First Assignments

Crafting and Grading the First Assignments

Our comrade at last week’s webinar on using blogs to engage students and faculty, Scott Williams just blogged about how he received his first batch of essays to grade for the semester. His “rambling” reflections led me to think about our first assignment and how in the future I want to incorporate blog assignments.

The first question my students must address in a standard 3-4 page, thesis-based essay is this: “Conquest is ‘the act of conquering, defeating, or subjugating,’ while contact is the ‘intimate or close interaction between two items or among many.’ Conquest suggests dominance. Contact suggests exchange. Is American history from 1492 to 1763 best understood as an era of conquest or contact?” I instruct the students to pick one side and not to argue that “both conquest and contact defined the colonial period.” Sure, we historians know that most “either, or” dilemmas turn out to have “both, and” solutions, but I want them to learn to martial evidence to make a case. Then, I want them to use specific historical evidence to justify their broader claims. At first, this seems confusing to them, but then when I compare it to how we discuss sports or dating, it makes sense. For instance, if John doesn’t want his friend to date Judy, he may say: “Judy is mean. For instance, she called Suzy a farty, mc-farter pants the other day.” [no one laughs when I say farty, but I get tickled by it]. They instantly understand how the general point is followed by a specific example. My survey students do not due outside research, but rather use the primary sources in Major Problems, the ideas and examples from Hist, lecture material, and … concepts and points from our glorious blog.

I also provide my students with a rubric from the beginning so they know how they’ll be graded and why they earned that C-. I remember when I got back my first essay as an undergraduate. After a series of marginal notes that read “p.v.”, “too colloquial”, and “logical fallacy”, the stark red letter horrified me: “B-“. I dutifully went to the café where the graduate student held office hours (which I thought was too cool) for an explanation. The earnest grad student talked at me for 20 minutes, but I cannot remember one word she said. I had no idea how to improve and the B+ on my transcript indicates that pretty clearly. So much for my adventure with European history.

Rubrics are the best (see mine at bottom). They clarify what we want to teach; they signal to students what we’re looking for; and they make the grading process much quicker.

And now to the future. I want to devise blog assignments that work in tandem with the writing assignments. Does anybody have a good idea for an assignment where students would create blogs to address the issue of conquest or contact from Columbus to the Proclamation Act of 1763? Webinar friends … this is a time to shine with those great ideas … feel free to email me a paragraph or two if you want and we can post them.

(and for my students, indeed there will be a quiz on Monday: for some of the questions, I would look closely at how Virginian slaveholders opposed discussions of emancipation, at how Patrick Henry felt about the Constitution,  and how historians Alfred Young and Jack Rakove characterize politics in this period)

Commendable (5)
Satisfactory (4)
Inadequate (3)
Poor (2)
Unacceptable (1)
Ugh (0)
Introduction Clarity

Thesis Clarity

Secondary Context
from Lecture 
and Textbook

Use of
Primary Documents
and Evidence

Primary Documents 
and Evidence

Writing Clarity

Writing Mechanics

Appropriate References

5 thoughts on “First Assignments

  1. Thanks for linking up to my blog post here. I must echo absolutely what you say about grading with a rubric. I was skeptical about rubrics for a long time, but I find them to be very useful now. Just about every graded written assignment I have is graded with a rubric now, and it has improved my grading while also giving the students a much better idea about what my expectations are.

    I too am considering blogs, but I do not have any specific ideas yet. I am strongly considering a “flipped” classroom in the fall, and I am looking at the possibility of a blog as the primary writing space for the students. In that case, it would be more of a place to check in with questions or concerns for the students as well as a way for me to make sure that they are doing the work they need to be doing for a flipped classroom to work. I will definitely need to develop a rubric to help the students understand the expectations, although that rubric will have to be tentative in the first launch of the new idea.

  2. A flipped classroom is one where the lecture is accessed outside of class through lectures/podcasts/vidcasts or whatever means there, leaving class time for working through specific projects or issues or whatever else. It is a way to get away from the lecture as the primary method of delivery of content. The students become responsible for accessing the content on their own, and then you have a more critical thinking/collaborative experience in the class itself.

    Not sure if I explained that well, but I have also talked about it a couple of times in my blog.

  3. Ed – Really enjoying the blog, especially as I enter my first teaching experience in the Fall.

    I wonder what it would look like if you had students use blogs to express the differences / complexities of conquest and contact. For example, what about having students create blogs that were designed as fictional first-hand narratives of soldiers in Cortez’s army or John Eliot describing his encounters with Native Americans or the native peoples responding to these same encounters. If they had access to blogs what would their blog entries look like? How would they describe their interactions with native peoples or Europeans? Then, it might be interesting to allow these fictional bloggers to comment on one another blogs and vice versa. Of course, this could easily devolve and the fiction could become more important than the historical actors. But it might allow students room for creative engagement with the material.

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