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Best-Loved Assignments

poetry readingDo you have a favorite assignment? One that may or may not count for much in the grand scheme of the class, but that you always look forward to? Maybe, even, an assignment that never once makes you headdesk as you grade?

This week, I’m collecting finals and related work, which is not exactly a favorite assignment, even though (I think) the questions are useful, and the students (usually) are thoughtful. But I’m also sitting in my office and listening to my students recite the poems they’ve memorized over the semester as part of the British literature survey.

In any class where I’ve taught poetry, I have required memorization. It’s taken various forms: I used to require 40 lines, now it’s 20. In some semesters, I’ve had students memorize 14 lines from each period of the survey (so, romantic, Victorian, modernist, and contemporary). I frequently have students hand in a prose “translation” of the poem, along with a brief reflection on the difference between plain speech and poetic. Students have the choice of reciting the poem in class or in my office, and the vast majority sensibly pick the latter. I think it’s a good assignment, and would be willing to defend it on more or less any grounds.

I’d be lying if I said that students particularly enjoy this assignment. Some students skip it; others have explained that they refuse to do it “on principle.” One of my first years teaching, before I understood better how to prep students for it, there were often lines of students–some in tears–outside my office. Not good! More positively, former students have accosted me with bits of their poem years later, because it turns out that poetry sticks in your head.

But the reason it’s my favorite assignment is pretty simple: it’s always fascinating to see the poems students pick. There are students who pick poems that we talked a lot in class, probably because they assume I like those best or because they understand them best. A few will go through an entire anthology to discover the poem with the shortest lines. (Hello, “We Are Seven”!) And then other students pick particular poems because they love them, even when such a choice makes their task more difficult. (For example, most people find free verse harder to remember than poems with regular meter and rhyme.) There are ancillary benefits to the assignment, too: it’s easy to grade, since people either know the poem or they don’t. But fundamentally it’s like a little 90-second window into the student’s engagement with the semester’s material. Plus, pretty much all the poems are great.

So, while it’s arguably a slight assignment, the poem memorization has been one of my favorites over the years. What about you? Do you have an assignment you’re perhaps unreasonably attached to? Let us know in comments!

Photo “A Sober Poetry Reading at Brickbat 14″ by Flickr user typicalgenius / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

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