Cheryl Pallant's "Bad Paper" Assignment

Have students write a poorly written paper. Yes, you heard me - poorly written. A bad paper. The paper that gets you cringing or tossing it back into the pile with dismay. The type with common mistakes or glaring ones. Tell students they must intentionally incorporate a few, or several, mistakes into their paper: organization, choppy sentences, faulty logic, verbosity. Limit spelling mistakes, however, which can make the paper too difficult to read. Keep the topic of the paper open and the length short, no more than 2-typed pages.
Students think this will be an easy paper to write. They also think the teacher is crazy for assigning such a writing. Geared up students are in for a surprise.

Collect the papers and choose a few to photocopy and share with the class for critiquing and determining a grade. Keep students’ name off the paper, but give them the option of claiming their identity. Together analyze the paper for its strengths and flaws. Explain that as a Bad Paper assignment, what is poorly written, solicited, is good; what is well written, not solicited, is bad. This is Alice in Wonderland logic to be sure, but watch what emerges from the hole during the critiques. Keep the discussion Carrollian, light-hearted but also critical.

This ends up a fun exercise to get students seriously eyeing papers for errors. Comments like “Look how many dangling modifiers there are in one sentence!” or “The author’s thesis is abandoned after the second paragraph” prompt gasps, laughter, and a reminder that this poorly written paper is likely to get a high grade. With this assignment, a terrible paper, which warrants a “B+” or “A,” becomes an honor. The exercise reduces the anxiety concerned with achieving a good grade and the shame of writing poorly - the student can always fess up and claim, true or not, that the unintentional error was intended.

Rather than regarding critiquing as a dreaded activity, students eagerly scan the paper to identify strengths and flaws, and teachers can slip in lessons on grammar and mechanics. Students learn to identify their writing weakness, discover that writing fears are common, and get a boost of confidence. Some, veering away from their writing habits, may stumble into writing a better paper than ever. Most come away from the exercise learning that writing a bad paper is more difficult than they imagined, and they look forward to writing their next paper, a good one.

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