Biography Board Assignment

Contributed by Jim Henry

Course Name/Level:  First-Year Writing

This writing assignment is an example of one that reflects the principles in the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing. You can view a list of other assignments, activities, and program-wide approaches.

Brief Course Description for Assignment/Activity

This course introduces students to first-year writing to enable them to hone their senses of audience, purpose, and authorship, as they learn about our institution and as they prepare for the more advanced writing that lies ahead. We stress collaborative processes (including developing rubrics for each assignment as a class) and writing for audiences beyond our classroom. In tandem with workshops at the university library on information literacy, we teach students the techniques of research writing. We use peer review extensively, and students work over the term with a writing mentor for added individual instruction. They compile an e-portfolio at the end of the term and post it on the WWW, thus engaging with audiences beyond the classroom in very real ways and leveraging self-reflection to revisit earlier writing to render it stronger.

Framework Connections

The assignment prompts curiosity by inviting students to revisit places in their lives to communicate to the class and beyond it, while being open to examine their own perspectives as peer review will prompt such examination. It prompts creativity by asking them to explore "familiar" territory in a new way and to take some risks in hypothesizing about how places have shaped them. The draft-and-revise process supports persistence, as does the structuring of the assignment to produce first two single-spaced pages, then to expand it to four. It stresses meta-cognition strongly, in that each draft for peer review must include a page of meta-commentary, which references the trajectory of the piece in addition to pointing out perceived strengths and weaknesses and soliciting feedback. The deadlines and sequencing stress responsibility, and the multiple approaches they encounter from peers engender some flexibility. Students develop rhetorical knowledge by using the "aim, audience, authorship" categories when composing drafts and meta-commentary on them, and they bolster their understandings of conventions as we discuss what this invented genre can and should accomplish. (The editing phase of the assignment bolsters mastery of the conventions of standard edited English usage and style.) They compose in multiple environments and modes by shifting between in-class pen-and-paper review and out-of-class postings to our virtual space (including scans of their responses to peers and subsequent self-evaluation of their performances as respondents as compared with peers' posted scans and some models).

Assignment/Activity Description

This course meets our institution's standards for writing outcomes, which allow individual instructors leeway in designing the FYW course so long as they meet the expectations for outcomes. My approach has been to focus the course on sustainability as its overarching theme. This assignment is the first in a series of four that students encounter, and it serves multiple purposes: it enables the establishing of a learning community, it introduces students to peer feedback techniques, it introduces them to composing meta-commentary on their writing as a preliminary to sharing it with anyone for feedback, and it serves as a foundational exercise for subsequent place-based assignments: (1) conducting fieldwork on the campus as place; (2) composing first-person accounts of a local place and supplementing it with archival and/or online research on that place; and (3) composing a research project on some topic in sustainability.

Research/Scholarship Connections

The assignment is grounded in theoretical work by such scholars as Nedra Reynolds, Derek Owens, Sidney Dobrin, and others who urge the integration of place-based composition hierarchically across writing curricula. Their theoretical work dovetails with local scholarship in Hawai'i that urges scholarship on place, sustainability, and the concept of 'aina in Native Hawaiian thought.

Download the "Composing a 'Geo-Biography': How Have the Places Where You Have Dwelled Shaped You?" assignment

You name it, Newhouse students have written about it: schools, government, trends, the weather, food, music and on and on.

Lately though, assistant magazine and communications professor Corey Takahashi has been assigning a story topic that for many students is entirely new: themselves. As part of his “MAG 500: Web, Mobile and Interactive Magazine” class, Takahashi assigns the students to produce a one- to three-minute autobiographical video.

The purpose of the assignment is twofold, he says: it forces the students to tell their own story and create a finished product that can be a great marketing tool in the highly competitive job market.

The results are often entertaining, enlightening and engaging, he says. (Watch several examples below.)

“While many students are skilled in telling the stories of others, they’ve rarely produced a story about themselves, with the benefit of constructive feedback from peers and a professor in class,” Takahashi says.

When produced well, a student’s bio video gives potential employers a unique look at the student as a job candidate, and it proves the student has video and storytelling skills. Takahashi requires the assignment of his graduate students and it is an optional makeup assignment for undergrads. He says students usually approach the video first thinking about what’s on their resume. He encourages them to think more about their “whole story” and what narrative can be told in a few minutes.

“What I like about the medium of video is that when you’re writing in text it could always be decontextualized, (an employer) could read only part of the page. But with video, they watch it from beginning to end and they get it in the order that you want it delivered,” he says. “And it can travel across any platform on any device.”

Many students in their videos talk about where they grew up. Others include details about influences in their lives: books, music, art, internships. Takahashi tells students to think about “what would make an interesting conversation if you were having lunch with an editor.” That advice has lead students to include their own ukulele music, footage of what growing up in a tough neighborhood looks like and emotional details of a sick parent.

And while the students tend to find the assignment challenging, they come away from the experience with new skills and a video to use in the job market. They learn as much about themselves as Takahashi does, he says.

“It forces students to think about who they are and how they convey themselves verbally,” he says. “They haven’t thought about what special qualities they are bringing to the marketplace. It’s forced introspection delivered in a performative and entertaining video."


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