Blog: The Jigsaw

“Imagine a college student”

By Esther M. Morgan-Ellis, University of North Georgia

Note: This activity was mentioned by Kunio Hara during his presentation “Ways of Addressing Diversity in the Music History Classroom” at the 2018 Teaching Music History Conference. I’ve written it up here for anyone interested.

I conduct this activity with my Music History II class right before we encounter the music of Chopin. On the one hand, my purpose is narrow: I want to introduce the concept of “marked” vs. “unmarked” states before embarking on a discussion of identity in 19th-century music, with Chopin—whose music is variously marked as Polish, nostalgic, exotic, sorrowful, and sick—pitted against the unmarked German composers who control the narrative. At the same time, this activity has obvious ramifications beyond the topic at hand, and it might be applied in a variety of contexts.

Here are my verbal instructions:

Close your eyes and imagine a college student. Please picture this student in as much detail as possible.

So, what does a college student look like?

Is the student a boy or a girl? What ethnicity is the student? How old is the student? What kind of clothes? What kind of bag? Hair color? Hair style? Glasses? Etc.

I make a list of attributes on the board until a picture of a College Student emerges.

I’ve been doing this exercise for a number of years, and I am fascinated by the extreme regularity of the outcome. The student is always a boy (even though most of my students are women). The student is always about 19 (even though we have a large non-traditional population). The student is always in civvies (even when pictured by cadets in uniform). The student is always white. He wears khakis and a polo shirt, carries a backpack, has short blond hair, no beard, and no glasses.

Then we look around the room and try to find a College Student. There usually isn’t one present.

I explain that we have constructed a picture of an unmarked college student: an individual who doesn’t deviate from socially-constructed expectations in any way. We then list some of the attributes that might mark a college student. I usually find one or more students to pick on (those whom I know won’t be offended). If we have a cadet in the class, for example, I talk about how that individual’s appearance might mark them in different ways for different audiences. We might assume that the student in question is particularly patriotic, or disciplined, or fit. Whatever the case, they’re not quite. . . “normal.” They’re marked.

The class is immediately able to understand that the unmarked college student is fictitious. He, like all other students, has defining attributes—they are simply taken for granted instead of commented upon. They become invisible. But my students know that they are each fully “college students,” even if they don’t match the picture conjured up on the board. Our construct becomes absurd.

Then I use these terms to discuss 19th-century historiography and to position the composers we have been discussing and will discuss at various distances from the unmarked (German) musical ideal—but I always hope that my student take more away from the activity than two new vocabulary words.

Making Writing Assignments Worth Your Time: The Interactive Writing Process

The editors of The Jigsaw are pleased to publish this guest post by Kimberly Hieb, Assistant Professor of Music at West Texas A&M University and Secretary/Treasurer of the AMS Pedagogy Study Group.

We all know student writing is one of the most authentic forms of preparation for the “real world,” but as funding dwindles and class sizes increase, students write less and less. In addition to improving writing skills, research shows that writing assignments increase student engagement with course material and lead to improved educational outcomes in both specialized and general courses.[1] Students need to write despite limited time and resources, and therefore, every writing assignment must be productive.

Research completed as part of the National Survey of Student Engagement indicates three integral aspects of writing activities that lead to stronger educational outcomes: 1. the substantive quality of the assignment (i.e. the task the students are to complete in writing), 2. clear instructions and expectations, and 3. an interactive writing process.[2] I will leave the first two facets as a subject for another post and focus here on efficiently facilitating an interactive writing process without spending all of your (non-existent) spare time grading.

To make each and every assignment fruitful for your students, assign only the amount of writing you have time to comment on during the writing process. Students need the opportunity to take your initial assessment into account and edit their work. When planning the semester, assemble a calendar that includes both the project deadlines and dates for returning drafts for assignments in all of your courses to arrange a manageable workload throughout the term. As a service to your students and to avoid excuses that are certain to come later, consult with your colleagues to avoid, if possible, concurrent due dates for big projects, exams, or concerts.

As the semester progresses, be flexible with future deadlines based on the timing of your feedback and your students’ progress. Make sure students have the necessary time to take your comments into consideration, even if that means eliminating future writing projects to create space for the interactive writing process that will ultimately provide more value than assigning more work.

To offer productive feedback:

Make it timely. Aim for a swift revision cycle. Students should be getting feedback 7-10 days after submitting the work.

Comment in moderation. Productive feedback is given in moderate amounts. Don’t buy into the myth that conscientious teaching involves fixing every little mistake or re-working every unclear sentence. Students get lost in excessive feedback that is difficult for them to decipher.

Avoid copyediting. Instead, craft a shorthand to point out common mistakes to encourage students to fix their own issues and improve their writing in the long term. Skip commenting on mechanical and grammatical errors entirely and instead send students to your institution’s writing center for support. Limit your copyediting to problematic trends. Only comment once per problem and instruct the student to seek out other examples of the same problem and make the necessary corrections.

Be specific. Helpful comments address particular issues. Students learn more from a few detailed observations than a multitude of vague suggestions.

Providing feedback is time consuming. However, if you are short on time, it is still possible facilitate an interactive writing process. Consider the following:

Comment on outlines instead of entire drafts. With less text to read and correct you can provide timely feedback on the structure of an argument or the order of ideas. Requesting a point-based outline with complete sentences provides the opportunity to comment on writing basics as well.

Implement a peer review process. A blind peer review process can be conducted either in class with anonymous paper copies or facilitated via an online platform. Provide a guide for offering constructive feedback to direct the exercise. While you will still need to glance through the feedback given from student to student, this method is much quicker than reading and providing the feedback yourself. Moreover, this activity provides an opportunity for students to practice their own proof-reading and editing skills and can encourage in-class discussion regarding the writing process.

Rely on rubrics. Rubrics are time consuming initially but pay dividends later. An analytic rubric deals with issues such as a clear thesis statement, organization of paragraphs, presence and quality of topic sentences, grammar and usage, and word choices. A holistic rubric provides feedback on elements of the entire project. To localize your feedback use symbols to point to particular issues in the document. To save time later develop the rubric while writing the assignment and crafting the learning objectives.

Collaborate with colleagues across campus. While an institution’s writing center is a great place for students to get help with their writing, other departments across campus can provide excellent resources. Pairing members of your class with fellow students in the English or education department can create a powerful cross-campus collaboration, helping your students develop their writing skills while encouraging the other students to advance their teaching and proof-reading skills.

Rather than creating an unnecessary burden, an interactive writing process, if done thoughtfully, actually eases your workload. Investing time and energy in drafts throughout the semester expedites the grading of the final products. More importantly, an interactive writing process will make essay assignments more constructive for your students. While one might avoid assigning writing projects because of the time-intensive task of marking up manuscripts, it is that very activity – the feedback process – that creates vital and valuable learning experiences.

[1] Paul Anderson and Robert M. Gonyea. “Gauging Writing and Engagement Levels to Improve General Education Outcomes.” Research Presented at the AAC&U General Education Conference, February 2009.

[2] Paul Anderson and Robert Gonyea, et al. “The Contributions of Writing to Learning and Development: Results from a Large-Scale Multi-Institutional Study,” Research in the Teaching of English 51, no. 2 (2015): 199–239.