then their papers will be better because the student will at least be writing about something that s/he is interested in. The only time that I break this caveat is for argumentative papers, as I normally give my students a choice of topics to write about for a persuasive essay. I've just found that this is easier for them as they tend to get much anxiety when they have to choose a topic and are asked for an opinion about an "issue."

There are definitely pitfalls to this approach. One semester I had a student who wrote a descriptive essay on street drag racing, wrote a process essay about what he does to prepare for a street race, wrote a personal narrative on how he was arrested once for participating in this illegal activity, and a comparison/contrast essay that had also something to do with street racing. The two reasons I let him do this were because 1)He was ESL and really struggling with the language and the class was giving him major anxiety and 2) All four of the papers were actually very different from each other and he met the requirements of the class. But now I can't help if I in some way did him a disservice by not making him choose other topics, for there is a lesson to be learned in writing about things that are difficult to write about.

Now that I am headlong into this semester and it is time for my students to start working on their portfolios, I am wondering if I should just assign topics or again let them choose their own.

9 Comments:

At 2:34 AM, Blogger jocalo said...

I agree that giving students great latitude in choosing the precise material to write about offers the best chance that they will engage with the assignment and make their best effort.

However, I use the course reading to frame or focus writing assignments. So while they choose their own material, they do so in relation to topics shared by the class through the books we read. This quarter we're reading bell hooks' "Bone Black"; Jon Krakauer's "Into the Wild"; and The 9/11 Commission Report. We start with memoir, go to analysis and finish with argument (a fairly conventional sequence), but the reading gives focus and (literally) hooks for students' to find their topics.

 
At 10:17 AM, Blogger clc said...

I also make nearly all assignments respond to/synthesize/analyze readings we have done, and while I normally create several options they can choose from, the "choice" really ends there. I've tried letting students choose what interests them, and the results have been pretty dismal. Rarely do they choose anything that *stretches* them or that provides good fodder for academic writing. I guess I believe the point of college classes are not to allow them to pursue things they already know or like, but to struggle with things unfamiliar and yes, sometimes *boring* to them ;-)

 
At 7:44 AM, Blogger Nick said...

After reading this post, I wonder if this would work, just as a kind of mental judo: Assign an essay. If students ask what it's to be on, say, "there is to be no topic. Write an essay without any topic, but make sure it's coherent none-the-less."

I wonder what would happen. Likely just confusion, but I bet if they tried to do that, they might find that they can't help but gravitate to some topic and that to avoid one, they have to work hard at.

Or maybe not a full blown home work assignment, but an in class exercise. It would secretly be a variation of freewriting, but by positing that they're to write an impromptu essay on anything as long as their's no topic, it would throw the issue into sharp relief.

Maybe.

 
At 9:51 AM, Blogger Rosa G. said...

I tend to create topics around whatever theme or group of themes we're working on because the writing reflects the reading reflects the thinking and back again. And, it makes grading papers that much easier/time efficient if I can at least have a ballpark estimation of what they are writing about. But I am developing a new assignment this semester in which the students choose any one of their journal entries for further drafting--

 
At 9:51 AM, Blogger Rosa G. said...

I tend to create topics around whatever theme or group of themes we're working on because the writing reflects the reading reflects the thinking and back again. And, it makes grading papers that much easier/time efficient if I can at least have a ballpark estimation of what they are writing about. But I am developing a new assignment this semester in which the students choose any one of their journal entries for further drafting--

 
At 4:22 PM, Blogger Chris said...

All very interesting. I find that it is easier to read stacks of essays if they are on disparate topics, which is another benefit of letting students pick their own. But I also agree with clc that students will gravitate to what they know best (like my street racing student above), and there is definitely value in making them stretch. I also deal with a lot of ESL students, so I tend to think of the class itself being a stretch for them. Hmmmm.

 
At 3:03 AM, Blogger jocalo said...

Responding to Nick's comment: I've actually been giving an assignment like that for about 15 years. I do it as the last paper in the second course in FYC, so they've already had a lot of instruction in writing and been assigned topics in various ways. I call it the risk paper. I give no topic. I simply say that it should somehow relate to the course (ruling out submitting 3 pages of C++ programming code). The kicker is this: I tell them that 50% of the grade will be based on the risk they take. What I'm trying to get them to do is write about something they really care about, something that matters to them more than to me.

In this context, most of my students do very well with this assignment. I wouldn't be this open-ended with Basic Writers because most of them don't have enough writing experience to take risks with.

 
At 4:56 PM, Blogger Drivin' in my car said...

When it comes to cars, you know I can check to see the consensus!

 
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