DISing and CUSSing: Talking About Assignment Terms with Student Writers (our PNWCA conference proposal abstract)

Here’s the brief description and the abstract I submitted for our PNWCA Conference session (Bellingham, WA, April 28, 2007). We got our invitation to facilitate this session on Tuesday, and I’m excited about it. It’s not my first presentation (did one at the first annual PNWCA conference in Centralia in 2005), but this is the first one I’ve been instrumental in creating. Fun stuff.

Janice walks into the Writing Center shaking her head: “What’s a summary? I’m still not getting it.” We use a lot of terminology that feels natural to us. And often even when we explain these terms, the student still doesn’t get it. Join us for an interactive session in which we show ways to use Cheez Whiz and Ritz crackers (or other methods and props!) to help us represent assignment terms so every student can understand them.

Dis-ing and Cuss-ing: Talking about Assignment Terms with Student Writers


Our topic grew out of a Writing Center staff meeting in which we were facing the issue of some students not understanding even our best attempts to explain assignment terms such as summarize, analyze, or describe. As Ryan and Zimmerelli point out in The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors (4th ed.), we are all “sometimes mystified when explanations or approaches that make perfect sense to us do not click with others” (55).

We discovered that if we let our imaginations run free, we could come up with explanations – sometimes more like enactments – which could enable all kinds of learners to “get” the assignment terms. We used drawings, enactments, props, analogies, handouts or simply unusual or surprising words to better explain words like “thesis,” “summary,” “analyze,” and “respond.”

For example, for “describe,” we came up with a fun worksheet. Lines extend out from a circle in the middle of the page. The thing to be described is placed (either literally or symbolically) in the circle (we chose Cheez Whiz on a Ritz cracker, since that was our meeting snack that week!). Lines radiate out in five directions to represent the five senses, so that the student is invited to work her way around the outside circle filling in literal descriptions based on each sense. Another outer circle is worded to invite the student to add more figurative descriptions next to each sense. We had a lot of fun trying out the worksheet ourselves and came up with some surprisingly-interesting descriptions.

While letting our imagination run free, we also were able to come up with a list of more playful definitions – e.g., “summary” being the opposite of “wintry” – which we hope will help our participants let loose their own creative juices while they come up with their own assignment-term explanations. (Other examples include: an academic argument is a “professorial spat,” thesis is a Greek hero (or is that Theseus?) who went around saying, “stay with me here, people… focus, focus!” and discuss means to talk about something using only swear words.)

First, we will spend about fifteen minutes introducing our topic and method, demonstrating the example of our “describe” (aka “Cheez Whiz”) worksheet, and hopefully warming up our participants’ creative juices with our more playful list of assignment-term definitions.

Second, we will put our participants into small groups, having each group “pick a card” to choose an assignment term. We’ll provide creative props to help each group brainstorm and create their own new way(s) of explaining their term. (Ten to fifteen minutes)

Third, we will spend about twenty minutes sharing results.

And fourth, we’ll give ourselves about ten minutes to debrief with the group what we’ve all learned.


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