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Onward to Appiah

posted: 12.15.10 by Barclay Barrios

My TA, Ryan Dessler, took the lead in writing the second assignment of our sequence. I generally feel like the second assignment is crucial. Once students are working with more than one author the potential for critical thinking really blossoms. In working with ideas from two essays, students really have the chance to practice skills like synthesis.

Here’s the draft of the assignment:

Is a truly cosmopolitan world possible? Well, Kwame Anthony Appiah makes his case for such a possibility in his essays “Making Conversation” and “Primacy of Practice.” But we also know from Julia Alvarez’s “Selections from Once Upon a Quinceañera” that it is a challenge for people within a common culture to agree on the meaning and definition of things like quinces, let alone larger global issues. With both readings in mind, examine the possibilities of unique cultures reaching across social and geographic borders and enacting positive social change through Appiah’s idea of conversation.

I sent some comments back to Ryan:

I like the basic thrust here but I would make at least two suggestions. First, I think you could use a stronger verb than “examine.” Students can create meandering papers with “examine.” Consider “determine” or “propose” or even “evaluate.” Second, I think you’ve made it too easy and too restrictive by specifying “conversation” at the end. I would end the sentence at “social change” and then start the Questions for Exploration with something like “How might Appiah’s concept of conversation help you?”

The above comments indicate just how much I’ve learned about writing assignments. First, verbs matter.  I’ve found that some verbs (like “examine”) don’t really prompt students to take a position, which is one of the things we want them to do. Other verbs move them toward a real focus. (I’ve included a list of my favorite verbs in an earlier post, “Choosing Verbs”). The comment about being too specific is important, too. There’s a delicate balance in writing the assignment: we want to provide enough structure for struggling students while not making it so limited that other students will feel bound by the terms of the assignment.

Here’s Ryan’s revision:

Is a truly cosmopolitan world possible? Kwame Anthony Appiah makes his case for such a possibility in his essays “Making Conversation” and “Primacy of Practice.” Yet we also know from Julia Alvarez’s “Selections from Once Upon a Quinceañera” that it is a challenge even for people within a common culture to agree on the meaning and definition of things like quinces, let alone larger global issues. Using both readings, write a paper in which you assess the possibilities of unique cultures reaching across social and geographical borders and enacting positive social change.

The assignment now strikes a good balance between structure and creativity, and will hopefully result in clear, focused, and individual essays. What do you think?

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Categories: Emerging
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