As of July 9, 2008: this page discusses my map quizzes; reading quizzes; vocabulary quizzes; and two short-writing assignments. More will follow.
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.
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).
Pros: Apart from getting them started at the beginning of the critical wars, this assignment helps drive home to them the unbridgeable gulf between those who do and don't like LotR; as we see later on again and again, it sounds as though the two opposing viewpoints are not even discussing the same book. They are greatly interested; they mostly put in a good effort on the papers; and the papers form the basis of a very lively and extended class discussion on the day the papers are brought to class.
Cons: The students' pro-Tolkien bias is usually so strong that they find it difficult either to appreciate the qualifications in Wilson's arguments, or Auden's own care in expressing his own critical judgement. They tend to be quite incredulous that Wilson's daughter could have appreciated the book at age 7 (even after being told that their own esteemed professor read it at that age, without adult assistance). Beyond that, they have difficulty noticing that Wilson bends over backwards to say how much he likes The Hobbit, and that he likes fantasy/adventure literature as a genre also--but honestly can't swallow LotR as an adult novel. At the same time, they tend to gloss over Auden's categorization of the book as a genre work, and his relatively mild celebration of its value as a Christmas present, and something which delighted him as a reader.
There are many directions one can take with this in class.
This assignment not only lays the foundation for a later paper on critical reception, but also gets us started on genre. As Stanley Unwin predicted at the book's launch, people were not going to know "what it was" in a genre sense, and critics must begin with a genre classification before they know how to approach the problem of evaluating any text. Students may not know that adult fantasy, as a literary category, essentially did not exist on the shelves of bookstores before LotR; all of this, in turn, leads to good papers on genre, reader response, conventions of criticism, the vexed question of the books' popularity, and many other topics.
Along the lines of contemporary popular female magazines, I have long wanted to get hold of the Seventeen magazine interview with Tolkien, but this particular periodical is a tad under-represented in research libraries. If you can forward a xerox to me I'd be much obliged!