Every Fall 2020 Syllabus Needs an “Or” Option: A Sample Assignment

By the end of summer, we all will have reinvented our syllabi to account for varying degrees of hybrid teaching. We will have reimagined the structure of our semesters to make our syllabi and ourselves flexible enough to fit the circumstances, whatever they may be, at our respective campuses this fall.

Educators across the world have done a heroic job teaching online and sharing resources in an emergency, and we know that we will do an even better job creating community, recognizing what students need, and assigning manageable workloads from the get-go this time.

Why “or” matters

When I introduced the collaborative spirit behind an early American Lit survey course to colleagues — a communal collegiality I cultivated with students to co-create the syllabus — someone noted that my syllabus had a lot of “or” options. Of course it did. By offering students options (e.g., a midterm paper or biweekly reading reflections; a final paper or digital project), our syllabus catered to every student.

Yes, every student. How am I so sure? Our class had extensive discussions about accessibility, small group and class-wide deliberations, and used consensus voting to make amendments to the document as if we were on the U.S. Senate Floor. Everyone participated and we didn’t just follow a majority: we took the suggestions of dissenters and used them to make the syllabus better. Thus, we had several “or” options for course requirements.

This is the kind of careful and slow inventory work it takes to do this as a community. While we might not have the advantage of meeting in person on the first days of classes, we can do something similar by surveying our students before the first day, using virtual Think-Pair-Share activities on the first day, or doing more legwork together in hands-on co-creation in a shared document throughout the semester.

Or we can simply write more “or” options into our syllabi, which is the very least we can do to cater to more of our students, to meet them where they are.

Whether you typically assign papers or exams, one “or” option is to assign a digital project that asks students to apply knowledge and methods from the course. One way to do this is to edit a Wikipedia article related to the course topic, and to do it thoughtfully, carefully, and with evidence to support the changes and “show the work.”

Below is a sample assignment, one I offered as an alternative to the final paper in that early American Lit survey course. It easily could be adapted to any course on any subject, in STEM and in the humanities.

The Syllabus

Below is an excerpt from my syllabus, where I first introduced the “or” option for the final paper/project.

Final Paper or Final Project (40%)

Subject to negotiation and revision: Your final paper (8-9 pages for the research paper or 3-4 pages for the narrative reflection on a digital project) must have a thesis-driven argument about at least one of the texts covered this semester. Please use MLA or Chicago Style format. Your paper must engage with 2-3 secondary scholarly sources. (Why “2-3,” you ask? If one source provides biographical or historical information without literary criticism, you need three.) I recommend you meet with me during office hours in [insert month here] to discuss your thesis. Writing prompts available upon request, and individual projects to be determined and agreed upon one month in advance of the deadline. First thesis paragraph drafts and/or outlines and 2 sources for projects will be due ______________ (to receive feedback only, no grade).

The assignment

Originally, when I first developed this assignment, the requirements were drafted with the students interested in the digital project option. We did this via email. Below is a finalized, polished version you’re welcome to pilfer and repurpose!

Digital Project: Editing Margaret Fuller’s Wikipedia Article

The major problem of the Margaret Fuller Wikipedia article (as of Fall 2018) is that the resources are outdated and there has been so much recent scholarship on Fuller that could be useful to Wikipedians. A major problem with Wikipedia is that only 9-10% of the contributors are women (90% are male; 1% identify as other). 

Of the resources available on the Margaret Fuller Society website, Margaret Fuller and Her Circles, Female Genealogy of Transcendentalism and the biography by Megan Marshall are very good collections of scholarship by women. One great resource on Fuller’s Conversations series is attached.


  • Create a username and user page with content to be considered a legitimate Wikipedia editor; watching several Wikimedia tutorials online before you begin is highly recommended.
  • Make 5 substantial edits to Margaret Fuller’s Wikipedia article (or another article of your choice, approved by the instructor in advance) 
  • Add 5 citations to reputable resources, ideally published in the last 5 years, and/or add embedded links to further reading
  • All edits, major and minor, must be accompanied by notes explaining the changes, which will appear in the “View history” tab
  • Write a polished narrative reflection (minimum 3 pages double-spaced) about what it was like becoming a Wikipedia contributor and what you’ve tried to accomplish with your edits. 
  • In the reflection itself or in an appendix to the written reflection, include screenshots of the changes you made on Wikipedia (to do this, click on “diff” or “prev” in the “View History” tab to see changes side-by-side)

All these things will be due by ______________. Note that if you are a new user, it may take time for your changes to be accepted and implemented on Wikipedia. Create your account, username and user page several days before you plan to begin committing changes. Submit your changes well before the deadline so they will be integrated in time for grading. Keep in mind that the more citations you add and use, and the more notes you leave in the “View History” tab, the more likely your changes will take effect and not be reverted/reversed in future by other users.

The grading rubric

It is just as important with a digital project assignment as it is with a white paper assignment to have a grading rubric. That’s a tip I learned from the Graduate Center’s Teaching and Learning Center. What I didn’t realize was how easy it was to take my grading rubric for final research papers and adapt it to a digital project like this one. Here’s the rubric I used to grade my students’ work in their reflections and Wikipedia pages.

Thesis Statement & Blueprint

[Passing] Explains the problem or question being addressed; presents the digital project’s purpose or thesis; and provides an overview/blueprint of the project.

[Almost There] Problem statement missing; thesis unclear; does not fully answer the question or make the blueprint clear. The first paragraph could do more to answer the “so what?” question.

[Failing] Paper begins with no (or unrelated) context; lacks thesis statement; reader is confused about what the paper is trying to do.

Quality of Ideas & Argument

[Passing] Strong insights; remains focused on the thesis; good reasoning; gives very specific points rather than generalizing; ideas are original and thoughtful.

[Almost There] Some good insights; loses focus on thesis; gaps in argument; unsupported generalizations (e.g., needs more citations and to outline clear reasons in the comments to the published changes so that other users might be deterred from reverting back the changes made); ideas are not complex and unoriginal; thesis is an obvious, not an arguable claim.

[Failing] Fails to adequately earn conclusions about thesis; contains no clear argument; descriptive rather than analytical; ideas disconnected, unsupported, or unrelated to thesis.

Presence and Relevance of Evidence

[Passing] Excellent use of at least two scholarly sources; paraphrasing and direction quotation of sources present and appropriately applied to further thesis; effectively provides relevant examples and textual evidence.

[Almost There] Uneven use of evidence and examples; more summary than analysis of text; evidence not always directly relevant; overreliance on one source.

[Failing] Lack of evidence and examples; evidence, if provided, not related to overall argument; limited reference to textual materials.

“Unpacking” Evidence

[Passing] Student introduces quotes with a phrase and integrates them into the sentence with smooth transitions and proper format; “unpacks” quotes and explains why evidence supports argument; doesn’t use lengthy or block quotes.

[Almost There] Student introduces quotes but fails to unpack them; significance of quotes not readily apparent; uses lengthy or block quotes without breaking them down (analysis of quotation should be as long as the quotation itself); many quotations used to recount plot rather than support thesis.

[Failing] Student slaps quotations down into paper without an introductory phrase (i.e., the quotation is a stand-alone sentence); student does not explain or unpack quotes at all; unclear whether student understands source being used.

Organization & Clarity

[Passing] Clear, well-organized paper that follows the blueprint; paragraphs are well-developed; paper flows logically with strong topic sentences and use of PIE (point, illustration, explanation) in most paragraphs; reader doesn’t get lost.

[Almost There] Generally sound organization; some topic sentences strong, others weak; some paragraphs not fully developed (lack of use of PIE paragraphs); reader occasionally confused by awkward organization; overreliance on quotations and illustrations without fully developed analysis to begin and end each paragraph, making it difficult to follow thesis.

[Failing] Poor organization and fails to show a blueprint; paper not structured around coherent points and paragraphs; prose is hard to follow and understand; poor sentence structure gets in the way of meaning and purpose.

Editing & Manuscript Form

[Passing] Flawless paper and Wikipedia edits, or an occasional minor error; looks like a professional narrative reflection and edits include clean and clear notes and citations that follow the conventions of Wikipedia editing.

[Almost There] Distractions due to spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors; writer seems a bit careless; varies from Wikipedia conventions somewhat.

[Failing] Paper and/or project contain serious errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation; lack editing; do not follow MLA/Chicago format or Wikipedia conventions; title and citations are missing.

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