Open Inquiry about Higher Education

Purposeful Assignments as Reflective Institutional Inquiry

Posted by David N. Wright on May 17, 2016

I have been using what are generally called “purposeful assignments” in my classes for a few years now. I cannot at this point recall how I stumbled upon them–probably some long lost Twitter link. A Google search produces many versions of what I do and admittedly, this approach to teaching isn’t mine. Maybe the slant is, but I doubt it. All the same, I think it’s worth thinking about how purposeful assignments might further the agenda of open educational resources or, at the very least, the idea of open learning.

First up, I define purposeful assignments as assignments that leave some sort of legacy. Normally, the philosophy behind purposeful assignments is about getting students to engage in real-world problems rather than boutique questions more designed for curriculum than any real-world relevance. I have some reservations about having what are often highly charged social dialogues in an English (or Academic Writing) classroom. Often, and this is more observation than criticism, students at the first-year level are not really equipped to have conversations about real-world problems when the context is wide open, such as it often is in cross-disciplinary preparatory classes. If there’s a book, poem, or play to base the conversation around, even a theoretical treatise, some sort of text, then fine; I’m all in. That is to say, in a sociology class homelessness might be an appropriate topic but I am not sure about how that topic is directly relevant to a cross-disciplinary first-year class about how to write essays–what I call an Academic Writing class. I am not professionally equipped enough–and I do not have enough faith in my own knowledge of such difficult and highly politicized subjects–to effectively manage such a discussion. Nor do I think it is fair to put students in such a potentially incendiary situation when they are at the leading edge of learning how to manage rhetoric in the first place–too many things can go wrong, or overwhelm the conversation. So then, what does one do if one still wants to give students relevant assignments, but doesn’t want to encourage or facilitate difficult political conversations?

What I do is to get students thinking about what legacy their work in the class will leave. To put this really plainly, I treat every class I teach as archive building. I define purposeful as that which has some resonance and relevance to others who might follow down the path.

At the same time, I encourage students to interrogate the institution they are in–its practices, structures, and policies. It is always somewhat disheartening to me when I discover how little most students know about the institutions of higher education. Most cannot name the department chair of their major, or the Dean of the Faculty, or the President, or even have the slightest clue how governing policies and practices affect their learning and the what and how they learn. Students often have no idea how curriculum decisions are made, how textbooks are chosen, how courses are designed (and why they are designed that way); the whole apparatus around them is an opaque mystery.

While I might not be comfortable conducting highly politicized conversations about homelessness, I sure am comfortable talking about institutional structures in higher ed. I’m also comfortable getting students to think about what other students like them (the ones I will see next) will need to be successful in the course. To this end, here’s a few examples of how I go about fostering a reflective environment that gets at some of the issues higher education, and particularly open learning, are grappling with:

  1. I frame essay questions, particularly research essays, around interrogations of the institutions and its decisions. There’s lots of great, refereed, insightful academic writing about education from a variety of disciplinary perspectives–social, historical, cultural, etc.,–that students can engage with. They can also tailor their investigation to areas or disciplines that are relevant to their interests, majors, or needs. I ask questions such as “The president of the college you attend earns about $170,000.00 in annual salary. Is she worth it?”; or, “Most students require English courses, with a minimum-level final grade, to qualify for other programs or graduate with a degree. Is there any value to this requirement?”; or, “Each semester, students are required to purchase textbooks in order to complete their coursework. Is this a just practice?”; or “Defend what you believe to be the most important resource at the college you are attending.” These questions can be fleshed out, or directed more, but each forces the student to think about tailoring the argument to one discipline or course–one cannot defend a practice for an entire institution in eight pages, but they can suggest that 1st-year psychology textbooks should be open, even going so far as to actually argue that PSYCH1102 should adopt an open textbook because… This approach also allows me to discuss the issues around ad hominem arguments (that first one) and how focused and reasoned arguments often bring about real change if they are directed at the correct audience. Their research needs to poke through the curtain of machinations that govern the system of higher education they find themselves in–it moves them into an open space for learning, rather than in a space where they plod forward for “the grade.”
  2. I frame questions around definitions of institutional directions. In other words, getting students to present an argument that persuades the college they are attending’s administration to offer—or not to offer—a MOOC. Again, I’m trying to get them to figure out who the “administration” is that would make such decisions at the same time as I am getting them to figure out what a MOOC is. In other words, what would be different about presenting the argument to a Dean versus a President versus a faculty member versus a student? How would that be different and why? One could change MOOC to “open textbooks” or “Turnitin” or whatever aspect of institutional direction one wants.
  3. I get students to engage head-on with the institution’s tactical plan. Using the same general approach as above, I get students to really go at the tactical plan and what they think it means to them. How does the tactical plan effectively draw from other research about higher education? How is the tactical plan closing off venues for learning / teaching while also opening up others–what are the costs of doing so? Again, I’m getting students to engage with resources that are openly available on College websites, but that they would rarely have a need to actually consult. Sometimes, a student’s perspective on the tactical plan in insightful and enlightening.
  4. I begin my course by handing out a syllabus that has no policy statements beyond those that need to be there for good reason–academic integrity, harassment. We spend the first two weeks writing our own course policies and revising those written before by other students just like them. I get them to develop a class policy on things like the use of technology and late penalities. We look at the ones other students have developed in the course in semesters gone by, we can either adopt one of those after discussion, or develop our own. We have really interesting, charged, and politically motivated discussions about the implications of technology in the classroom, or what the penalty should be for being late, etc.
  5. You’ll note that stated I compare previous policies to the ones under development above. It’s this archival process that underlies all of these approaches. In every instance, I insist that, without any identifying markers, students reflect on how what they are doing will be of use to students who come after them. We talk a lot about how what we are writing about it relevant to them, and how knowing what they do after they have completed the assignment would help another be successful in the course. What this does is establish an audience that isn’t me (the Instructor) and turns them to thinking about how their arguments / writing will be received by authorities other than myself, or those like me. I encourage them to write tips about being successful in the course, about where they went wrong or right. I collect all these in a journal-type or online comment format at the end of the course and convert it to a .pdf booklet. I hand this ever-growing legacy booklet out to the next group of students who come into the room as an evolving coursepack. The best part about this approach is how it allows me (the Instructor) to be open about how I am approaching their grading, the curriculum, etc., why I am emphasizing certain areas of writing over others. When there is a freedom to show students that I don’t talk about semi-colons at the dinner table and that I too think a lot of the formal stuff around academic writing impinges upon creativity, we can really talk about why these things are still necessary.
  6. In the future, I’ll be getting students to build their own textbook for the course they are in. Getting them to read and select the pieces they think most relevant and writing a justification for that choice seems a reasonable and cheap and open way of leaving a legacy for future students of the subject.

There’s a lot to be said about what you’re making students do in the classroom. How is it purposeful? What end is it fulfilling? How is it engaging the student in the conversations that govern intelligent discourse? What it does for me though is offer an opportunity to let students peek behind the curtain and take account of the institutional structures that often govern how they are “graded.” The hope is that if they do so, they will get whatever it is they want out of those structures; that they will be equipped to participate in discourses around higher education.

Finally, informing all of this is of course openness. The audience is known–it’s students like them or instructors or administrators; not just “people.” The work is done so that it will be available, in the open, going forward. The assignments, essays, research, they do will be passed on to students who come after. Those students will be able to “rip, mix, burn” that work, building, stretching, collaborating on an ongoing open legacy. When work is conducted in the open, and with the implications of legacy and purpose, there is motivation to do the best you can; if for no other reason than posterity’s sake.

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