Alternative assignments

I’ve been talking and thinking a lot recently about the work that written assignments do – especially for students like many of mine this semester, who are in their last semester of college (and possibly their last history course ever).  One of my colleagues structures his upper level seminar around a publishable paper, which is an idea I wish I’d seriously considered before finalizing my syllabi for this semester.  Students who are in his class as well as mine seem much more excited about writing something that others might see than they are in producing yet another term paper that will reside forever (or until hard drive failure) on their professors’ computers, to be seen by no one else.

In some ways, the blogging assignments (I wish I could share the course blogs – they’re really fantastic this semester) straddle that public/private divide in a profitable way.  Students don’t post under their full names, and the blogs aren’t indexed, but they still exist on the internet if you have the url.  I don’t have any hard data on this, but I really do think that the writing in these kinds of forums is better than that posted (often at the last minute) to a Moodle or Blackboard forum.  I’m also really pleased with how well the requirement that students link to or reference something that someone else has written is playing out.  Sometimes these are pretty loose connections – a theme raised by a student last week might resonate with a student writing a response this week – but in both my disasters and survey classes these past weeks, really robust and thoughtful debates have developed on the blogs – it’s great to see the pedagogical aims that have heretofore resided mostly in my head make their way onto the – digital – page.

The final paper for the disasters course is meant to be a project proposal – which is a really useful exercise, doing particular pedagogical work, for underclasspeople.  As they conceptualize senior projects, they’ll have to frame and defend it theoretically, and I feel pretty good about the skills that students learn in this assignment transitioning into other assignments for other classes, and other tasks after college.  But for those few seniors in this class, I’m toying with the idea of offering alternative assignments.  I was thinking, for instance, that they might reach out to digital disaster museums (like the Johnstown Flood or Chicago Fire Museums) to see if they could use additional commentary or articles, to give the students who won’t be going on to craft research proposals a different outlet for their work.

I also love teaching with historical fiction – but that’s probably best left to another day.

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