Assignments

Created July 9, 2008.
Domain owner/operator: Associate Professor of English James McNelis, Ph.D.

As of July 9, 2008: this page discusses my map quizzes; reading quizzes; vocabulary quizzes; and two short-writing assignments. More will follow.

Preamble

The Pedagogy Page on this site explains the general situation for teaching a lower-division college literature class, as I have experienced it. The page below will be restricted to suggested assignments, and comments on how they have worked in my classes.

Map Quizzes

On first blush, it may seem odd to quiz students on maps of an imaginary world. The first reason is quite simple: I found that they were not looking at the maps when reading the books. LOTR, of course, can't be followed or understood without having the geography of middle Earth in mind; nor can Tolkien's process of creation, which, as is well known, started with names and proceeded to geography. First-time readers (whether of Tolkien, or of books in general) are always overwhelmed by the book's torrent of characters past and present, and place-names hither and yon; the maps provide one of the tools the reader needs to keep some of it straight.

The second reason is, of course, that most of them have little or no experience of reading any other kind of maps, either. Accordingly, I think the exercise has practical "real-world" value as well.

What I do is make a sheet with map sectors 1, 3 and 4 (2 has the least amount of geography necessary for following the action, so it saves time to omit it from the schedule); draw in the margins spaces with arrows pointing to particular places; white-out the names on the map; then provide a list of names on the side. That is, they are to take the listed names and insert them in the blanks whose arrows point to the relevant locations, so they are being tested on the map rather than on name-recall. Each quiz is given at an appropriate time in the reading, e.g., just when they first need to know the geography of the area covered in the next section of the story.

Reading Quizzes

Obviously, I can't post these online, but the general idea is to ask questions that may seem, to the adult reader, ridiculously easy. But they are mostly intended to be so, so long as one has done the reading. Questions as easy as "Who looks into the Palantír even after being warned to stay away from it?" reward the student who has paid even moderate attention while reading, and, at the same time, incur a penalty from any who base their coursework on the films (though someone who had watched the extended version could admittedly get this one).

I do add some which are designed to catch those who substitute the film version for the reading; these can cover material which did not appear in the films (e.g., Bombadil), characters whose roles are switched (e.g., who is it who solves the elf-riddle inscribed in the gates of Moria? Who saves Frodo at the ford?), or events which do not take place in the same way (e.g., the death of Saruman; or, Sam's use of you-know-what while he rescues Frodo from the orcs).

You should make two different versions of each quiz to use in the same class, not just between different sections. I rearrange the questions into a different order, without announcing that this is my policy; the lesser lights get clobbered on at least the first, and possibly two or three, quizzes where they cribbed from the neighbor before they see what is going on. After that wears out, though, it is best to have different questions (these can be managed simply by rearranging the first version, e.g., from "who did what," to "to whom was it done"). The vocabulary quizzes-- in which I have words in a column on the left and definitions on the right, with a space to indicate the matching number or letter from the first column--can be modified simply by changing the order of column A or B.

This two-test stuff does not make grading harder; one just puts them into the two distinct piles, and does first one, then another.

Contrary to many administration's policies, it is in fact legal to have the students pass quizzes around and grade each other's work before it is handed in (the Supreme Court said so, no less). Of course one needs to vary it--"pass your quiz one person to the left/two people to the right," or whatever, to keep them from finding a pattern they can exploit by prearrangement by classmates. They always like seeing their grade immediately after the test, and then may pass it up for your own recording in your gradebook at your leisure.

All of this may sound very "high school," but the fact is that most of them got away with cheating in high school, and need to be taught that smart instructors with authority to design their own classes can stop that stuff cold. And rather than resent all of this, generally, the good students are grateful for it, since the cheats get what they deserve, and those who have made a moderate effort are well rewarded for it.

For a final, I incorporate some vocabulary quiz, some reading quiz, and some map quiz. I have found that by end of term, there is a large amount of amnesia about the first book, so I warn them there is an emphasis on questions from Fellowship. At the same time, the last reading quiz of term shows that end-of-term stress, or perhaps a lack of interest in the story after the fall of Sauron, has caused a great fall-off in completion of the final reading assignment (Scouring/Havens). Including questions from those sections--again, with advance warning--gives them a second opportunity to complete the book, and to improve their grades (as well as the comprehension of the book necessary for the best performance possible on term papers).

Short Writing Assignments

I assign several two-page writing assignments, both to fulfill the W-course requirement that students should write something for class every week (or nearly so), and because the two-pagers can be a foundation for the student to build the longer term papers upon. They often later develop the ideas they first expressed in these papers in more polished and in-depth form.