Essay Assignment

1. Name what you want and imagine students doing it

However free students are to range and explore in a paper, the general kind of paper you’re inviting has common components, operations, and criteria of success, and you should make these explicit. Having satisfied yourself, as you should, that what you’re asking is doable, with dignity, by writers just learning the material, try to anticipate in your prompt or discussions of the assignment the following queries:

  • What is the purpose of this? How am I going beyond what we have done, or applying it in a new area, or practicing a key academic skill or kind of work?
  • To what audience should I imagine myself writing?
  • What is the main task or tasks, in a nutshell? What does that key word (e.g., analyze, significance of, critique, explore, interesting, support) really mean in this context or this field?
  • What will be most challenging in this and what qualities will most distinguish a good paper? Where should I put my energy? (Lists of possible questions for students to answer in a paper are often not sufficiently prioritized to be helpful.)
  • What misconceptions might I have about what I’m to do? (How is this like or unlike other papers I may have written?) Are there too-easy approaches I might take or likely pitfalls? An ambitious goal or standard that I might think I’m expected to meet but am not?
  • What form will evidence take in my paper (e.g., block quotations? paraphrase? graphs or charts?) How should I cite it? Should I use/cite material from lecture or section?
  • Are there some broad options for structure, emphasis, or approach that I’ll likely be choosing among?
  • How should I get started on this? What would be a helpful (or unhelpful) way to take notes, gather data, discover a question or idea? Should I do research? 

2. Take time in class to prepare students to succeed at the paper

Resist the impulse to think of class meetings as time for “content” and of writing as work done outside class. Your students won’t have mastered the art of paper writing (if such a mastery is possible) and won’t know the particular disciplinary expectations or moves relevant to the material at hand. Take time in class to show them: 

  • discuss the assignment in class when you give it, so students can see that you take it seriously, so they can ask questions about it, so they can have it in mind during subsequent class discussions;
  • introduce the analytic vocabulary of your assignment into class discussions, and take opportunities to note relevant moves made in discussion or good paper topics that arise;
  • have students practice key tasks in class discussions, or in informal writing they do in before or after discussions;
  • show examples of writing that illustrates components and criteria of the assignment and that inspires (class readings can sometimes serve as illustrations of a writing principle; so can short excerpts of writing—e.g., a sampling of introductions; and so can bad writing—e.g., a list of problematic thesis statements);
  • the topics of originality and plagiarism (what the temptations might be, how to avoid risks) should at some point be addressed directly. 

3. Build in process

Ideas develop over time, in a process of posing and revising and getting feedback and revising some more. Assignments should allow for this process in the following ways:

  • smaller assignments should prepare for larger ones later;
  • students should do some thinking and writing before they write a draft and get a response to it (even if only a response to a proposal or thesis statement sent by email, or described in class);
  • for larger papers, students should write and get response (using the skills vocabulary of the assignment) to a draft—at least an “oral draft” (condensed for delivery to the class);
  • if possible, meet with students individually about their writing: nothing inspires them more than feeling that you care about their work and development;
  • let students reflect on their own writing, in brief cover letters attached to drafts and revisions (these may also ask students to perform certain checks on what they have written, before submitting);
  • have clear and firm policies about late work that nonetheless allow for exception if students talk to you in advance.

Brief Guide to Designing Essay Assignments

A PDF version of the text above. Provides guidance on creating carefully crafted and explicit paper assignments that encourage students to write better papers


E238 Essay Assignment Example

This essay follows the traditional compare and contrast assignment of looking at how two texts treat a narrative convention, but it is unique in that it gives two options for focus, the second of which allows students to venture into the realm of cultural studies by comparing a text read in class with a text from popular culture (a movie or television program).

Essay #1 Assignment

Worth: 15% of the course’s overall grade

Requirements: 4-6 pages. Stapled.  Double-spaced. Times New Roman 12 point font. All citations will be MLA parenthetical citation.  Include a “Works Cited” page.

Option #1: A common type of literary analysis asks you to compare and contrast elements of two different texts we’ve read (including the Kafka stories).  For example, you could analyze the similarities and differences between two characters, or you could examine how theme is handled in similar and dissimilar ways in two different texts.

For this assignment, you will draw on the writing skills that you have practiced in your interpretive responses up until now. You will focus your response, you will develop it, and you will use specific textual evidence. The difference is that you will be writing about two texts instead of one (along with new length requirements).
You may choose from any of the readings we have done this semester (or will do) up to the time this essay is due.

Option #2: Instead of comparing two written texts, you may extend your reading skills into the “texts” of the everyday by comparing and contrasting your reading of an assigned text with a reading of a “text” in popular culture.

So, for example, you could discuss the motif of privacy in We and use your reading of that text (supported with specific textual examples) to explore the presentation or construction of privacy in a popular movie or television show (such as Big Brother). Does this popular text reinforce or challenge the image of privacy that Zamyatin creates in his text? You will need to provide specific evidence from both texts to support your overall claim or thesis.

Please Note:

Be sure that you follow the standards of academic writing. Your paper will require a brief introduction, a concise and focused claim (or thesis statement), two to three main points you will address, solid reasoning, and textual evidence along with an explanation of its significance.  See the criteria sheet for more information.

**Both of these options have a lot of flexibility. Feel free to meet with me to talk through some ideas early in your writing process, or send me an email to get some feedback on specific ideas you are thinking about.

This is both a reading and a writing course, designed to sharpen your skills of textual analysis, argumentative writing, and critical thinking. To that end, your essays will be graded using the following criteria:

Presentation. Proofreading; style and readability; proper documentation (Modern Language Association Style); a clear and specific title; clear context for someone who hasn’t read the work; effective introduction and conclusion; proper format. (See appendix A for formatting guidance.)

Organization. Thesis; topic and closing sentences; relevant, focused, organized and developed paragraphs; effective sentence and paragraph transitions; clear and understandable overall organization.

Evidence/support. Specific, accurate, convincing details; effective and relevant quotations. (See appendix B for documentation information.)

Analysis. Clear interpretation; added insight into the literary work; overall coherence of argument. A grade of A is difficult (but not impossible) to receive. A B grade indicates that you have submitted work that is above average but not exemplary in quality. Receiving a C suggests that you have met the requirements of the assignments but have not gone further than the average. Your effort was adequate but not remarkable. A D means that you have written a below-average essay because you have not met some of the assignment requirements, have careless grammatical, mechanical, or punctuation errors, or have presented unclear, disorganized writing. If you receive an F, your essay doesn’t meet the assignment requirements, doesn’t answer the written assignment question, or includes an excessive number of errors.

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