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When Every Word Counts

posted: 6.13.07 by Barclay Barrios

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.

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Categories: Readers, Teaching Advice, Ways of Reading
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5 Responses to “When Every Word Counts”

  1. dr. b. Says:

    Hmmm I worry that all of the words that you nix for assignments are the ones that I see allowing students to “explore” the connections between real world situations and academic writing.

  2. RWL Says:

    That’s a useful list to have in mind–though I too use nearly all of those words. I tend to use the “bad” words quite a bit, but often in the preliminary phases of an assignment–it makes sense to move from “exploring” (even if it is meandering) to “evaluating,” as long as you eventually move past the meandering bit =)

  3. Derek Says:

    I really like the idea of emphasizing verbs when drafting assignment prompts, and this list is a terrific place to start. Like dr. b, I wonder, though, whether it tips too far toward reason and the rational–toward argumentative discourse–perhaps at the expense of abstraction. Is there room on such a list for verbs such as abstract, drift, collect, annotate, create, make, juxtapose, assemble, construct, design, and so on? These are just a few that come to mind; I’m sure there are others. I just wonder whether there is a value in combining the more common verbs for academic discourse (i.e., examine, propose, assess, etc.) with verbs that suggest other avenues, too, especially in light of the curricular emphasis on complexity.

  4. Barclay Barrios Says:

    Ah cool cool. This is just the kind of feedback I need since it has me thinking in some interesting new ways. For one thing, Derek’s making me wonder if there might not be a way to extend and expand this list to account for different *kinds* of assignments and RWL is making me think about how different verbs might make sense for different *stages* of the same assignment. And, dr. b, well, you’re just reminding me what a nazi I can be in my role as WPA.

    I’m going to be revising this very material for fall orientation. If y’all have some verbs you think are handy I’d love to start assembling a revised list.

  5. Jessica Kidd Says:

    I’m curious about the “standard set” of assignments. Are they a teaching tool or a requirement for new teachers? I love the idea of such a teaching tool, but I favor giving teachers the freedom to craft their own assignments to fit their teaching styles, class situations, etc.