teaching writing in large classes

i’m teaching a workshop in the fall at my university on teaching writing in large classes. i have a literature review assignment i love for intro classes (more on that below the jump), but i wonder whether anyone else has suggestions of assignments or anything else they think works well. i’d love to have more than one option to present.

my intro classes tend to be about 110 students, about half 1st & 2nd year students (more likely to be majors) and about half 3rd & higher students (more likely to be using this as their gen ed credit). how to get them to write – which i consider my duty – while not dooming myself to endless (unpaid) hours grading? that was the crucial question, and here’s one answer i’ve found. i’ve used this successfully in 3 courses so far, and will use it again in the future.

my intro is structured mostly by substantive topic (about a week each on socialization/social interaction, family, deviance, race, class, health & medicine, gender, education, and language). i have students form 4 person writing groups and on the first day of class, they as a group figure out which weeks each person will write an article review for. each person will do 2, one in the first half of the semester and one in the second half. on the weeks they don’t write, they are responsible for reading & critiquing their group’s writer’s paper. they are graded on their own paper and on their critiques, but there are no group grades at all. each person is ultimately responsible for their own paper, though they may benefit from a strong group critique process. once they’ve chosen their weeks, their due dates are also set (which gives students control over their due dates as well as topics) – they distribute a draft to their group on Monday, the group reads & critiques it and has 15 minutes to discuss in class on Thursday, and they turn in a big packet – their draft, their groups’ critiques, and their final – to me on Monday. i do a significant amount of bookkeeping to make sure credit is given where due and students are not punished for, for example, failing to turn in a critique when they never received the paper to critique.

ok, that’s the mechanics. the substance is this: each student writes a review of a peer-reviewed research article published in the past 5 years in a soc journal, somehow relating to the topic of the week they’ve chosen. this accomplishes several things:

  • they learn how to find, read, and evaluate current sociology research (more about that below),
  • they get practice writing a short-format essay (more difficult than they think),
  • they get to read each other’s work, which improves their own writing not to mention their knowledge,
  • they come to class knowing something i probably don’t know about the topic, which means they can add substantively to class discussion, and – just as important –
  • grading is distributed so that i see 20-25 papers/week, so i can turn them around efficiently and i’m never swamped,
  • they write & critique based on a rubric i give them, so the essays only take about 3 minutes each to grade, and finally,
  • i get an overview of 200 recent published articles i might never have otherwise known about, and can follow up on those that are interesting to me.

to prepare them for this assignment, i schedule a day with the great university librarians where they learn how to use the online databases to find articles – which even juniors and seniors here report finding useful. the librarians can only take half the class at a time, so the other half of the class meets with me and we do a session on how to write an article review, nice because with only half of them we can really get into it. i provide them a copy of 4 book reviews from a recent contexts, and they divide up in groups and create reverse-outlines of those reviews. we then talk about the structure of a good review, and they end up with a model of what theirs should look like. they also end up knowing about 4 recent soc books.

i wind up with students completing writing assignments that are fast for me to grade, that require multiple drafts, that improve on the second round, and that leave them with some analytical skill and some new writing skills and some new knowledge. they’re happy because they’re given control of their topic and work distribution. and i leave with a lot of new knowledge, too. all around, a great success.

there are, of course, drawbacks to this type of writing assignment. some of the groups bomb, and students get uneven quality of peer review. i spend very little time grading, which means i don’t engage much with writing mechanics – but having 2 drafts ameliorates that a little. the essays themselves are relatively formulaic, and students who don’t follow the rubric pretty closely don’t do well – which hurts creative students. all in all, though i’m aware of all that, i’m willing to make those tradeoffs in order to make writing happen in a large class.

the assignment as in my syllabus is below. i’m happy to share any of the other forms (sign up sheet, grading rubric) if you want ’em, too – just let me know.

Article reviews. Learning about sociology can be facilitated by learning what research actual sociologists are really doing. We’ll spend some time in the Rutgers libraries learning how to find sociological articles.

Your task: to find a sociological article that is of interest to you and aligns (however loosely) with a topic area we will cover in class. Read it, and write an article review. Your review should be 800-1000 words (give or take 100, firm). You may select any article published since 2000 in any of these journals:

American Sociological Review (ASR)

City & Community

Contemporary Sociology

Journal of Health ad Social Behavior

Social Psychology Quarterly

Sociological Methodology

Sociological Theory

Sociology of Education

American Journal of Sociology (AJS)

British Journal of Sociology

Gender and Society

Journal of Black Studies

Journal of Health and Human Behavior

Journal of Marriage and the Family

Journal of Modern African Studies

Social Forces

Signs

Social Psychology

Sociological Forum

Journal of Educational Sociology

Theory and Society

Sociological Perspectives

Other journals may be acceptable WITH MY PRIOR APPROVAL ONLY


Warning: this task is probably harder than you think it’s going to be! I will distribute some sample reviews in class so you can see the format. You should also look in detail at this excellent site: http://www.unc.edu/depts/wcweb/handouts/review.html.

Your article review should consist of 2 relatively balanced parts:

  • summary of the article’s main ideas and methodologies (½ to 2/3)
  • analysis and evaluation of the article (1/3 to ½). This is the hard part. A good critique is not simply your opinion. Appropriate things for a critique might include, for example:
    • possible alternative explanations of the findings
    • alternative ways to study the topic
    • methodological concerns (validity, reliability, bias)
    • research ethics
    • etc.

General due-date guidelines:

First Draft Due: Show up in class this day with FOUR copies of your paper, one for each group member and one for me. This needs to be a full, edited, spell-checked and formatted draft. NO OUTLINES, NO “ROUGH” DRAFTS. The better your first draft, the better your second.

Critiques Due: The three non-writer group members this week will read and critique the writer’s work. Bring a printed critique (based on the rubric in the syllabus) for the writer.

Final Draft Due: Writers will turn in a final draft STAPLED with their group members’ critiques.

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