Many courses assign them; too many undergraduates resent them as busy work. Weekly responses may be a fixture at Harvard, but they don’t have to be a chore – for students, or for the TFs who spend so much time grading them.
Weekly responses give students a chance to work with important course content and practice disciplinary skills. Too often, however, they are assigned with a vague product in mind, to wit:
Brief (one page) exploration of something that caught your eye in the poems for that week’s reading. Start with something obvious, something that immediately strikes you, that you can’t get away from, and explore its potential, less obvious significance by taking time to think through the details of the poem. A response paper interprets the text, but need not present a fully-formed argument.
This prompt leaves much unsaid. How does a novice learner distinguish “something obvious” from something “less obvious?” What does it mean to “interpret,” and how is this different from “argument?” While students encountering the above prompt may have encountered such questions in section, their weekly response prompt might reinforce their section learning by re-presenting the answers, rather than testing whether they’ve been assimilated.
More productive for students are weekly response prompts that emphasize process over product, help students prepare for larger assignments to come and give students the chance to know not only what they’re learning, but how. For several examples of clearly-written, cleverly-conceived weekly response prompts, check out the following handout prepared by R.J. Jenkins, former Departmental Teaching Fellow in English:
R.J. designs his prompts with student learning goals in mind, and often focuses on disciplinary skills that students haven’t yet develop – and likely won’t, if left to their own devices. Rather than asking students to pick something, anything, out of a text, he points them towards specific words, asks them what surprises or offends them, guides them through the thesis-writing process, and gives them structured opportunities to think critically. His students reported learning more, enjoying their work more, and applying themselves more. On his part, R.J. found his students’ writing more interesting to read, and far more substantive than what they had produced previously.
Designing effective, engaging prompts takes practice, but there are several resources at Harvard where you can get help. The Bok Center offers the Graduate Writing Fellows program every year; the Harvard Writing Program holds frequent workshops and does consultations with individual TFs.
Because I’m curious – and because you should be, too – I’d encourage you to poll your students, asking how useful they find weekly responses to be, and asking them to define the purpose of the assignments. Let me know what you find out!