Social Sciences and Assignment Construction Challenges

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Saxon_airport+selfie+2014.jpgGuest blogger Jessica Saxon is a faculty member at Craven Community College in New Bern, North Carolina, and she teaches composition and literature courses. A former WAC coordinator at Craven, her primary interests are WAC/WID programs and creating partnerships with other community colleges and universities. She is also pursuing a PhD in narrative theory and nineteenth-century British literature at Old Dominion University.

This post is the third in a series. View previous posts: First Time WID Jitters and My Comfort Zone and Natural Sciences and My Magic Bullet


I am nearing the midway point of my semester in ENG 112, which means I have to plan the upcoming social sciences unit. When I was building the course in August, I was not sure what I wanted to do in the social sciences section. When I created the course calendar, I used a generic “research paper” marker throughout the unit. “Social sciences, something, something, research, APA, something interesting” was still all I had figured out for the unit until just a few weeks ago. Between talking with my colleagues in the social sciences and reading through An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing, I finally have a plan and a project: a social sciences theory evaluation with primary and secondary research.

Creating a new assignment can be daunting. While I borrow liberally from my colleagues and from textbooks, I also want the assignment to be uniquely my own and to work for my specific students and institution, which means that I revise or redo assignments every semester. Sometimes I only make small changes. But other times the changes are pretty radical. Creating the theory evaluation assignment—even with the support from colleagues and An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing—has been challenging, and I am sure that as I get into teaching the project I will have to make some adjustments. But here’s what I’ve got so far:

The Assignment and Schedule

Students are asked to choose a theory from a social science field. I encourage them to choose something from a social sciences class they have already taken. But I will also be supplying them with a list of possible topics in case they get stuck. They will have to find at least four secondary scholarly research sources on their topics, and they will also have to conduct some form of primary research (documenting their personal experiences, interviewing someone, surveying a group, or observing a group). Their final project must be at least six pages of essay with title page, abstract, and references in APA format.

In their essays, they will have to explain their theory, discuss the research on the theory, and apply the theory to their own experiences and/or the experiences of others. We will also work through various ethical concerns with primary research (such as the privacy of participants).

Students will have the month of November to complete the project:


Writer’s Journal #12: Writing an Argument

Introduction to Social Sciences Writing and Theory Evaluation Paper


Writer’s Journal #13: Primary Research

Introduction to Primary Research Skills


Process Assignment #12: Theory Evaluation Questions

Theory Evaluation Questions Workshop


Process Assignment #13: Theory Evaluation Sources

Theory Evaluation Sources Workshop

Introduction to Formal Outlines


Process Assignment #14: Theory Evaluation Outline

Theory Evaluation Outline Workshop


Process Assignment #15: Theory Evaluation Draft 1

Theory Evaluation Draft Workshop 1


Process Assignment #16: Theory Evaluation Draft 2

Theory Evaluation Draft Workshop 2


In-Class Work on Theory Evaluation and Theory Evaluation Self-Reflection 

Theory Evaluation Paper (Due by the End of Class)

Process Assignment #17: Theory Evaluation Paper Self-Reflection (Due by the End of Class)


I still have a few weeks to tinker with the theory evaluation paper and the social sciences unit. I think I have a solid foundation for the project. However, I have never written one of these papers before. I have experience with every other writing genre/project that I have assigned for this class. This project is truly a step into the unknown for me. But I think I have a strategy for tackling the unknown: I may try to write my own theory evaluation with my class. In completing the project with my students (ideally working a few days ahead of their schedule), I may be able to see potential gaps in my assignment or lesson plans and be able to address the problems before my students get to them. Plus, I think it might be interesting to let my students see me working alongside of them—it might open up occasions for larger discussions of writing processes.

Of course, what sounds like a great idea in October may fall apart in the harsh realities of November. Other classes will need to have assignments graded and classes taught. This ENG 112 class will still need feedback on their journals and process assignments. Administrative reports for other projects I work on will have to be written as well. So while I might not actually be able to write the whole theory evaluation paper with my ENG 112 class, I’d like to at least make it halfway through the process with them.

How do you approach creating a new writing project assignment? What resources do you draw on when creating assignments? How often do you revise or create assignments for a class? Have you ever written a paper with your students in order to test out your assignment? If so, how did students respond? And did it help you improve your assignment?

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About the Author
Susan Miller-Cochran, now Director of the Writing Program at the University of Arizona, helped shape the First-Year Writing Program at North Carolina State University while she served as Director from 2007-2015. Her research focuses on instructional technology, ESL writing, and writing program administration. Her work has appeared in College Composition and Communication, Composition Studies, Computers and Composition, and Teaching English in the Two-Year College, and she is also an editor of Rhetorically Rethinking Usability (Hampton Press, 2009) and Strategies for Teaching First-Year Composition (NCTE, 2002). Before joining the faculty at NC State, she was a faculty member at Mesa Community College (AZ). She has served on the Executive Committee of the Conference on College Composition and Communication and the Executive Board of the Carolinas Writing Program Administrators. She currently serves as President of the Council of Writing Program Administrators.