The Value of Several Short Papers over One or Two Long Ones
Dr. C.W. Sullivan III
Department of English
I regularly teach English 2100, “Major British Writers”. It is a course I enjoy teaching. In that course I get to reread and talk about “the greatest hits” of English literature from Beowulf to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Most of the students who take this course take it to fulfill a Humanities elective, and they are not English majors; in fact, until very recently, the course was not open to English majors.
The first time I taught the course, I was very dissatisfied with the students’ end-of-semester research papers, and so I set out to create a writing assignment or a set of writing assignments that would provide a better learning experience for the students. The next semester I taught the course, I assigned two research papers, one due at about mid-term and the other at the end of the term. My thought was that two shorter papers made more sense than one long one and that the students might do a better job on the second having seen my criticisms of their first. The two-paper assignment did not work much better than the one-paper assignment, and I was back to square one.
I then developed a series of 10 short papers (250-500 words each), written throughout the course of the term, that answered specific questions about the piece of literature we were reading at that time (see attachment #1). I have used this assignment for several semesters now, and I am very pleased with it for three major reasons. Because the short papers are written at the pace of one every 10 days or so, I can correct each one for content, technical details, and organization, and I can encourage the students to correct their mistakes and improve their writing. Because the students seemed to have little preparation in how to write about literature, I felt that they would learn the process of doing that specific type of writing better by writing a number of short assignments than from a single, end-of-term assignment that they would look at for the grade and then throw away. Because they were writing about a piece of literature before we discussed it in class, I felt that the writing assignment would also help prepare them to participate in class discussion, that the students would approach the reading assignment and the writing assignment as a single unit and understand the connection between the two.
The one possible drawback to this writing sequence is that the assignments do not require research. However, as this is a course that draws students from a wide variety of majors, I do not see that one more exercise in research and MLA in-text referencing and works cited would benefit those students whose majors will require other formats. Moreover, this is primarily a literature survey course and, although writing intensive, is not a writing course itself. In the former, we ask students to continue to practice skills learned in first-year writing; in the latter, we teach or review new writing skills. Further, I believe the improvement in basic writing that I have seen with this assignment far outweighs what they might learn about literary research from one or even two research papers.
The process for each individual writing assignment follows three steps:
1. Template Creation: I hand out a sample outline for a paper they might have written had one been assigned for Beowulf, the first reading assignment. I do this because I want them to have one piece of literature that they have read with me for which a template might be created. We do this in class.
2. Assignment Review: On the day before each assignment is due, I go over the topic of that assignment and ask the students if they understand the question to which they must address their papers.
3. Using Writing to Learn: The next class period, I collect the papers and then lead the class in a discussion of the question about which they have just written and comment on the way(s) in which they organized their answers. When I return the papers, they are graded P (poor—not acceptable), OK (acceptable), and G (good). When I hand back the first paper, I also hand out materials illustrating possible organizations, a list of hints on punctuation and grammar, and such.
At the end of the term, I collect all 10 papers and look over them. Most of the students are writing cleaner, clearer, and more cogent papers at the end of the term than they were at the beginning of the term. There are always slackers, of course, who do not turn papers in on time and then turn them in in bunches; they do not show nearly the improvement that the students who turn in all their papers on time show—but that is to be expected.
One of the additional benefits of having developed this assignment for English 2100 is that I have adapted it to my other literature courses, especially English 3470, Modern Fantasy Literature, and English 3450, Northern European Mythology. In the fantasy course, the students write a short paper to be handed in on the first day we begin talking about each book; the paper requires them to comment on the fantasy content of the book. Three papers from this class are attached as attachments #2, #3, and #4. In the mythology class, we spend the last third of the course discussing literature that has been influenced by mythology, and the students write a short paper to be handed in on the first day we begin talking about each book; the paper requires them to comment on the mythological content or influence on that book. Both courses also require research papers in addition to the short papers.
I have been very satisfied with the short-paper assignments in my classes. The students improve their writing, learn to write about literature, and are better prepared for class discussion of specific works. I think that this assignment could be adapted as an in-class writing exercise, but I have not done that as ten such exercises would take up too much time in classes designated as literature classes.
View the Word document version of this paper.
View a student sample paper.
View another student sample paper.