The examples below demonstrate slight revisions that bring a paper topic more fully into conversation with other work in the course. We do not suggest you use topics so narrow that they could pass for exam questions; these preclude the opportunity for discovery that makes writing papers an occasion for learning. We also believe strongly in open topics, if students are guided to develop their ideas in the weeks preceding the assignment. See Designing Assignments for suggestions about this kind of guidance. For more information about crafting and staging your assignments, see “The Papers We Want to Read” by Linda Simon, Social Studies 81.1, Jan/Feb90. (The link to Simon’s article will only work if your computer is on the Yale campus.)
Before: Open topic. 15pp.
After: Write a paper that extends a question or issue we’ve worked on in the course. 15pp.
Commentary: Reference to a course topic will help ground students’ inquiries. Just framing the assignment as responding to a question or issue, too, requires students to engage their sources more actively. Both of these shifts give students a more active relationship to the paper, which reduces the chance that they will lean too heavily on someone else’s work.
Before: Write a paper on any aspect of Hamlet. 10pp.
After: Develop an argument about how Hamlet extends or engages an important issue from one of the earlier Shakespeare plays we’ve read this term. 10pp.
Commentary: Like the first example, this revision prompts students to build on something else they’ve learned in the course. We’d hope by this to tap into an interest they’ve been developing over the semester, as well as to reassure them that they do know something with which they can begin writing. By calling for an “argument,” rather than just a paper, this assignment also defines a clearer task, and so offers more implicit guidance. (Other task words can be similarly helpful: analyze, compare, refute, etc.)
Before: Write a paper comparing the main ideas in any two of the authors we’ve read this term. 10pp.
After: Compare any two authors from the syllabus as a way to challenge the distinctions we’ve drawn between materialists and spiritualists. 10pp.
Commentary: Like the second example, this prompt reminds students that they have some previous knowledge to start working with, and also narrows the field so that external sources are less likely to fit the assignment. The requirement to “challenge” a previous idea may also give students a clearer sense of what’s at stake in the paper, which can enhance their engagement in the project.
We don’t present these revisions as perfect assignments. But when students understand how an assignment is meant to extend the class conversation, they feel invited in as more active participants. Fostering this sense of agency combats some of the deep roots of plagiarism.