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Writing the First Assignment

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It amazes me how, after sixteen years of teaching, writing a paper assignment still poses problems. I feel somehow it’s alchemical, as though I need to find just the right wording so that students can transmute their thoughts into gold. I generally start the process by asking myself what I want students to do. In this assignment, I wanted to make sure students pulled out the ideas in Alvarez’s essay; I wanted to make sure they moved beyond the story. Given our overall sequence (which we’re calling Cultural Currencies), I also wanted to find a way to get students thinking about value—not just in an economic sense but also more basically, in terms of what things are worth and how they achieve and maintain importance in our cultures. My overall pattern in writing assignments tends to stay the same: introduce the concepts, give students a focused task, and then give them questions that can direct them to an argument or thesis. The tricky part is wording that focused task in a way that offers students the maximum chance for success. Here’s what I came up with:
Does Julia Alvarez believe in quinceañeras? Reading her essay “Selections from Once Upon a Quinceañera” it may be difficult to say. Perhaps that is in part because Alvarez discovers that what she thought was a simple coming-of-age ritual in fact involves complex issues of economics, immigration, cultural identity, gender, religion, feminism, family, and more. All of these forces shape (and are shaped by) each quince. Using the ideas in Alvarez’s essay, write a paper in which you determine the value of maintaining cultural rituals such as the quinceañera. You may wish to draw from your own experience of such rituals (including quinces, bar and bat mitzvahs, sweet sixteens, and more). However, if you do so be sure to treat your experience as an analytical text. The goal of this assignment is not to tell the story of your experience but instead to make an academic argument about cultures and values. Questions for Exploration: At what cost should we maintain cultural traditions? What forces can effect cultural change?  How much does it cost to change traditions? How can we balance the economic price of a ritual such as the quinceañera with its cultural value? What roles does retroculturation play in the persistence of traditions? Do coming-of-age rituals promote individual empowerment (in the case of quinces, for women) or do they prepare individuals for culturally circumscribed life roles? How can we negotiate such traditions to make them our own? If we make them our own do they lose their cultural meaning and hence their value?
I always put the primary task in bold, to add a visual emphasis and focus for students. For me, “determine” and “value” were the keys. Hopefully, this assignment gives students just enough structure to start thinking critically.
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.