The first assignment for a course I teach on managing innovation in organizations asks students to compose a 1000-word essay (i.e. the much maligned five paragraphs) where they theorize an innovation-related issue in a given podcast. The ‘rules’ for the assignment are pretty clear: use theory from class (i.e. theory that your reader also knows), use only the presented data (i.e. everyone listens to the same podcast and uses only that podcast as a empirical data), and be interesting. The second and third assignments make things considerably more difficult, asking students to respectively ‘theorize and analyze’ and ‘theorize, analyze and discuss’ an innovation-related issue. The difficulty comes, of course, from having to do more with the same amount of words and from doing things that are more difficult. Moreover, through the semester, students encounter more theory, and so must select meaningfully from a larger repertoire. The ‘data’ also gets more complex and more interpretations become possible. There is, then, a clear progression through the course from merely difficult to the really quite challenging. But that is of course the way it should be at university: Difficult, but not impossibly or immediately so.
For the first assignment, students will have had only three ‘real’ theory classes, exposing them to ideas about the role of innovation in the (capitalist) economy, the relationships between technological change and industry development, and ‘anomalous’ forms of innovative change (listen to the lectures here). They have also had a lecture on academic writing and a writing workshop to get them practically acquainted with it. My co-instructor and I tell them to write the essay relatively quickly. They should, we say, listen to the podcast once or twice and make up their minds about something they find interesting in it. Then, they should spend less than thirty minutes outlining (by writing five key sentences, spending about five minutes on each), about 2.5 hours writing the prose (i.e. five times 27 minutes), and then about half an hour editing and getting what should be a very short list of references in order. This way, you get some excellent practice at writing, a good sense of your mastery of course theory, and get better at being interesting (in the narrow academic sense). And all very efficiently.
This time around, I decided to do the assignment along with the students, following the same rules. The podcast in question was “The Gutenberg Press” from 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy. My essay is here.