When Every Word Counts

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I've been working with a GTA on the standard set of writing assignments used by new GTAs and adjuncts every fall. Since he's teaching our FYC course this summer, we get to test out the assignments and we get all the sample papers we need for orientation. Anyway one of the things I've been sharing with him is how very crucial each word can be in an assignment. One wrong word can wreck an assignment and just shifting to a new verb can prompt super successful papers. In fact, we spend a lot of time on verbs in our spring orientation, which is designed to help the fall's new teachers start writing their own assignments for use starting in the spring. Here are some of the verbs we look at how to write effective assignments:
  • explore: tend to avoid this one since the paper can end up meandering
  • reflect: this one can prompt a lot of interiority and some regurgitation
  • discuss: too generalized; doesn't encourage students to find a central argument or focus
  • argue: creates a for/against, win/lose, balck/white mentality
  • defend: combative stance
  • refute: combative stance
  • extend: good word because it asks students to move beyond the readings
  • examine: not too bad
  • evaluate: good word because it asks for some sort of critical thinking
  • propose: good because it asks students to articulate a position
  • assess: good like "evaluate"
  • demonstrate: can be good, depending on the object
To give you some sense of how these play out, we use sequences writing assignments a la Ways of Reading, though with our own readings we're putting in a custom reader. For a more specific example, here's the rough draft of our fourth assignment for the fall:
This semester we have read works that deal with a variety of complex systems— universities, the world, Wikipedia. Our final reading, “The Animals” by Michael Pollan , takes place on Polyface farm, yet another complex system. It is safe to say that nearly all facets of life in the twenty-first century are small parts in highly dense and interconnected world. Using Michael Pollan’s “The Animals” and at least one other reading from this semester: Write a paper in which you examine the economic potential of complexity.
It's funny. I always forget how hard it is to write an assignment until I sit down to do it. Then I hem and haw and tweak and tweak... changing a word here... a verb there... frustrated and crazed... all to get the assignment just so.
About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.