THE ASSIGNMENT ASSIGNMENT, by Mike Branch
The assignment is to have students devise a writing assignment and then compose an essay which appropriately meets the requirements of their own assignment. Along with their finished essay, students should submit a formal assignment sheet explaining what the objectives of the assignment are, how much freedom the writer has in selecting a topic, what audience the paper should address, etc. In short, students are invited to create and respond to their own writing "requirement." In order to avoid uneven papers, you should ask your students to be very specific in drafting the assignment sheet: Are the expectations of the assignment clear? Does it provide enough structure to keep the essay from becoming too general? Does it allow enough latitude so that writers can adapt it to their specific interests? I have found the "assignment assignment" more worthwhile near the end of the semester, after students have developed an idea of what assignments are possible and a sense of what elements make an essay effective.
The first objective is to provide students the freedom to choose both a subject and an approach which is of genuine interest to them. If you find yourself reminding your students to write about "something they care about," this is one way of demonstrating your commitment to help them do so. The second objective is to encourage students to take greater responsibility for their writing. When you assign a paper--particularly if the assignment is narrowly conceived--there is a sense in which the essay is yours, regardless of who writes it. By having students write in response to their own assignment, you challenge them to be sincerely invested in the results of their efforts. The third objective is to expose some of the assumptions which underwrite most assignments and to compel students to think about what requirements a truly accomplished essay must fulfill. The ugly question "what does the teacher want?" takes on a new look when it is restated as "what do I want?" In deciding upon the demands their own assignments should make, students may come to a more personal appreciation for the exigencies of your assignments.
The results of the "assignment assignment" are always interesting and often outstanding. To begin with, the fact that each student has addressed a different topic makes this group of papers diverse and fun to read. Having set their own agenda, students often develop the personal investment which results in more inspired work. Students also tend to appreciate the assignment because it bespeaks a kind of trust--a willingness on your part to allow them a new measure of control over the product of their labor and imagination.
Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of this assignment is the constructive way in which it reveals surprising things about your own assumptions and about the ways in which those assumptions sometimes limit a student's response to conventional assignments. Both intentionally and unconsciously, students will model their assignments on those which you have given them, but their approaches will vary from your own in ways which can help you adjust your assignments for later use. In some cases I have adopted student assignments for use in other classes, and indeed, I think it a good idea to inform them that you hope their assignment will help you to modify favorably your approach to the course.