I've generally noticed that students either like my Advanced Comp class or they don't. I seldom find a student who waffles on this. While some students revel in the freedom of writing whatever they want, others want that "safety" net of proscribed assignments. They still want someone to "tell" them what to write about.
In this class, the most guidance I give students is to tell them what kind of essay I want--a personal essay, a memoir, a journalistic, or segmented essay. That's it. I'm more interested in the approach a student takes to these types of essays; I want to see which of my students will take off in an unexpected direction or which student will reach down and pull out the tough subject. I like surprises. I like for students to fly out on their own, to dredge through memory for the small, amazing, sad, uplifting and present it to us as a gift. I don't want students to feel restricted--but I don't want them to be lost or depressed. I want them to write about those parts of their lives that have meaning to them--if they feel strongly about the subject, they will communicate that importance to us, their readers.
I usually get somewhat predictable essays--they aren't awful and, sometimes, they are technically proficient. I usually have a handful of students whose essays make the hair stand up on the back of my neck because the essay shines like a jewel--the language is crisp and precise, the subject wrenches my heart, the insight is painful and/or profound. I appreciate all of my students' work, but I look for the diamonds. They encourage me to keep doing this.