Chris Scheidler, Consultant
If you were on social media last week you probably noticed a thing or two about a dress that, to embrace the hyperbole, “broke the internet.” I’ll leave the dress debate to the designers and physicists but I would like to draw your attention to the act of interpretation; specifically, I’d like to focus on interpreting assignment prompts.
We often take interpretation for granted. We interpret every day. Sometimes interpretation is straightforward: for instance, when your friend says, “Pass the mustard.” Other times, interpretation requires a bit more navigation, such as when your parent asks, “Did you do the dishes?” A blunt “no,” if your family is anything like mine, is probably not an advisable answer. We interpret so often that we sometimes forget that we’re doing it. In many ways, we’ve all become experts at interpreting.
But if the dress debate demonstrates anything, it is that we occasionally get our interpretations wrong. Our ability to interpret is not infallible. When we’re reading assignment prompts, the context, our previous experiences, and other elements all shape the way we interpret the prompt. If a two-tone dress can break the internet, how can we agree on what our professor expects from our assignments?
Don’t fret! Interpretation can be tricky but there are at least four helpful strategies that I recommend.
1. Visit the University Writing Center. Whether you’re just beginning an assignment or further along in the process we’re here to help. We tutors have years of experience interpreting not only assignment prompts but also texts in general. Sometimes just talking it out with another person can help. Which is why, if you don’t have time for an appointment you can:
2. Reach out to other students. Your peers have likely asked themselves the same question about what the assignment means. Ask them how they’re interpreting the prompt and you might find that you all agree on an interpretation or that there is some difference in interpretations. If you, like the Internet on the dress, can’t reach a consensus you can always:
3. Examine the keywords in the prompt. Is the professor asking you to analyze, annotate, summarize, synthesize, or something entirely different? The University Writing Center has a wonderful blog post dedicated to deciphering keywords – check it out! If the keywords are giving you trouble you can always:
4. Speak with the professor. Ask the professor in class or consult with the syllabus to see how your professor prefers to be contacted. If you’re emailing the professor, begin with a professional salutation and end with a professional signoff. If you’re nervous about contacting your professor you can always stop in at the University Writing Center and we can help you compose an email.