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… And More Writing Prompts

posted: 1.28.13 by archived

Back in September, I wrote a post entitled “Writing Prompts, Writing Prompts, Writing Prompts.”  I tried to pack that post full of links to sites that offer unique writing prompt ideas.  Today I am writing a sequel to that post, looking at two recent articles I have read about the connection between writing prompts, plagiarism, and the role of the teacher in an intellectual economy in crisis.

In December, as I was grading literally hundreds of essays, I read Claire Potter’s blog post on “Grading in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Potter makes a brilliant but uncomfortable connection.  Every year as we grade, we may joke about bad student writing, or we may complain about the drudgery of the work and how boring student writing is.  But Potter suggests it may be our fault.  She even suggests that if we keep giving the same bad assignments, we can not only expect the same bad writing, but we can likely expect plagiarism too –- and we might be complicit in creating the environment in which plagiarism seems like a logical choice.   Potter ends the post with this:

“Do yourself a favor: don’t assign papers or exams that you don’t want to read… If you are bored reading their papers and final exams, consider this: you may have bored them first.”

I felt like that was a good reminder for me as I looked ahead to my next syllabus. 

Potter’s argument is not as simple as it seems, of course.  Students sometimes rebel, or silently stew, when we tell them they need to come up with their own topics, or when we push them to make a topic idea more unique, or to drop an overdone one.  In other classes (or in their high school career) they may not have been given so much freedom or responsibility.  Of course, this isn’t just the educational form of Stockholm Syndrome – some students simply work better when they are given a push, and others dislike the shell game of guessing what their teachers might really want. Its complicated.

Then, a few days later, I also read this article about a shift in the spirit of the writing prompts given to students on their college admissions essays.  As the author says,

“More schools are serving up unusual essay prompts to gain better insights into young people’s minds and personalities. Colleges also hope for more authenticity in a process skewed by parental intrusion, paid coaching and plagiarism.”

I felt a little ambivalent about this, too.  On first glance, I loved the idea.  But with a little reflection, I started to worry that these unique writing prompts might favor some students over others – students whose teachers, high school writing programs, or family backgrounds offered them the sort of flexibility to take chances. Many of the students who are already less likely to get into the best colleges or to secure merit-based financial aid are the students who could be thrown for a loop by an unconventional prompt. And when an unconventional prompt is on the menu, it begins to look risky to play it safe.  Again, its complicated.  I’m neither inclined towards nor capable of figuring this all out.  But I’m interested in your thoughts. 

Categories: Jay Dolmage
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One Response to “… And More Writing Prompts”

  1. Daniel Sharkovitz, Martha's Vineyard Regional High School Says:

    Jay, the times I have seen students grow as writers were those occasions when their teachers worked to create conditions where writing came into view as a natural extension of whatever was going on in the class. These were teachers who had for the most part ceased to view writing as something teachers did to students in the form of assignments or prompts. These teachers had allowed their students to reclaim the source of the impulse to write. Instead of training students to wait around for the assignment or the prompt to be delivered to them, students came to feel writing as a choice they made to help them realize some goal. If we allow students to own more of their writing experiences, when they confront the college essay–or similar tasks–they will be better prepared to respond in ways that are rhetorically sophisticated.