There are lots of exciting ways students can engage actively with their learning, both to further their understanding and to convey that understanding. (Writing is for thinking, ideally, not just for following a safe recipe.)
The key is to figure out what the ultimate goals are--really going back to fundamentals--and then start from there.
If students are supposed to draw connections between the course material and the rest of the world, then allowing them freedom to explore is appropriate.
If students should master a particular, real genre, not necessarily a "school genre," then having them understand the conventions of that genre is helpful.
If students are supposed to become expert in a spinoff topic, then giving them free rein is appropriate.
If students are to become lifelong writers who have options about how to best convey their message to particular audiences, then having them figure out what's appropriate in diverse moments prepares them to think it through.
If students are supposed to achieve perfection in academic-style writing, following every arbitrary (it seems that way to students, believe me; I've asked) instruction, then it is asking for corner-cutting, imitation, going through the motions, and dread.
There are lots of colleagues all over the place engaging in, well, engaging assignments. Some fall under the general container of "unessay" (here and here).
Here is a list of what my own students have produced, just in the last year:
- Short stories
- “This I Believe” essays
- Interviews (with strangers, friends, classmates, family members)
- Position papers
- Mapping of campus/landscapes
- Conversation analyses
- Book reviews
- Journal articles
- Senior/honors theses
- Dissertations--okay, not undergraduates
- Research articles
- Food logs
- Landscape mapping
- Linguistic autobiographies
Nobody could argue that the authors and creators weren't learning, or that they were not putting in effort.
Some of the work was brilliant, inspired, amazing! Some was a first, brave, risky effort at trying a new format, genre. A football player wrote his first poem since middle school. A doula created a series of paintings depicting different food prohibitions during pregnancy, having interviewed people of different ages and from different countries. A student made a mosaic; another made a cartoon of the ways personhood remains the same and changes over the lifespan. Someone created a food-waste brochure. One student wrote a letter to his younger self. I welcomed this experimentation. I learned a lot, and ENJOYED, what my students were doing. They did too.
Learning, writing, doing don't have to be painful drudgery to be worthwhile.
Comment below with your own ideas, if you like!