Writing Seminar Assignment Sequence

Unlike courses organized around content, a Writing Seminar is organized around three major writing assignments of increasing complexity, each requiring more sophisticated research skills. By the end of the semester each student will have produced around 30 pages of finished work.

Essay 1 (5-6 pages) // Draft due Week 2, Revision due Week 4

A short critical argument putting an object of analysis into conversation with a theoretical text.

  • All students write about the same two sources, using their preliminary analysis to develop a purpose for putting them into conversation, before extending that analysis of the evidence to critique and refine a theory or claim from scholarship. 
  • The key objective is for students to develop an original argument that responds to a genuine, source-driven motive (e.g., a tension, puzzle, or contradiction found in the source materials).
  • Objects of analysis assigned by different faculty range from novellas and graphic novels, to survey data, film and media, dress and fashion, historic sites and objects, and experiences like baking a loaf of bread. 
  • Theoretical texts include samples of scholarship and critical theories, as well as frameworks like manifestos, philosophical treatises, legislation, jurisprudence, and charters. 
  • The draft is due at the end of Week 2, giving students immediate experience developing their own insights and locating genuine opportunities to respond to a scholar and extend their understanding in light of new evidence. 
  • Success requires students to break out of the five-paragraph essay format and to begin moving beyond descriptive claims in order to make an original argument that’s supported by specific courses, carries wider implications, and that can be argued against. 
  • Students meet 1-on-1 with their instructor to discuss their draft and receive both marginal comments and an overall response letter. Students also exchange peer  feedback in two in-class draft workshops.

Essay 2 (7-8 pages) // Draft due Week 6, Revision due Week 8

A more complex argument engaging diverse kinds of evidence and methods as the student situates their analysis in a broader scholarly conversation.

  • This assignment gives students the opportunity to make considered choices about what evidence to engage and to what purpose. Faculty curate a wide array of source materials around a topic that invites investigation from many different disciplines (e.g., climate change, big data, identity and representation, or the meaning of ancestry). In addition, faculty provide 10-12 journal articles and book chapters representing a radical range of disciplinary approaches (representing the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and even applied sciences).
  • Rather than have students read everything available to them in depth, they are carefully guided through different steps choosing a subset of sources to explore and ultimately put into conversation, leading them from first impressions and curiosities to source-specific layers of motive (e.g., questions about data or objects and gaps or incongruities from reading scholarship). The work here emphasizes strategic reading of abstracts as students “choose their own adventure” and work to develop original lines of inquiry, along the way increasing their meta-disciplinary awareness and gaining experience to help them better prepare for the final research project in the second half of the semester.
  • The draft is due before the mid-semester break, and only two weeks after they’ve submitted their revision of the first paper; the turnaround is quick-paced, but this gives students the opportunity to immediately transfer feedback from their first paper to this second paper in progress. 
  • Success requires students to take intellectual risks while beginning to realize that different disciplines represent different ways of questioning and seeing the world, which in turn means they have to clearly link their analysis to layers of motive as they put specific sources into conversation with purpose. Whereas the first assignment had students respond to one scholar, they now have to organize and intervene in a conversation with at least 3 scholars. 
  • Students return from the break to conference their drafts in pairs with their instructor. Again they will exchange peer feedback in two in-class draft workshops.

Essay 3 (10-12 pages) // Draft due Week 11, Revision due on Dean's Date

An innovative researched argument that pursues the student’s own intellectual interests in relation to the course topic,

  • Students identify their own topic, while guided by their instructor and seminar librarian in locating sources, developing manageable research questions, and making an original argument that responds to a genuine motive or gap in our understanding. 
  • Success in the research and writing process requires students to invest in developing and continuing to refine the questions guiding their work, together in conversation with peers, their instructor, and the seminar librarian; typically a research proposal or literature survey serve as a benchmark in between their selecting a topic and delivering a draft. 
  • Students check in regularly about their project, receive feedback on one or more key benchmarks, and meet in a group of three to conference their drafts together with their instructor. As before, they will exchange peer feedback in two in-class draft workshops. 

Homework, Pre-Drafts, and Drafts

Homework and pre-drafts are presented as opportunities to think “out loud” on the page. These assignments ask students to generate ideas they might be uncertain about or new key terms that may or may not make it into the final draft. These low-stakes assignments are springboards into the research and writing process. As opportunities to explore their thinking, we do not expect students to submit polished pieces of writing. They also serve as important benchmarks as students work to complete their papers. In most cases these low-stakes assignments are not graded, although some may be worth a small percentage of the final course grade (e.g., 5%) if they represent a significant step towards completing a draft of one of the major assignments..

Similarly, drafts are opportunities to take risks—to go out on a limb and test the strength of ideas that fire up our students’ imagination! The drafting process provides students with an opportunity to discover what they really think about a topic or scholarly question. The process also gives them the chance to get constructive feedback, because it’s through engagement with feedback that they can craft a revised argument made stronger for having taken a reader’s perspective into account. Drafts are not graded.

In the Spotlight: Low-Stakes Writing Assignments