relevant reading assignment.

This semester, I’m teaching the second iteration of a senior seminar I created last year. The class, Socialization and the Life Course, explores social influences on our lives from before birth to after death. The class was wildly successful last spring and it’s shaping up to be just as good – although quite different – this time around. One of my favorite additions to the class is what I call the “relevant reading assignment.” I thought I’d share it here for others to consider.

Thanks, in part, to the input of scatterplot readers, I ended up considering a number of books for inclusion in the course. Unfortunately, there just wasn’t time to get from before birth to after death in a semester without skipping a lot of interesting research if I drew on books rather than articles. Last year I made a point to tell students about books related to our topics. I think two students ended up seeking out at least one recommendation. Not great numbers. This semester I found a better solution. I selected a variety of books that I wished I could include in the course and had students choose one that they would cover in a hybrid (presentation/paper/discussion) assignment on the day we covered a related topic. Yesterday was only the first day, mind you, but the student did a fantastic job with Armstrong’s book Conceiving Risk, Bearing Responsibility.

In a handout I articulated that the objectives of the assignment are for students to:

…read an academic book, to learn more about a topic and see how this type of writing – which is different from the texts and articles common in classes – is done.
…reflect on what you’ve read. I don’t want a review or a report, but a reaction.
…share what you learned with me and with the others in the class.
…relate this outside work to the readings for that day and the topics that we’ve talked about in this class. In other words, I want to see integration of this material.
…serve as the resident expert on the topic – to offer up facts or findings, and to demonstrate what you know to your fellow students and to me.

To accomplish these objectives, the assignment has three components:

Written Assignment (3-4, double-spaced pages): While I would like to know what the book said and what you thought of the book, I don’t want this paper to solely take the perspective of a review or a report. You can begin with a brief summary of the book – its main research question, method, and findings – but should quickly move on to other topics. Here there is flexibility in what you ultimately write about. However, potential focuses might be: What was most interesting, surprising, important, or confusing? What examples, respondents, or discoveries will stick with you? Be sure that your paper at least briefly relates the book to socialization, the things that we’re learning in class, and the other readings for the day. Also, please provide a couple sentences on whether you’d recommend this book and who you think would most like to read it or benefit from it.

Presentation (5 minutes or so): This is not a formal presentation, but instead an opportunity for you to share the same ideas that you presented in your written assignment with the class. You can share from your seat. While you might use the written assignment as a guide, refrain from reading from it or including everything that is in it. You want to present targeted material in a way that engages the class and allows them to ask questions if they have them.

Discussion Leadership: There is nothing to formally prepare here. However, you need to be comfortable enough with the topic and the book that I can call on you to provide – or you can offer up without prompting – examples or insight from the book that is related to what we’re discussing in class that day.

The result was truly breath-taking – one of those moments where students surpass your wildest expectations. Even if yesterday was an anomaly (I do realize the problems with an n of 1), I hope it was an anomaly that demonstrates the potential of the assignment. I also hope that it’s the model that sets the tone for the rest of the semester. The student really became the resident expert. She was impassioned and persuasive. The students asked her almost 10 minutes of questions, which prompted further class discussion and generated a lot of interest in the book among the students and will hopefully make them more likely to seek it out on their own. The presenter found interesting connections to the current course material (on the various discourses of pregnancy and childbirth) and set it up perfectly for me to introduce social construction theory and for us to discuss the day’s reading.

To summarize, if you’d love to use books, but just can’t find the space for them, I highly recommend something along the lines of this model. I am sure there are many variations that people are already using, but this was entirely new to me. It works well because students are not only be exposed to a variety of books – with an emphasis on one – but they are encouraged to engage the book and their peers, while enhancing the course’s material for everyone. It also seemed like having a book, rather than an additional article, gave the student the confidence that she had something unique to add and a wealth of knowledge on a particular subject.

6 thoughts on “relevant reading assignment.”

  1. I do variations on this with my undergraduate classes (sometimes I’ll have them responsible for a chapter, other times for a whole book, depending on the context).

    On the flipside there’s incentives to not screw up and be embarrassed that make students do these assignments well. It forces a responsibility on them to the group which is good. I often mention that explicitly — “you are all responsible to your classmates for this going well”

    I hope your n of 2 and more is as good!

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    1. Thanks for the tip. I’ll be sure to remind the students that part of what made the first day fantastic was that they all took ownership of the exercise – even the non-presenters. Hopefully they’ll keep it up.

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  2. I was wondering whether this is a graded assignment and, if so, how you defined the grading standards? It seems obvious that it is a small class.

    I like the idea of the oral part being a relatively short initial presentation followed by a Q&A — more lively than a longer lecture.

    Let us know how the rest go.

    BTW I think it is psychic transmission: I’ve been planning to put up a short post about a teaching thing I did that worked well, too. Just kind of waiting for the dust to settle on the most recent posts.

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    1. I hope you’ll post your own teaching thing soon, OW.

      This is a graded assignment. Although I don’t have an explicitly defined rubric, I tell the students that I follow Notre Dame’s grading standards for all assignments and course grades. For this first student I provided feedback on all three components of the assignment and gave her a grade based on that. After I’ve done this one semester, I’ll probably come up with something more specific.

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