In Mary Desjardins' First-Year Seminar, "Film and Female Authorship: American Women Directors," the writing assignments are designed, using clear and elaborate prompts, to lead students through increasingly complex critical thinking skills. Each assignment asks students to compare and contrast texts—but in each assignment, the exercise requires students to operate upon texts in increasingly sophisticated ways.
In her first writing assignment, Professor Desjardins asks her students to write a four-page paper that compares and contrasts the way two films - Clueless and The Blot—"construct a relationship between the ideas of femininity and consumerism."
Her prompt for this paper goes on to give the students writing advice—for example, to restrict the discussion of the movies to one or two scenes, and to be sure to use clear and specific examples. She also provides a series of questions to help students to develop their arguments. It's interesting to note that each of these questions begins by asking, "What kinds...?" "What kinds of ideals about femininity do the female characters in each film represent?" "What kinds of attitudes do you think each film has towards certain ideals of femininity?" These questions belong to the Division and Classification mode of discourse—a level of critical thinking more sophisticated than narration and description, but not as sophisticated as argument or analysis.
In short, Professor Desjardins is requiring a compare and contrast essay that asks her students to collect and then to compare observations, but that doesn't yet require students to create sophisticated academic arguments.
In her second assignment, Professor Desjardins presents her students with a more difficult problem. She provides students with articles from magazines, newspapers, and various academic journals and then asks them to consider "how contemporary women film directors have been 'constructed' as authorial agents in various print-media outlets."
In this assignment, too, students are asked to compare and contrast, but this time the comparisons are multi-leveled and more complex. For example, Professor Desjardins asks students to draw comparisons between the perception of women directors, past and present. In particular, she asks them to pay attention to differences and similarities in how women directors are talked about in different magazines (Ms., for example, as opposed to Time). She also asks students to consider any differences that might exist between how a woman director attempts to construct her own identity or media persona, and how this persona is being constructed by the media.
In this exercise, Professor Desjardins is using compare and contrast not only to move students to make sharper observations about a text, but to move them to understand text in context. It is interesting to note that in this assignment, instead of offering specific writing advice, Professor Desjardins outlines a source requirement: students must talk about at least three media outlets and must refer to at least three journal articles. This requirement also seems aimed at moving the students to contextualize both what they've read and what they've decided to write about.
While the first assignment helps students to sharpen their observations, and the second leads them to understand how to contextualize what they are reading, the third assignment moves students to consider the course's big question: Do the "marks of female authorship" reside in an artist's work, or are they constructed by her audience?
The prompt for this writing assignment carefully brings students to this question by asking them first to choose two films by a contemporary woman director to compare and contrast. The assignment then instructs them to contextualize the work. So far, the students are on familiar ground. Next, however, Professor Desjardins moves the students to the heart of analysis by asking them to look for patterns or trends within a particular director's work, and then to consider if the director's work can be comfortably categorized within the limits of an existing genre. Once the students have done this analysis, they are ready to take on the "big question." They can also start to consider whether or not the works of the director they have chosen will argue for or against the notion of a particularly female form of authorship.
In her fourth and last assignment, Professor Desjardins does not provide her students with a prompt. Instead, students must discover their own topics. Professor Desjardins hopes that the critical reading and thinking skills that the students have developed throughout their first three projects will prepare them to find, narrow, sustain, and support a topic that is academically appropriate and interesting.
We include here three of the four writing assignments from Mary Desjardins' "Film and Female Authorship" course. (The fourth is an open topic.) Please note how well-crafted these prompts are, and how they work together as a sequence of assignments that demands increasingly difficult thinking and writing skills.
Last Updated: 7/9/08