For the few of you who follow this blog, you will know that I redesigned my Introduction to Southern Studies course this spring to include what I called the Cultural Artifact assignment. Watching colleagues like Emily S. Clark and Matthew Cressler from afar use digital humanities and the “unessay” assignment, I wanted my students to dig a little deeper than simple knowledge gains regurgitated on tests about the American South. I wanted them to engage the complexity of the region through a complex assignment process. On the other side of the semester—and I’ll admit it has taken me three weeks to decompress—I think I can count the assignment as a moderate success with room for improvement.
There are two reasons I decided to try this newly designed assignment. The course sits in a general education block but in order to attract students to the course offering we designate it for the writing requirement for first-year students. The one problem I see with the Unessay model is that it already plays into students preconceived notions about writing as a waste of time and too subjective. Given that essay writing is important to the cognitive process, I used the idea of the unessay within a scaffolding process of writing. With the end product in mind—a physical artifact—students wrote a proposal on the artifact, an annotated bibliography for a research essay on the American South, a research essay designed to help students gain some depth of knowledge about the region, and then a creator’s statement about the artifact that they turned in with the public presentation of the artifact. The writing requirements for general education skew the process a little—I won’t use the annotated bibliography in the future—but the overall assignment worked for the intended goals and the general education writing outcomes.
The second reason I decided to revamp is that we decided this spring to get rid of the writing assignment within a disciplinary framework for general education, but I wanted an assignment that could still do the work of writing without the requirements. Departments are still responsible for teaching this disciplinary writing, but these courses will no longer have to carry the weight of teaching discipline-specific writing to students who will never write again in the field. In terms of the second reason, I think the spring run of the assignment helped me figure out where to tweak the non-writing requirements. There will be at least one exam in the next incarnation. Students shut down on the learning in the classroom when they think they are “only” writing essays. There are, however, reasons to keep the artifact idea. The process of thinking about an object and how to use the object to express something about the South and then explaining how those ideas appear in the object revealed some deeper-level thinking in an introduction class than I have had in strictly lecture/exam courses.
There are three images of this kind of thinking. Considering that I only suspected a collection of PowerPoint presentations at the end of the term, students mostly exceeded my expectations. The three pictures on this page represent levels of critical thinking and engagement with the assignment. There are eighteen total. In their course evaluations, the students particularly appreciated the research assignment because it let them think about ideas like social class, religion, race, agriculture, and politics in the region in a way that peaked their own curiosities. Knowing that they had to express the ideas in a physical form, the students had to think about things like representation. The use of the object also helped them to think about how the South may be distinct from the rest of the country but also how America is in some ways the South writ large. As they noted in their evaluations, the interplay between the essay and the creation of an artifact proved helpful in their thinking.
I will continue to tweak the assignment and try to figure out ways that my prompts get in the way of student creativity. In the fall the class has the potential for thirty students and I think the assignment can be done in that format as well, particularly since the writing requirements are gone. Perhaps in the late summer, I’ll continue the theme of these posts and write about the changes I made heading into the semester. At the moment I am attempting to figure out a way to get images of the students artifact along with the creator’s statement into a curated space on Mercer’s open-access server. Stay tuned.