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Genre-Bending Writing Assignments

Shayna Sheinfeld

Assigning a research paper always seems like a good idea. Until I'm grading them. Don't get me wrong, the research paper has its place in the undergraduate classroom, and I especially see its value in upper-level classes. But for lower-level courses, specifically survey courses, I have stopped assigning them in favor of more creative assignments. Call it what you will, the alternative genre assignment focuses on non-standard academic writing, and the results are beautiful and often fun assignments that engage the (beginning) student and sometimes ensnare them in the topic. That's the idea after all, right? To educate them on the topic, but also to show them why it is worthwhile to learn.

There are numerous reasons why we should ditch the thesis-driven paper in at least some instances: First, assigning a variety of genres allows students from different backgrounds/disciplines more opportunity to succeed, based on their personality and training. [1] Choosing creative assignments challenges some students who prefer a more standard academic form, while other students who might perform poorly with a typical essay have a chance to shine. Second, genre-bending assignments offer a way to access material that might otherwise be overwhelming for the beginner. A student unfamiliar with a field or topic may be intimidated or overwhelmed by the amount or difficulty of the source material; allowing creative engagement gives a student permission to take chances with the material, creating familiarity between the student and the sources and often promoting ownership of the knowledge. Third, and often the most persuasive for me when I'm considering forms of assessment for a course, creative assignments are more fun to read and grade. The prospect of reading 30 (or 60, if I'm teaching two sections) papers that address the same topic is daunting and tiresome. A well-crafted genre-bending assignment with a clear rubric (for you as much as for the students) is easy to grade and fun to read.

Some genre-bending writing assignments: [2]

» Letters to/from people—I use this when I teach my Bible class, which includes the New Testament, but the assignment could easily be adapted for any topic. In my assignment students chose from multiple selections of text, and write a letter that would elicit the canonical response of Paul. In this example, students learn to think about Paul's epistles as just that—letters to/from specific people for a specific reason. This often alters their thinking about Paul as "scripture" and instead thinking about him as a person writing to some people in a particular context and dealing with a particular situation. Letters can also be used to role play a particular viewpoint—for instance, students could write a letter from the perspective of a medieval theologian like Rashi to a modern theologian, such as Buber, analyzing their reading of scripture. Letters do not need to have a thesis, but they challenge students to become better acquainted with the importance of the context or thought of a particular person or event.

» Short creative writing assignments—This assignment is limited only by your imagination. I have used it to have students explore the contours of a particular definition, for instance writing a mini-apocalypse based on the generic definition provided by our textbook. The assignment is low-stakes, worth only 2.5% of the final grade, and I mark it based on their ability to adhere to the definition, which is more challenging than it seems at first glance. However, after the assignment students know the definition well and are able to use it as a criterion for examining potential apocalypses in class. Also, the creativity itself is not graded, so students can be as wild or mild as they desire, and they are fun to share in class; for instance this semester I received the Apocalypse of the Cured Meats. Another example: students rewrite portions of ancient fiction, changing the agency or point-of-view of a character, in order to explore different hermeneutical lenses such as feminist or post-colonial.

» "Translation" assignments—students are to "translate" a short text into a different medium, for instance comic, video, news article, etc. This assignment focuses on understanding the text through "translation," being aware of one's interpretive biases, and applying it to a different medium to share the message.

For many of these assignments I also assign a 1-page reflection or explanation page—essential, for instance, for the "translation" assignment. This allows you access to the thinking behind the decisions the students have made, as well as a time for them to reflect on their challenges. For all of these, I keep the assignments short—1–2 pages in most instances. I am a fan of brevity, both because it means I have less to grade but also because it means that in order to do well students have to get to the point and cut out the fluff.

Shayna Sheinfeld is visiting assistant professor of Religion at Centre College.

[1] See, for example, G. H. Jensen and J. K. DiTiberio, Personality and the Teaching of Composition (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1989).

[2] Like many pedagogical ideas, the examples listed here are a conglomeration of my experiences, trial and error, discussions/ideas from colleagues, and ideas gleaned from reading about pedagogy.