In the third unit of the semester, students were asked to write a short essay (750-1250 words) on a profile subject of their choice and conduct an interview. The assignment consisted of an interview of a subject, historical and/or contextual research on the topic, and the synthesizing of primary and secondary sources into a single writing product.
I modified this assignment slightly from its original design. In this unit, I shifted the focus of this assignment away from personal writing toward a field-report style essay. Students were not allowed to write about a person: they had to choose a place, thing, or idea that they could experience locally. The interview portion of this essay was also limited in that students could only interview a person that they did not know well - no family members, friends, or close family friends.
I scaffolded daily writing assignments and homework to assist students in their writing processes. Throughout the unit, students were asked to choose a topic, write a descriptive paragraph about the topic, turn in draft questions to ask their interviewee, and hand in an early draft, though there were more steps that this. Additionally, students as a class set a due date schedule on a Google Calendar which was shared with the class. I also provided an Excel spreadsheet with the student-chosen due dates to allow them to track their progress and keep me informed. No penalty was assessed for students who did not take advantage of the tools or did not comply with the student-chosen due dates, though I did speak with students outside of class if they appeared to be falling behind.
Ultimately, the unit went well. In my verbal introduction to the unit, I told my students that they should consider the Profile Unit as an essay which combined skills they had honed in previous units, i.e. use of descriptive details and first-person narrative, while practicing skills they would use in EN 101, i.e., research-based writing and synthesis/analysis of outside research. I encouraged students to explore campus and look for local and campus events which would make good subjects. Some students were reluctant to write in an unfamiliar genre with an unfamiliar process, but we as a class frequently discussed issues students were having. Students offered each other advice for ways to reach out to research subjects and collectively explored approaches for completing the assignments. Thus far, student feedback on the unit has been positive.
If I teach this unit again, I will be more specific about potential topics. Many of my students wrote about their sorority and fraternity houses or organizations, and while I do not have a specific objection per se, I wished some of those students had been a bit more risky in their choices. Also, I didn’t enjoy reading a dozen-plus essays about the various organizations. That said, one student wrote about “Bid Day” and another about their sorority house’s history, both of which were rather compelling. So rather than forbidding students from writing about Greek organizations, I’ll ask those students to explore ways to frame that essay differently. I think this would improve the quality and increase effectiveness of all essays.
I did give students an extra week to write this paper than listed on the standard syllabus. With the way Fall Break fell at the close of Unit Two and as students were beginning Unit Three, they seemed to have some difficulty switching mental gears between personal writing in the Memoir Unit to research writing in the Profile Unit. As Unit Three drew to a close, several of my high-performing students approached me about potential extensions or expressed desires to visit the Writing Center but were unable to due to time constraints. Several students reported having major exams or assignments in other classes. Other students experiences issues in reaching their interview subjects within the time frame. I felt justified in giving students an extra. Upon announcing the extension, the visible relief that swept through both of my courses told me I had done the right thing.
I personally enjoyed teaching this unit. I got the opportunity to experiment with several different lesson plans and in-class activities including a group peer review, a drawing session, and analysis of a professional profile of a writer and musician which included listening to some of her music in-class. All of these lessons went well and let students produce some really great material.