I’m three weeks into the spring semester, and I uploaded my feedback on my students’ first major assignment a few days ago. I’ve never assigned this project (a literary autobiography) before, so I didn’t know what to expect from it. It’s pretty small stakes, in comparison to the other major assignments, but it was something I decided I wanted to try this semester for multiple reasons. In today’s post, I thought I’d describe the assignment and my reasons for creating it, just in case someone reading this is looking for some classroom inspiration. I think this assignment would work well across many education levels, in case any high school or even middle school teachers have stumbled across this post.
Some course background:
If you haven’t read my older post describing this class, I assigned this activity in my ENG 125: Literary Narrative course. This semester, I’ve redesigned it (see original design here) as “Exploring Young Adult Literary Narratives,” so it’s basically a YA lit survey course. ENG 125 is a general education class that English majors cannot take for any credit towards their major, so the demographics of student majors is pretty varied. Of course, that means student interest in reading and writing is also quite diverse. With this dynamic in mind, I wanted to start the semester by trying to help my students realize just how prominent and influential literary narratives are in their lives. Some students wouldn’t need this revelation, of course, but I didn’t want to start analyzing our required class texts without first making evident at least one reason for why we were going to be doing this work all semester. So, I assigned the literary autobiography on day one (which this semester happened to be a Wednesday rather than a Monday) and it was due a week later.
The general assignment Description:
In the instruction sheet for this assignment, I introduced the activity as follows:
As a general education course, the main goal of this class is to help you see and make connections between literary narratives, your life, and the world around you. To help you start getting into this mindset, you will complete this small activity before we begin analyzing the YA novels and other literary texts on our required booklist.
The basic question you will answer in this activity is, “Up to now, how have literary narratives been a part of your life and how have they influenced the person you are today?” These narratives do not need to be Young Adult literature, nor do you have to stick only to written narratives. Literary narratives are all around us, not just in the books we read, but on television screens, movie screens, plays, video games, toys, amusement parks, and more. Did you carry around a Winnie the Pooh stuffed bear for most of your childhood? Do you read a certain book every time you’re feeling unsure of yourself? Do you binge watch a certain show on Netflix every time you get together with your best friend or romantic partner? Do you create complex stories for each of your Sims characters? Do you cosplay or write fanfiction? All of these actions are examples of how literary narratives connect to who you have been or currently are as a person. The goal of this activity is to help you start consciously making these connections and considering why these literary narratives mean/have meant so much to you.
When going over this information in class, I was very emphatic about the fact that literary narratives aren’t just books they’ve read, but movies and tv shows they’ve watched, and potentially video games they’ve played, as well. I brought in my Tigger stuffed animal that I’ve had since childhood, and explained that I could write about this toy as part of my autobiography because my reason for getting it so long ago and keeping it now is directly related to my love for the literary narratives in which this character is featured. I loved the Pooh movies and book adaptations as a child, and I’ve read and taught Milne’s Winnie the Pooh as an adult. I also brought in my Ravenclaw headgirl pin that I bought during my trip to Universal Studio’s Wizarding World last summer. I have quite a bit of Harry Potter memorabilia, and I could write pages and pages on how this book and movie series has influenced my identity. Half my dissertation is about this series. To not mention it in my autobiography wouldn’t make any sense. So, what texts would need to be included in their literary autobiographies? And, even more importantly, why?
Creating the assignment:
Whenever possible, I prefer to give my students multiple options to choose from when completing an assignment. See my ENG 170 and ENG 125 pages for examples of what I mean. In this case, students could take a straightforward approach or a more creative approach. Here are my descriptions from the assignment sheet:
Option 1: Write a 2-page literary autobiography (double-spaced, 12 pt font, times new roman, no heading) in which you reflect on the question, “Up to now, how have literary narratives been a part of your life and how have they influenced the person you are today?” Make sure to be specific in your autobiography. If certain literary narratives stand out to you when thinking of your answer to this question, make sure to include them in your writing.
Option 2: Create a non-narrative autobiography that requires effort equal to writing a 2-page narrative. The format of this piece is up to you. Collections of “Top 5/10” lists, infographics, poems (that you write yourself), etc. might interest you. Creating a board game, poster, picture book, or PowerPoint presentation might be more interesting instead. These are just some ideas. Whatever you decide to do, make sure it’ll be clear to me how the information included answers the question, “Up to now, how have literary narratives been a part of your life and how have they influenced the person you are today?”
As I considered this a low-stakes assignment (grade-wise), and they only had a week to complete it, I designed the assignment requirements to be focused on thinking a bit more analytically about their experiences with literary narratives rather than on writing something lengthy or creating something that would take hours of work. Here’s my instruction sheet description of how I’d assess their autobiographies:
I’ll be grading this activity based on the following criteria:
1. Have you met the activity requirements for the option you picked?
2. Did you take the time to answer the question in a thoughtful manner, or did you just write about various literary narratives without making clear connections to you and your life?
3. Criteria 2, said a bit differently: Is the autobiography personalized to your experience, or is it so general that anyone could have written it?
Considering the minimal requirements, I knew this would be a pretty quick activity for my students to complete. And once they were submitted, I was really curious to see how this first attempt at using this assignment would go.
What I Learned from the responses:
Considering the personal nature of the assignment, I did not want to ask my students if I could include excerpts of their work in this post. Discussing their actual responses isn’t the point of this post, anyway. Rather, I want to end my description with what I learned from this assignment.
1. As I designed this assignment over winter break, going into the semester, I definitely worried that the activity was too open-ended, that it could lead to just summaries of literary narratives my students enjoyed rather than explanations for how the texts they decided to mention influence(d) them as individuals: as children, siblings, friends, romantic partners, students, workers, humans. Turns out, there was no reason to fear that response. Whichever assignment option they picked, what they wrote/created clearly explained why they were including these literary narratives in their autobiographies.
2. My interest in getting to know each student on a more individual level was a secondary reason I assigned this activity. The last time I taught a gen-ed course, two students made their dislike for the course quite clear in their evals. As someone who struggles with focusing more of my attention on all the positive rather than the little negative, I went into designing this course with this feedback in mind. I wondered, How could I make sure that I knew at least some basic information about those students who will never speak aloud in class or attend my office hours? My answer: Ask them to complete a short, low-stakes assignment that requires them to open up, but only to the extent that they are comfortable with. I was amazed by what some of my students were willing to share with me after knowing me for less than a week. I was also impressed by how many of them spoke of the social element of experiencing literary narratives, as I feel the connections we make with others through these texts are not discussed often enough. We do not read/watch texts in a vacuum, so why would we talk about them that way? Overall, then, I felt this secondary goal was also accomplished through this assignment.
3. In most of the courses I’ve taught, students don’t turn in their first major assignment until a month or more into the semester. While I don’t consider this an issue, assigning this activity so early on gave me a chance to see if students had any issues turning in assignments via our class website and also making sure that they understood what a literary narrative is in the first place.
4. Through my individual feedback, this assignment allowed me to share some of my own similar experiences with literary narratives with my students. While I won’t know if my students feel more connected with me because of this assignment unless they tell me at some point this semester or on their evals, I definitely feel more connected to them. All students come into the classroom with different lived experiences. That’s common knowledge. With this assignment, though, it’s become impossible for me to overlook this dynamic of the classroom. No two students are alike, so we all (my students and I) need to communicate with one another and work together to make sure our classroom experiences are creating a learning environment for all those involved. Hopefully, I’m on the path to doing just that.
I’m definitely planning on using this assignment in my future courses. The specific details might change depending on the type of course I’m teaching (first year writing, gender in the humanities, children’s literature, etc.), but I think the benefits of an assignment like this one outweigh the fact that it means I’ll need to start my grading process much earlier than usual.
Do you use your own version of this assignment? If so, I’d love to hear about your own experiences in the comments.