Saturday, July 21, 2007

Misunderstanding the Assignment

I am using Doug Hunt's Misunderstanding the Assignment in my TA Strategies Class this fall, and just finished re-reading the book. Now I need to remind myself why I decided to use it!

1. Accessibility: The TAs I have taught the last three years have often struggled with the more traditional academic article approach, or even the collections of essays I have tried. They have particularly been mystified by the debates the articles are often a part of. Perhaps steering away from the debate is going to turn out to be a bad idea, but I thought I would try a book that doesn't try to argue strongly for a position so much as try to increase readers' understanding of what happens in a first-year composition course.

2. Relevance: What could be more relevant than "seeing" how somebody else negotiated a semester of teaching first-year composition? I started to record my classes last semester, but I ran into some technical difficulties, and I was not capturing the students' perspectives. The 11 person research team was able to capture classroom data, student interview data, instructor interview data, and author analysis.

Upon re-reading it, and thinking about it as a teacher of teachers, I'm thinking about the following complications and possibilities.

1. The course taught isn't very much like the course we teach at NDSU. It seems to be a cultural studies class of sorts, asking students to analyze TV shows about the family, read and analyze free will in pieces of fiction. A syllabus and assignment sheets would have been a nice addition to the book. The big ideas are front and center, the teaching of writing happens inductively through workshops, conferences, and "Mr. Paragraph" classes. I do think this difference will turn out to be valuable in the long run, but the new TAs might have preferred to "see" a course more like ours.

2. I am excited about the possibility of "re-playing" some classroom scenes and some 1-on-1 conferences. I'm not saying the teacher handled situations incorrectly, but the book gives real situations (students in class who keep asking "what do you want?"; students in conferences who say little or nothing) that we might try to role play to give the new TAs (and me!) other strategies for handling these common situations.

3. I would like to design a smaller scale study modeled on this book. I have only 4 new TAs to work with, and they are primarily engaged in the process of learning how to teach, but I want to try and introduce them to the scholarship of teaching and specifically classroom research. My interest in computers and writing has me thinking that I would like to research the most overtly technologized assignments in English 120 and see to how our students are understanding them. I would probably ask the new TAs to function as the eyes and ears in my class (to put me under the microscope, rather than them), to conduct one interview with a select # of students, and probably to survey the 120 class as a whole. I used this mixed methodology with TAs two years ago and we published "What's Going On?"; maybe this year's cohort can develop another article.

A quick search revealed that Misunderstanding the Assignment was reviewed in Composition Studies and College English, but it doesn't seem to have made much of an impact on the field. I think its project is worth extending--good book.


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