Monday, September 25, 2006

Teaching bleg: can I teach the reseach paper in a lit. class?

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So I've been thinking about what to do in next semester's senior-level medieval literature (excluding Chaucer) class. It's been on my mind a lot this week because book orders are due soon, but also because I finally got around to reading my teaching evaluations from last Spring and I'm not sure what I did then went over well. I'm thinking about getting students to do a research paper next time around, but I'm not sure that will work, either, and I'd love to hear what you all think.

First of all, some background on what I did last year. I did a lot more lecturing last time and emphasized the book as material object and idea -- as well as the distance between the modern, edited text and the medieval manuscript -- and so what happened is that we didn't spend a lot of time getting really close to the texts, but instead spent a lot of time thinking about what books and texts and authors are (or are not) then and now, what books do in cultural terms, who gets to produce them, who consumes them, and so forth. Or we'd talk about how texts in a collection read each other. So, for example, I had them read a lot of stuff from the OE Exeter Book (in translation -- another reason why I don't do a lot of close reading in class) and talked about the appropriation of potentially pre-Christian traditional literature for Christian readers, or the juxtaposition of the sacred and profane (especially in the Riddles), and so forth. Or, at the other end of the temporal spectrum, we read a lot more of The Book of Margery Kempe than I usually assign (I made them buy the whole book) and talked about (female) authority, the author, the scribe, and all that good stuff, including whether the ways in which my students thought she lost authority (by behaving in what they saw as crazy ways) actually gave her authority in the context of saints lives (we read some of those, too) -- which I blogged about here.

Anyway, I think my whole tactic over the semester is what resulted in my most mix-bag bunch of evals ever. I got many of the usual 'her enthusiasm makes you realize this stuff is really interesting, and she's always concerned with student learning' good comments. But I also got two or three students saying I graded too hard and treated them "like graduate students." So maybe thinking about the book as idea and material object, and talking about manuscripts, and reading a lot of texts in Middle English (including The Morte Darthur, at the end of the semester! OK, big mistake!) was too much for my students. At the same, time, frustratingly, I got one comment that said the class was "too high school," that I told them what the text meant when "we should have been analyzing it." OK, so I'm pretty sure that's a reaction to my lecturing and to my frequent contextualizing and historicizing. I just can't help it. I've gotten really tired of facile readings of medieval texts from a 21st century 20-year-old's point of view and I'd like to show them that there are other ways to read texts other than the New Critical way! Close reading is important, but when most of your texts are in translation, what's the point? And actually, for the record, we were analyzing -- we just weren't doing close reading, but I think that's what that student meant by "analyzing." I mean, I certainly didn't summarize or ever, ever say "This text means X." I did sometimes say things like, "A medieval reader, experienced with this genre, might not find surprising what you just found surprising." But of course, medieval readers don't all read alike, do they now?

So, suffice it to say, I'm still experimenting a lot with my methods, and some work with my students (they really, really like my pop culture references and visual aids) and some don't (Middle English is too much unless we're in Chaucer, where I have time to teach it to them and they read it all semester). So next time, no Norton edition of the Morte Darthur, even though it's really, really cool. I'll bring in photocopies to show them. And now that there's a modernized spelling edition of Mankind -- still, it's Middle English, just no y's where you expect i's and so forth -- maybe that won't make them freak too much and we can actully do some close reading of it (which really pays given its complex use of diction and register for all sorts of symbolic ends).

But here's the real point of this post. I wonder, is a research paper too much to ask of my students? A lot of them still haven't learned how to write a paper that's an argument, so I fear a research paper would be a string of quotes. But I thought maybe I'd assign a very, very short paper or two in the beginning of the semester, emphasizing argument and analysis, then break the research paper into small parts over the rest of the semester, including having them read some sample scholarly articles before they do their own research -- and get rid of all tests. And if they're not doing research papers as undergrads, then the ones who want to go on to graduate school are at a real disadvantage. Plus, many of my students are English-Education students (sadly, they're the ones most likely to say that my course is too hard, or that it has no use for an adolescent ed. major -- which means they'll produce students like them who've never read any old literature in high school and freak out when they get it in college) and I'd like my future students to have had teachers who knew how to do a research paper. Hell, I wrote my first research paper sophomore year in high school, at age 15, when I still had to have my mom drive me to the library! (I can still recall the thesis, actually, so I know it had one.)

But if my students think asking them to think conceptually and read Middle English is treating them like grad students, will they balk at a research paper? Or will they find it a useful skill? Part of me just wants to get them reading how scholars write about medieval literature. But then, a lot of scholarship is too difficult for my students. What do I do about that? And how do I teach them how to do a research paper -- from picking a topic to find the criticism to writing the thing itself -- and also teach them how to read and think about medieval literature?

Any ideas (including from those of you not medievalists but who teach difficult literature of other eras)?


Dr. Crazy said...

Hey, V. I can't speak to the issues that specifically relate to teaching medieval lit, but I can speak to the comment of "you treat us like grad students" and how to incorporate a research paper into an upper-level lit class, which, I'm sorry, is just treating them like college students - there's nothing grad school about it.

I also can speak to teaching texts they find difficult/alienating, as I did in my upper-level class last year.

Some things I've found:

1) the more up front you are about your motives and methods, and the more you repeat why you're not focusing on close reading (both because of translation issues and because you're trying to provide them with another skill set that will be useful for x,y,z reasons), the fewer complaints you will get about expecting too much of them. Also, throw in a lot of praise at regular intervals about how well they're doing. The complaints come from insecurity and not liking things that are unfamiliar to them because they're afraid of failure. Remember, when they do evals they've not yet seen how they did in he course.

2) If you're going to incorporate a research paper, I'd recommend not having it be worth more than 20- 25% of the final grade, and supplementing it with a number of other kinds of opportunities for a grade that will allow them to feel like the research paper isn't going to break them. (I incorporate either a short 3-5 page literary analysis or 4 1-page analysis-response papers; a presentation; electronic discussion.)

3) You've got to schedule library instruction for them. They do not know how to do research.

I'm sure I could come up with more, but I don't want to hog up your comments. If you're interested, go to my real life website and you can see my syllabus and all of the assignments that I use to give you an idea. I'd also be happy to chat with you about it (just drop me an email).

Dr. Crazy said...

Oh, and the student who wrote that the class was too high school? I suspect that person is a C-student. In my experience, those ones always are.

Anonymous said...

If most of your students have not written research papers, then walking them through one sounds like one of the most useful things you can do for them, in terms of skills that may be helpful beyond college. What's the difference between a research paper and writing a report for a job?

I'm a historian, but I have several colleagues who guide freshmen/sophs through lit research papers, and I think their approach is not so different from mine.

I think your plan sounds *excellent*--diagnostic essays and sample results, and focusing every assignment on building the necessary skills. I've had fun with a peer exchange writing workshop on a full draft, and am usually willing to give over a number of class days to skills instead of content coverage.

One question: I'm not totally clear on what you mean by lit research paper, though--do you want them to develop their own historicizing of a chosen text, or to assess/analyze/add to the literary criticism of a text? No need to answer me, but possibly something to address with them.

BikeProf said...

I second what Dr. Crazy says. I think a research paper in an upper-division lit course is not at all out of the question. I don't require a research paper in my Early American survey, since it's the first lit class they take. Instead, I emphasize analysis, as you do. But in my upper-division courses, I do require research. I was amazed at how many still had no idea what a research paper was, so I walked them through it. First they had to choose a broad topic. Then a tentative thesis. Then a bibliography. And so on.

As far as your comments go--too hard? too high school? I would think that means you're probably doing something right in hitting that middle area where most of your students are.

It sounds like they need a good, enthusiastic, demanding teacher like you.

Flavia said...

I definitely support the idea of giving your upper-level students a research paper. I did this last year in my Milton seminar at Big Urban (a class that I'd assumed would be all junior and senior majors, although this turned out not to be the case), and while it obviously freaked out some of my students, I think it worked well for a couple of reasons.

First of all, the stakes weren't ridiculously high: we'd already had two other papers, one a close-reading and one a typical thematic essay, and so I'd already had the chance to work with my students on their writing a fair amount. Moreover, my "research" paper just wasn't that long: I'd initially intended to make it 10 pages, but after taking stock of the class and its ability level, I reduced it to 7-8 pages (rather than the 4-5 pages of the other two papers). Consequently, the research paper was weighted only slightly more heavily than the other papers.

To build up to the research paper, we did a limited amount of in-class work with secondary sources throughout the semester, so my students could practice paraphrasing, challenging, or adding new support to the scholars we read. A few weeks before the paper itself was due I had my students write a 1-page prospectus of their project, along with an annotated bibliography containing at least four sources.

At my new school we're actually in the process of a curriculum review, and one thing we're planning on doing is making sure that ALL 400-level classes in the department involve a research component, as well as some engagement with theoretical texts (the 200- and 300-level classes would work on skills that build up to this goal). After all, what's the supposed value of a B.A. in English? The promise that you'll be a capable writer, researcher, analyst, and interpreter of complicated materials when you get done.

Anonymous said...

Dr. V,

Starting off with a short paper that focuses on analysis and argument is a good idea. I recommend limiting their choice of topics here: free up the time spent thinking of what to write about so that they can concentrate on the actual writing thereof.

I always assign a research paper in my upper-level classes. Sometimes I've explicitly made it a historicist one: i.e., I've had the students write a short paper on some aspect of medieval culture with an eye toward developing research skills and the ability to synthesize multiple sources; then I ask them to take that paper and put it in dialogue with a medieval literary text (whether a Canterbury Tale or a medieval play).

I did find that approach a mixed bag. Some students thrived as nascent historicists, but others weren't ready to analyze literature at 10-12 pages--asking them to think historically was a recipe for disaster.

So now I concentrate more on literary research. I have the students turn in a topic abstract and a short annotated bibliography about a month before the research paper is due. (I assign something similar, if more involved, for my grad students.) By requiring a paper proposal, I force the students to start the research and analysis process early--instead of their usual "wait until the week of the due date" approach.

I don't grade these proposals--the reward for doing them is my feedback, and the students who write better, longer proposals get more specific feedback on how to turn the proposal into a research paper.

I also require the students to make use of physical books. Here at UIUC they have access to JSTOR and Project Muse and other journal archives, so their tendency is to just use articles as sources--they can download those at home without ever having to go to the library. I thus demand that half of the paper's sources be monographs or anthology essays. Many of my students have told me that this requirement sends them to our library for the first time in their career as English majors.

At this point, armed with feedback, they're ready to go back into the stacks for several more sources (I tell them to shoot for 10-12 total sources and try to get them to make sure that most of those are citeworthy).

I also require that they meet with me in person during this stage of the paper's development. This way I can see how well they integrate my feedback, direct them to relevant sources, and perform general quality control.

The papers that result from this process are generally well worth the effort. Breaking the research paper into smaller steps does require more management on my part, but it also allows for more effective intervention.

Here's the URL for my Spring 2006 Chaucer research paper guidelines:

Feel free to steal whatever you like from that page.



Anonymous said...

OK - didn't you have to do a major research paper at our "French" high school? My year we had two, one for History and one for English. The requirements were so rigorous I used the one for History in my Con Law class in college! We spent the entire semester on how to research and write, back in the day of no internet and writing on 3 x 5 cards. And to Dee's comment, it certainly helps me in making a business case today.

Dr. Virago said...

Wow, everyone, thanks! This is really helpful. Keep it coming! (And Dee, that was a really good question -- I was still thinking about what I wanted them to do -- historical contexts or literary analysis -- but with Rob's caveats, I may go the literary route.)

And Sis -- yes, as I pointed out in the post, I did my first research paper at our high school, at age 15. Those French schools were tough! :) (That was in English. My history teachers were pretty lame, unfortunately.) I wasn't even thinking of the fact that there were no electronic resources -- and I still used index cards in grad school! hee! -- but the fact that I wasn't even old enough to drive myself to the library cracks me up. And can I quote you next time a student says "What am I going to with a liberal arts major?" Or better yet, maybe you can come give our students a lecture on "How to Succeed in Business with a Liberal Arts Background." Just don't mention the HBS MBA. :)

You guys *rock*!!!

Oh, and Dr. C -- I think the student who made the "too high school" comment was the one who very clearly thought he was a whole lot smarter than he was. He had all this information in his head from other English courses and applied it willy-nilly in his papers (he once asked me if I was applying the term "elegy" to the Old English poems in a "laissez-faire" manner, but hideously mispronounced "laissez-faire"), and his hand was always the first one raised anytime I asked a question, but often he clearly hadn't listened to or thought about the question, but was just waiting for his turn to speak. I think he just hated me because I told him he was wrong now and again (in class! in an English class, no less! egad!) and that his stream-of-crazy-consciousness writing was a mess.

Anonymous said...

Oops! I failed the critical reading portion of the test. Sorry I missed the reference. And I can remember my theses, too. I still use one, when I talk to people about my constitutional objection to PAC's.

Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion! Here's my two cents' worth: Yes, I started assigning research papers in my upper-level English classes and had it work well, although some students couldn't seem to get research and a thesis statement into the same paper. (That is, for them a thesis statement was "what I think" and a research paper was "what other people think," and they had trouble putting these together.) This past semester, I also made them come into the library in groups of five or fewer for half-hour appointments with me; I walked them around to various resources on the shelves, pulled them off the shelves and put them in their hands and had them look something up; then we went into the computer lab and they all got online and started doing literature searches while I stood there over them available for questions. This was time-consuming for me but worked very well; I've never had students get such an early start on their research before. One of my mini-assignments as part of the larger research project has usually been to have students do an annotated bibliography, and I'll confess that this is always a dismal failure. I used to have students turn in abstracts of their paper, which never worked; this past term I switched and had them turn in an introductory paragraph instead, which worked much, much better.

As a non-medievalist, let me ask: Is there a way to have the research papers be on some aspect of "book as material object" or on textual variations or whatever? Then you could still have this as part of the class without doing as much of it in class. Just a thought.

Let us know what you wind up doing for the class!

Dr. Richard Scott Nokes said...

Dr. V--

You asked, "is a research paper too much to ask of my students?" to which I reply, "hell, no!"

The only class I teach in which I do not require a research paper (and by that, yes, I mean actual scholarly sources, not "What do Time, NPR, and USA Today have to say about this text?") is Freshman Comp I. The final paper in Freshman Comp II is a research paper. In my own undergraduate experience, it went without saying that for all English major classes the bulk of the grade would rest on a final research paper.

I think the other commenters here have pointed out the variables, which you have to adjust depending on the level of the class: percentage of grade, paper length, and sophistication of ideas.

If they really have trouble understanding what a research paper should look like, walk them through some scholarly articles on the medieval subject matter, pointing out that a research paper should look like a junior version of the same thing -- argument, structure, apparatus, etc.

Pitch 'em a few fastballs, Dr. V.!

Anonymous said...

Hee! Great minds think alike and all that. I'll post about this over at my blog - when I have actual time to do so, which may not be for a few days...

Karl Steel said...

The freshman comp/intro to Western Lit combo I've been teaching while finishing the diss includes a research paper component. Here are my grade breakdowns:
Essay 1 Draft: 7%
Essay 1 Final: 13%
Essay 2 Draft: 10%
Essay 2 Final: 20%
Research Paper Prospectus: 5%
Research Paper Draft: 5%
Research Paper: 30%
Class Participation: 5%
Provocation: 5%

Clearly that's a lot more writing that you'll want to grade, and allowing draft/revision in an upper division course isn't usual for any class but comp. But you can see how I spread the grades around: I try to give them a lot of different ways to get a good grades, including extra credit (I give 3% if they give me an outline of their research paper before they turn in the first draft. I only glance at it, but they get the credit if it's long enough).

In addition to all this, I require a 7-item annotated bib (no more than 3 from reference works and none from Wikipedia) submitted in 2 chunks: I give a quick discussion of how to format bibliographies, telling them they're all adults and can read their guides, sorry this is so boring. Then, full of too much confidence, they turn in three items. Then the intervention (because 1/2 of them, despite being adults, screw it up badly), and then they turn in four items. I don't grade this assignment, but I also don't accept it unless it's correct. And I tell them they can't pass the class unless they turn in all the work. That's a new trick this semester: we'll see how it works.

Before all this, though, they have to turn in a 1-2 sentence research topic. I pass the topics off to a librarian a week before he or she gives us a class-period-long 'Intro to Library Research' session in the library. This is something I can't recommend highly enough if your students are doing a research paper.

If my first-years can do this, I don't see any reason why your fourth-years can't.

Full disclosure: I received the worst 2 evaluations of my life last semester, but then again, I didn't know anything about what I was teaching. If they don't want medievalists teaching Heart of Darkness, they should pay adjuncts more, you know? Then again, my Fall students last year for the class I'm teaching now loved me. So there you go: the lesson is that I should stick to teaching Chaucer and Dante.

Lisa Spangenberg said...

I like very much the idea of the staggered writing assignments geared towards writing a research paper.

I note that in the sophmore survey for English lit majors we do a fair amount of Middle English via the Norton or Longmans' anthologies. These are glossed, often lightly modernized re: spelling, but they handle it. That might be one approach; note too that Norton has provided lovely .pdfs for free download of discontinued texts, and that you can buy the Medieval chunk as a separate paperback.

In terms of the papers, definitely get a librarian in to talk about library resources. Make them do annotated bibs, and paper proposals inluding the annotated bib.

Give them models of the various stages if at all possible.

Dr. Virago said...

If my first-years can do this, I don't see any reason why your fourth-years can't.

Great, now they'll write in their evals: "She treats us like *Karl's* students!"


And I hope you use Excel for those 7% and 13% grades! Yikes!

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I think a research paper is appropriate. Thinking about this, in history, I never did a 'real', i.e., based on primary sources, research paper till my senior year, but I did do regular secondary-source papers. At SLAC, I'm not doing a research paper yet, but I'm assigning review essays. For an upper-division lit class? why not? But I'm with Karl. I carefully lay out the assignment step by step, and have the students work out a proposal with sample bibliography first.

History Geek said...

But if my students think asking them to think conceptually and read Middle English is treating them like grad students

Considering I'm doing just that in my History of Brit Lit class and my Chaucer class I think some of your students have some odd ideas.

I don't think you've asked anything of your students that shouldn't be asked of seniors or even juniors.

Maybe a limited scope Research paper would be in order?

MKH said...

Any comments I make have to be taken with a grain of salt, since I was a bizarre kind of undergrad who usually insisted on research papers even when profs *didn't* want them...I was required to consult outside sources regularly in my undergrad, really starting from my first semester Studies in Brit Lit class. Given how terribly that turned out for me (I learned that semester that writing on Yeats for a Yeats scholar is a bad idea when you're an Overeager Frosh), I would definitely think that the format Karl gave would be helpful. As long as they have to do some kind of draft of a draft, it will give them a place to go -- my Chaucer prof in undergrad made us write a 5 page paper, then had us all meet in groups with her and we spent time talking about what we'd each done and what needed work. I think it helped everybody get their bearings, and gave time for an intervention if necessary.

Karl Steel said...

nd I hope you use Excel for those 7% and 13% grades! Yikes!

You know how I get around that? All they get are number grades until the end. This saves me the trouble of having to convert letters into numbers and then back into letters.

So I just add everything up (say 6.5 for the first assignment, 11.2 for the next, and so forth), figure the curve, and then give letters. I've found that's a lot easier.

Sometimes I use Excel, but I gave myself the fun of installing Ubuntu on a partition on my laptop, which means sometimes I use Open Office calc. You know, just to ween myself more off Microsoft and towards free software.

Aargh. I have one more paper to grade before I'm allowed to go to sleep. It's killing me, this procrastination. I guess I can take comfort in the fact that none of us likes grading, right?

Ecce Equus Pallidus said...

I have little to add, beyond agreeing with what almost everyone here has said - a research paper is certainly not too much to ask of upper-level students. In fact, I include a research paper in my freshmen composition classes, in part because I think that there is no point in an undergraduate's academic career at which it is too early to begin learning how to research.

What I've found interesting about this is that often, students who were struggling with their writing seem to do better when they are asked to do some research. When they're given the tools to research well, and to properly incorporate that information into their writing - I admit, the first time I taught Freshmen Comp, I did not cover those topics as well as I should have, and it was a disaster in some students' cases - using secondary sources allowed them to conceptualize arguments that hadn't quite been able to form on their own.

Anonymous said...

I teach lit. surveys, most everything pre-1800, at a huge, urban, public university. About half of my students do not speak English as a first language.

We're reading the Tempest, SGGK, Beowulf, a bunch of critical theorists. And yes, I require that they write a research paper. I don't care if they balk or protest. My classes are hard. So what? They have been taught down to most of their lives, with very little expected of them. If their college professors don't challenge them, who will?

I agree that if you make it abundantly clear to them WHAT and WHY and HOW you are doing what you are doing, they feel more secure and the evals. will reflect that.

I also agree that if you break up the paper into scaffolded chunks, the students will produce better work by the end. See John Bean's _Engaging Ideas_ for more on how to do this quickly and easily.

And don't give up on close-reading! They CAN do it, just not spectacularly. But close-reading teaches them lots of other stuff about how to read, how to think, how to listen to an unfamiliar, alienating text.

Anonymous said...

I agree with "anonymous" on close reading, Dr. V. Yes, there's a way in which asking students to generate close readings of Pinsky's translation of Dante's Inferno is ridiculous: they're not close reading what Dante actually wrote, not paying attention to his use of language.

At the same time, close reading is a methodology. Practicing it on whatever material lies to hand is useful. Pinsky's Dante may not be Dante's Dante, but it is a Dante--and Pinsky's word choices and formal decisions affect reception of the text for English readers. I will point out to my students that we're doing close reading at a remove, but I also argue that the skill is worth developing even if our readings are open to critique by speakers of the text's original language.

(NB: The above comment empties close reading of much of its specifically New Critical content. Irony schmirony!)

Karl Steel said...

NB: The above comment empties close reading of much of its specifically New Critical content. Irony schmirony!)

Oh, thanks! I just put 'Dante' on my CV under teaching interests, in part because it might be the extra nudge to get me an interview, and in part because I do teach Dante, or Mandelbaum, or whatever. I felt like a bit of a faker, though, without the Italian. Now I have a justification.

Anonymous said...


Dante is actually one of the few authors non-Italianists can teach with a clear conscience--thanks to the almost universal custom of publishing cheap paperback translations of the Commedia with the Italian on the facing page.

The Penguin Classics Poem of the Cid is good in this regard as well: I don't know a lick of medieval Castilian, but, with a knowledge of medieval Latin and the Castilian text on the page facing the translation, I could at least point the students to the Cid poet's key terms. Interestingly enough, those Poem of the Cid classes were the best I've ever taught.

I'll be teaching SGGK in my Spring 2007 medieval literature survey (I teach Marie de France in the British literature survey slot that most teachers reserve for SGGK). I've ordered Winney's edition of the poem because it too is facing page: I'll be able to refer to the Middle English as we work our way through the text.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

If anybody wants an excel spreadsheet that weighs grades ... I think I have one somewhere.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I just have to weigh in to say that I ask students to do "close readings" (at least, a historical version thereof - I realize it's not quite the same) on translations all the time - my theory being that most of them are never going to read the original language anyway, and that it's a useful skill to learn. But then, even though I teach medieval England at times, I almost never ask students to read Middle English, and so everything we read will be in translation. But I still want them to think hard about what the language says and how the author has chosen to use it. (Though like I said, it's probably not the same as the close readings that you do.)

I have also found that the only way to get anything remotely resembling a decent research paper is exactly what people are saying above, breaking it down into small steps so that it's a cumulative process. I may say more about that at some point, but I think all the comments people make above are good.

At my last job, students had to do a senior project, and I was immensely frustrated because I kept getting students who wanted to do their papers with me who really had no idea how to write a research paper. Eventually I clued in and realized that if I wanted students to know how to do a research paper, I had to start assigning them myself. One of the things I've come to accept is that with beginning students especially, the results of a research paper assignment may not be that great, but just making them go through the process is important - the result aren't going to be good right away.

(And I am going to make my first- and second-year students next semester read some Middle English! Though it will be really late 15th c, so really the only problem will be the wonky spelling. We'll just read it aloud in class and muddle through. ;-D)