In my classes, the essay option (which hardly any student chooses - my experience with that suggests most students basically do not like writing essays about literature; more on that below) has a word count range from 300-1000. That seems to work pretty well, in the sense that people who do like to go on at length have 1000 words available. Every once in a while someone sends me an email to tell me 1000 words is not enough and I assure them without hesitation that 1000 words is plenty. Unfortunately, though, a limit as high as 1000 words does not really force them to focus or to learn how to be concise. I really respect the 300-word limit for this class because it forces people to be concise... like or not. As someone who is not very concise, I know I will learn new skills by writing within that limit.
At the same time, sure, I might have LOTS of things to say that don't fit into the "essay" for the class. In my opinion, that's why God made blogs, as I said in the title of this post. We have a whole Internet and endless social networks to share our thoughts with others; a class assignment is just that: a class assignment. It almost always just goes into the virtual trashcan when the class is over. Because I don't like the idea of my work, even just a class assignment, going into the virtual trashcan, I posted my essay here at the blog. Could I have said more on the topic? Sure! Did I want to? No! Instead, I wanted to tell a story, so I spent my extra time writing out my version of The Robber Bridegroom (one of the two stories I wrote about in my essay), and posted that story here at the blog - not for a class assignment. Just for me. The very first thing I did when I signed up for this class was to create this blog. In my opinion, that is the first thing any student should do for any class they are taking - don't let your learning disappear into the virtual trash can at the end of class! Create a blog to record your questions, your thoughts, your ideas, the work you do for the class. It's YOUR learning, YOUR class... and you can record that entire process in YOUR blog.
Meanwhile, I also want to say something about the reluctance so many students have in writing essays, even tiny ones just 300 words long (that happens to be the minimum for my class). I used to have two writing assignments in my online Myth-Folklore class every week: an essay, and a story retelling. Easily half the class would write exactly the minimum for the essay (when you see an essay exactly 301 words long when the word limits are 300 min - 1000 max, you know they were straining even to reach 300 words), but people would almost always write longer stories, sometimes 500 words or 700 or whatever - but always longer than the essays. As for the content of the essays, it was usually just not very interesting to read; I suspect that is because the student was bored while writing the essay. The stories, however, were always fun to read, because they always had some kind of surprise in them, some undeniably creative spark that made the story something you never would have thought of yourself - some vivid visual detail, some twist in the plot, some surprise in the characters.
Well, last year I decided the time had come to do something about this; I was bored reading the essays, the students were bored reading each other's essays, and (I suspected) they were bored writing the essays. So, I changed the essay assignment and gave the students a CHOICE: they could write an essay based on the reading as in the past, an "enrich the reading" sort of thing like what we are doing at Coursera, but with some more specific prompts (here's the assignment) OR they could write an essay based on the writing process itself, language usage, their experience as writers/readers, etc. (here's the assignment). I figured I would get maybe half and half - half the students writing traditional essays (the English majors, professional writing majors, people who felt confident writing would choose that option I thought), while the other half of the class would choose the new alternative (the business majors, engineering majors, pre-med students, etc. - in a Gen. Ed. class, there are students from all the colleges at my school, which is a great thing about the class). Imagine my surprise when.... NOBODY wrote essays. Seriously - out of over 700 weekly assignments during the semester, there were fewer than 20 essays about the reading. Basically everybody chose the other option. Why? I'm not 100% sure why, but I suspect it is because that even if they DO like essay-writing, they do that all the time in their other classes anyway, and wanted to try something different. For the most part, though, I think people don't really like writing essays about literature. Plus, these new essays about writing and language were really fun to read, vivid, creative - and they also garnered better comments from the other students who were curious to read them, too. The essays about the cartoons were the best, since the insightful intelligence of the cartoons prompted insightful and intelligent commentary from all the students (they noticed all kinds of things in the cartoons I had never even noticed myself, that's for sure). I've made various changes to my classes over the years, but this move away from the traditional essay was the single best change I've ever made. I could kick myself for being so slow to make the change! I knew for years the essays about the readings were a problem... but I wasn't brave enough to do something about it. This is a college writing class; we have to write essays about the reading, don't we? Well, sort of - but they don't have to be your typical essay, as I discovered happily last year. And, of course, the storytellings are the best thing of all; that's why the class projects are based on storytelling, not essay writing.
Now, there is a HUGE difference between my classes, which are Gen. Ed. courses required for graduation, and this Coursera class, which is totally voluntary. People are in the Coursera class presumably because they are passionate about the subject matter. So, it makes sense that people would want to do more than the assignment expects... but, as I said in the title of this blog post, that's why God made blogs. I have really enjoyed reading the blogs of people who are in the class, and I hope that more of the really serious students will make blogs of their own. It took me about 15 minutes to write the essay for the first week's assignment... I'm spending my real time writing here at the blog. For me at least, that is where the time is well spent.
Out of curiosity, I checked: I've written 1250 words here. It would certainly improve in quality if I edited it down to be 1000 words long... but it's Sunday, my last Sunday of summer vacation, so many truly fun things to do. And, it's my blog and I can do what I want to, ha ha. So 1250 words it is. :-)