Sunday, December 17, 2006

Who taught you your moves?

Next time I teach the "how to do graduate school course," I'm thinking about assigning Graff and Birkenstein's They Say / I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. It's a book written with undergraduates in mind -- and I'm also going to assign in my undergrad classes where I'm going to start requiring a research paper -- but my graduate students need it. Many of them probably came through undergrad programs where they didn't learn to write a research paper, and it seems a number of them haven't figured out yet that they can use the scholarly articles they cite as 'how-to' models.

I say this because I'm reading the papers from my other graduate course -- my seminar -- and realizing that many of the students don't know how to use secondary sources, how to integrate them into their own writing, or how to contend with them in their own papers. Some of them know how to integrate the sources grammatically and with some polish, but then the content of their papers is largely a review of the criticism and doesn't have much of their own argument. Others seem to think secondary sources can be used as evidence. One students keeps stringing together quotes from scholarly works following assertions about the primary text and with introductory phrases such as "For example." In other words, he'll say something like "Fart jokes are common in medieval literature" and then follow that with, "For example, This Dude says X, That Chick says Y, and Some Other Dude agrees with them both and says X and Y." And then he never cites any actual medieval literature! (Note: none of my students are actually writing on fart jokes in medieval literature. That's just my silly and totally fictious example.) And often they quote huge blocks when really all they had to do was simply say something along the lines of "So-and-so also notes this."

So next year, in addition to assigning this book, I'm going to spend some time giving them scholarly articles to read and we're going to do rhetorical analyses of them to see how those critics made "the moves that matter." Or something like that. I have until fall to figure it out. Any other suggestions? How did you learn to write a scholarly research paper?


Feirefiz said...

Hi Dr. Virago,
That sounds like a good book to assign. I have the same problem with my students, more so with the undergrads. The grad students need to be more forceful and authoritative in their use of secondary sources; they tend to use sources for support and they tend to be too agreeable. The undergrads have trouble with showing evidence from primary texts even when research isn't part of the assignment. With the undergrads I've tried to analyze a selection from an article to show them how to use evidence and make arguments but it hasn't taken root in their brains. I've try to also take antagonistic positions or critique secondary articles we read in my grad classes, and they'll go along and can offer critiques in class but then in the papers, not so much. I learnt to write through imitation of other academic papers I thought were good. My very first research paper was a college class on Chaucer, actually. It sucked, even though the professor gave me an A. I basically found everything that was written (that the college owned) on Parliament of Fowles, and tried to integrate it all in while sustaining an argument. But even then I felt overwhelmed by all that's been said and the problem intensified when I wrote my honors thesis (even more research!). It was only in grad school that I started doing the agonistic structure of "They say/I say" and only when I felt more grounded in my field to feel more comfortable claiming authority.

Dr. Virago said...

Hi Feirefiz!
Yes, the undergrads do need more work on how to use the primary text evidence and what to do with it. And, frankly, so do the grad students sometimes! But the practice you described in your PF paper -- finding *everything* and incorporating it *all* -- is definitely what a lot of the grad students are doing right now. I just talked to my Victorianist colleague and she said she's going to try to incorpate teaching the rhetorical moves of academic writing into her grad seminar next semester -- they're going to take a class or two just to unpack the structure and rhetoric of a secondary article -- and now I feel guilty for not doing the same in my own! Gah! But I'm definitely going to do so in the methods class from now on, and if I can at least introduce it to the undergrads -- some of whom become our grad students -- it's a start.

Katie said...

The best exercise I was assigned as an undergrad (and which made my brain feel like a squeezed-out tube of Colgate) was:

Write a book review of Critic X, pretending that you are in fact Critic Y.

It was a short, 2-3 page assignment, and it required the student to clearly identify his/her own position first before constructing an argument as someone else. I was a sophomore, I think, and it was the first time I really had to differentiate between my ideas and someone else's - I couldn't prop up my lame argument with quotations, because the entire assignment was to construct an alter ego's argument.

Some variation on this might be useful: discuss primary text A from the position of Critic X, and then from the position of Critic Y, or something - it taught me a lot!

meg said...

This has been much on my mind lately too, since I've decided that my intro theory class will also be a welcome-to-the-seminar-paper class.

I really like the Graff book, and I've made all my thesis students get it. I'm also going to have the Director of College Writing come in and talk about writing seminar papers. But let us know as you come up with other ideas (as will I).

Anniina said...

Most colleges have a "Comp 101" or equivalent, but my experience in that class was that the teacher was trying to teach the people who didn't know how to write at all, something equivalent of a high school paper - so it was a bit of a waste of time for those students who knew the basics and above. I would have groused against another compulsory class, but it would have been useful if we had been forced to take a "How to Write a Research Paper" class - even if it was a 1 credit class once a week. As it was, it took a lot of trial and error and learning by example and from mistakes to figure out how to write a passable research paper.
I think you have the right idea, Dr. V. Oh, and Katie, loved your imagery of the squeezed-out Colgate - had me chuckling for a long while.

Bardiac said...

Thanks for the book suggestion!

I did a lot of work with my grad students this semester talking about articles and how they were asking questions and constructing arguments. But I'm not sure it worked well at all. It's hard to tell when some people seem to just get it.

I'd say careful reading of other articles with attention to the moves and use of sources of different types should help.

Dr. Virago said...

Thanks for the feedback, everyone. And Katie, that sounds like a great idea. I don't know if I'll use it next semester -- I've already got my syllabi jam-packed, of course! -- but I'll keep in mind. It would be especially easy to do in my Chaucer course.

jane dark said...

I'm reading "They Say, I Say" right now, and I'm really blown away with how useful it is -- thank you for mentioning it.

I like Katie's idea, too -- might use it in my 200-level lit class this spring.

Bardiac said...

I just finished reading it today, and WOW, it seems incredibly useful for the writing class at just about any level.

Thanks for suggesting it! (Just think, you can put this on your CV as service or something. :)