I have just corrected the first batch of my students' rhetorical analysis essays. They were...not as strong as I would have hoped. One of the most frustrating elements was the students' inability to follow simple directions. They were limited to using the textbook and the piece of rhetoric they had chosen to analyze and needed to be approximately five pages long, double-spaced.
For students, and even for some professors and instructors, the requirements of assignments often seem arbitrary; why the textbook and not online sources, if it's the same information? And why five pages? What if we can do it in two? And why a rhetorical analysis?
Seemingly arbitrary assignments that ask students to fulfill certain requirements are not, in fact, arbitrary and actually teaches them practical skills like knowledge transfer and good, old-fashioned following directions. Placing limits on the students' resources was meant to focus their attention on the task instead of research. The page count was framed to let the students know that the depth of analysis required will take about five pages. The one piece of rhetoric was, again, selected to allow students to focus, read and re-read, as well try and accomplish the proper amount of depth in their analysis. And finally, why a rhetorical analysis? Considering the amount of rhetoric students are exposed to, it seems like a worthwhile exercise to get them to think more critically and deeply about it.
Some of my students ignored the page count. Others, the resource limitations. And still others seemed not to bother with the analysis part of the assignment. These are all elements that we discussed at length in class, which they had been reading about for homework, worked on in small group discussions, and went through in the guided peer review and self-assessment. I prepared them as much as I could to fulfill at least the minimum requirements of the assignment. And yet.
They will probably never have to do another rhetorical analysis essay in their lives, although they will use rhetoric, whether they intend to or not. But they will have to follow directions, deal with seemingly arbitrary limitations, and produce quality work in less than ideal with even less guidance than I provided. Job applications, reports, presentations, bureaucratic paperwork, emails, and everything in between all have their own set of rules and directions to follow which can change in mid-stream. Plus, it's not a poor grade that the student will have to deal with, but the very real possibility that they won't get the job, promotion, sale, or even lose their job.
But students also need to be able to think critically and independently, because often they won't receive direction but a set of parameters and expectations that they need to meet. The only advice that they will get is to figure it out. While I don't expect my Freshmen and Sophomores to do their assignments with so little guidance, I do expect them to begin to actively work in order to eventually get there. It's not just about the grade; it's about their employment future.
So while I am fulling the student learning outcomes set forth by our university, I am also trying to get students prepared for life after college. Follow directions and meet parameters. There is nothing arbitrary about it.