Replied to a tweet by Jesse StommelJesse Stommel (Twitter)

When you worry students won’t understand an assignment, the answer is often not to add more instructions, but to take instructions away.

Students get bogged down by all the words and minutiae we clutter assignments with. I think the best assignments are spare and evocative, not weighed down by expectations.

But this also means making sure we don’t have “hidden” expectations — making sure we are genuinely prepared for students to do something novel and unexpected. And prepared to work (or collaborate) with students at any point in the process.

I’ve seen assignment sheets for 1-page papers that were themselves more than a page. I wouldn’t demean anyone using those. As teachers, we care deeply about our work. But I’d ask whether all those words are actually helping get us or students closer to the germ of the work.

The final project for my digital studies course goes to the other end of the extreme. In the syllabus, I call the prompt “deceptively simple.” It’s just 8 words: “do something on the Web about the Web.”

When students ask for clarification, we talk about what’s possible, about all the ideas they have, even maybe imaginatively about the kinds of stuff I might do in their place. I tell them my final project is the course syllabus I’ve been building (with their help) all semester.

I don’t add more instructions. I don’t answer “do you mean,” “can I,” or “are you looking for” kinds of questions. I don’t show examples (unless students get really stuck).

The point of an assignment, for me, is not to create gotcha moments or to point students toward paint by numbers outcomes. An assignment, in my mind, should be like a canvas for students to experiment upon.

Not all assignments can be expressed in just 8 words. Some are more intricate, layering different skills atop one another. I teach with that kind of assignment as well.

As a side-note, I’ve actually stopped using the word “assignment” altogether. I say the “work of the course,” “do some stuff,” or “project” to remove transactional language like “assignment” or “submit.”

I also don’t have students “turning in” their work to just me. By whatever means I (or we) devise in a given semester, students share their work with each other (and also me) or with the world.

Me also, my instructions (across the board) have become more and more spare over the last 20 years. I have 50 students this semester, and I've gotten only about 3 questions all term about instructions or logistics.

I’ve noted before the idea of 10 word answers with relation to politics and complexity highlighting a short video snippet from The West Wing.

Jessie Stommel distills assignments down to a roughly similar 8 words, but then smartly relies on students to fill in the complexity of the idea with their own work. In the West Wing framing, he’s asking students to give the next 10 words and then again and again. Filling out the complexity of ones’ ideas is really where learning takes place.

His idea is closely related to the one I had been making about Trump’s communication style. Though even in the completely made up versions of things like the Turbo Encabulator, teachers will need to be careful about what’s coming back in the assignments.

👓 Isoroku Yamamoto | Wikipedia

Read Isoroku Yamamoto (Wikipedia)

Isoroku Yamamoto (山本 五十六 Yamamoto Isoroku, April 4, 1884 – April 18, 1943) was a Japanese Marshal Admiral of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) and the commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet during World War II until his death.

Yamamoto held several important posts in the IJN, and undertook many of its changes and reorganizations, especially its development of naval aviation. He was the commander-in-chief during the early years of the Pacific War and oversaw major engagements including the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway. He was killed when American code breakers identified his flight plans, enabling the United States Army Air Forces to shoot down his plane. His death was a major blow to Japanese military morale during World War II.

👓 The Woodard projection | Jon Udell

Read The Woodard projection by Jon UdellJon Udell (Jon Udell)

In a memorable episode of The West Wing, visitors from the Cartographers for Social Justice upend CJ’s and Josh’s worldviews.

Cartographer: “The Peters projection.”

CJ: “What the hell is that?”

Cartographer: “It’s where you’ve been living this whole time.”

I’m having the same reaction to Colin Woodard’s 2011 book American Nations. He sees North America as three federations of nations. The federation we call the United States comprises nations he calls Yankeedom, New Netherland, The Midlands, Tidewater, Greater Appalachia, The Deep South, El Norte, The Far West, and The Left Coast.

Here’s his definition of a nation:

nation is a group of people who share — or believe they share — a common culture, ethnic origin, language, historical experience, artifacts, and symbols.”

I love the concept of this thesis! Ordering a copy of the book for myself.

I’ve lived in Greater Appalachia, The Deep South, Yankeedom, The Midlands, and the Left Coast and I’ve always unconsciously known many of these borders within culture. It’s often been difficult to describe the subtle cultural shifts and divides between many of these places to others. I can’t wait to read a book that delves into all of it depth.

👓 The Coming Wave of Murders Solved by Genealogy | The Atlantic

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The same DNA analysis used to find the alleged Golden State Killer has led to the arrest of a second alleged murderer. It’ll likely lead to more.
I can see this going to the Supreme Court sooner than later on privacy related underpinning. I can’t help but recall the words of Jed Bartlett in The West Wing when he was saying in season one that privacy would be one of the most pressing issues for the Supreme Court in the coming century.

👓 Aaron Sorkin has been given the go-ahead for a West Wing revival | Radio Times

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But will the original cast return to the White House?