Misunderstanding the Assignment

This is a little bit of post-semester light reading.  The book is an in-depth look into the first four weeks of a FYC course at a Missouri State University.  The relevance of the first four weeks is that it is the introduction to a great many things for the freshman.  They meet their peers, their instructor, and more interestingly, what it means to write in college.


The book is a narrative, and in a lot of ways, it is a postmodern narrative.  The plot is laughably unremarkable for anyone who has stood in front of a composition course with a syllabus and a set of expectations, and I would argue that the plot’s commonness is the strength of the book as a piece of writing intended for teachers to think about their assignments through their students’ perspective.

While it is a narrative, it is also a piece of insight into the inner workings of students’ minds, a place where few instructors can go although many of them might feel compelled to disembark on that journey if only to figure out What are you thinking? While reading, the WPA in me was debating whether or not a book like this might be useful to practicums.

The book is a study of a FYC classroom.  The study was conducted by Doug Hunt in the classroom of a PhD candidate named Rachel.  Hunt wired the classroom for sound and video, conducted interviews, poured over students’ writing, and we get to see the first month of a composition class unfold.  Hunt admits that the results may be skewed, and how could they not be?  My attempts to recreate special moments in the classroom can certainly attest to that, and there’s no wireless mic sitting at the edge of my table.

Hunt frames his book through a very romantic conception of the FYC course, a place where meaning breeds and develops and breeds some more, “meanings stacked layer-on-layer.”  In a lot of ways, I suppose that is true, but to say that meaning runs rampant in the way Hunt describes might be a little unproductive.

[The student] is asked to discern at least one of [the text’s] meanings, and then to make a meaningful comment about that meaning.  The teacher must comment not only on the accuracy of the student’s reading of the initial text, but the meaningfulness of his or her ‘meaningful’ comment.  The teacher’s comment then becomes another ‘text’, ripe for interpretation or misinterpretation, and another round begins.

I have been in the classroom only a short time (a couple of years), and I feel like I am pretty well acquainted with the kinds of activities described above.  Still, on the first reading of this section, I got the heeby jeebies. But, I can see the value in what he is doing. Comp is messy, and often, the activities that make it work only add to the messiness.

The Students

The seven students are the show.  We watch them come to class, not come to class, provide rationale about why or why not they love/hate the assignment, love/hate writing, etc.  And while listening to these students through transcripts, I can hear many of the students who I have met in my couple years of teaching.

The student sample tries to be as inclusive as possible, but Hunt rightfully admits that because the study takes place in Missouri, many of the kinds of students that an instructor might encounter in a more populated place are absent.

Still, the kinds of personalities are there.  The student who receives the most attention in the book is named Katie.  She is made to be the villain. Why?

Before all of the students misunderstand the assignment, we meet them, and more importantly, are given a way to think about them.

Interpersonal Development

In a lot of ways this book is a contribution to the debate between the use of personal and academic writing in FYC.  Students in the book are deeply concerned with strengthening their social ties, and the majority of them (with the exception of the ‘bad boy’ Carl) need the approval and often the motivation of others to encourage them to act.

The more successful students in the class (and there are only a few) can forego the necessity to express, develop, or change their self.  The more successful students are interested in the institution of education — how to get in, fit in, do well, etc: “For now, we are in freshman composition where students who are more-or-less Interpersonal confront work that is more-or-less institutional.” Those acting through the Interpersonal are concerned with their work through the eyes of others while those who are moving toward an Institutional way of thinking are concerned with doing it right for the sake of doing it right.

Katie is the most interpersonal in the book.  She speaks little of herself, only her friends.  She talks about her past education through the eyes of her friends, and when she fails the class because she could not self-motivate, she calls it “stupid.” She goes to college, because it is the thing to do.  Rather than being a means to a goal, it is the goal.  I know this student well, and sadly, although Rachel, the instructor, tries, Katie did not pass.

Misunderstanding the Assignment

Nobody got the first assignment right.  Students were asked to find nuance, and instead, they compared and contrasted.  Instead of writing a college paper, they wrote another high school essay.  And why not?  They had never seen a college paper.  They do not know what relevance, importance, significance, or meaning is.  They know there is a formula to an “A” paper, and they stuck to their formulas.

One student, an engineering student, is one that I have encountered often.  They have a penchant for being obsessed with “right.”  They ask questions like, “Is this right?”

Most intriguing to me was students’ obsession with language rather than content.  As Sommers suggested in her “Revision Strategies” article, these students translate, fill in blanks, and often come up short.  This leaves everyone frustrated, instructor and students a like.

Methods and Merit

For those interested in writing profiles of students in pieces of research, this is a nice piece of work.  For those interested in the other side of the classroom (the students’ side), this is a nice piece of work.

I am deeply intrigued by the notion of interpersonal v. institutional development although it does bear some heavy implications for the state of higher education.  It suggests that some students may not be college ready and may not need to be retained for the next semester.

Hunt, Douglas. Misunderstanding the Assignment: Teenage Students, College Writing, and the Pains of Growth. Portsmouth, NH:Boynton/Cook Heinemann, 2002. Print.

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