>My graduate students crack me up

>Two of the grad students from my Chaucer class are very close friends, and one of them told me they jokingly refer to each other as “rivals.” So get this: for their final papers in that class, one of them wrote on the Friar’s Tale and the other wrote on the Summoner’s Tale. Ha! Even cooler — we didn’t read these tales in the class, so they discovered the Friar-Summoner rivalry all on their own.

I love it when papers amuse me in surprising and positive ways — it always makes the grading process easier.

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>Teaching the critical history essay

>I’m in the midst of grading the last batch of my graduate students’ critical history papers from my research methods class. Given that it’s 4pm and I’m leaving the house in just over 12 hours to catch an early morning flight to go to the Pastry Pirate’s graduation, and I still have half a dozen things to do before I leave, including grading the last 3 papers, I really shouldn’t be blogging. But the following just occurred to me and I kind of wanted to throw it out there before I forget.

Anyway, one of the recurring problems of many of these papers — whether they’re otherwise well-researched or well-written or not — is that the writers don’t do a very good job of summarizing the critics’ arguments. They have a tendency to tell me the topic of an article, book, or chapter without really telling me the argument of said work. They’ll even say critics X and Y address the same general topic without giving me any idea if X and Y agree with each other in their assessment or interpretation of the topic. And some of the more problematic essays don’t even quite make clear what the general subject of a critical work is because they’re too busy identifying a theme in the primary text and lining up a critical work that seems to address that theme. So they’re putting their reading of the primary work — usually a somewhat hazy one — first and slotting in the criticism.

And therein lies the problem. They don’t quite realize what it means to write a critical history and that’s my fault. We talked all semester about entering the critical conversation, of “listening” to it for awhile before offering your own contributions. And we dissected the structure, form, and rhetorical moves of a number of journal articles. And I told them where to find models of a critical history and wrote detailed directions of what they needed to be doing in this paper, making it clear that it was summary and synthesis, but that they were the shaping force of it. *But*, I didn’t explain to them what a history was. I didn’t make clear that they needed to shape a narrative from the critical sources, that they were telling a story of the conversation thus far. I didn’t explain that while obviously the primary text was the driving force behind what critics wrote, nevertheless the driving force behind what the students wrote would be the criticism, that that was their subject, that that was what a reader of a critical history wanted most to know about. I assumed it was obvious, but it isn’t, so many of the students are falling back on what they’re usually asked to do in a research paper, or the methods they’ve usually fallen back on — i.e., the ‘tell me about X subject in Y work of literature with research’ paper. They’re also ignoring the connections between the arguments; no one, not even the best students, are addressing X’s influence on Y. I’m not even sure they’re noticing where critics are in each others bibliographies, even though I did teach them that following bibliographies is one of the ways to tell if a critical work is being cited over and over, or to find works that imperfect electronic searches have missed.

Part of the problem is that I didn’t use the term “critical history.” I came up with something else that I thought would be less intimidating — bibliographic essay — and I did so also because I’m not expecting them to be comprehensive (I asked them to look for major trends in the criticism). But mainly I need to be more explicit about how to go about this kind of writing. I have to tell them that they must digest and explain the main argument(s) of each work they address. I have to tell them that they need to be aware of influence and argument — that they need to look to footnotes and bibliographies for the players in the larger conversation. And that, above all, *they* are telling a history, that their major task is to interpret the interpretors and present them for their audience.

Next time I’ll do this and see if the results improve. In the meantime, I’ll go easy on the grades, but make some of these things clear in the comments.

>Looking forward to student research papers

>On Friday I will get a stack of research papers from my medieval literature students, and I’m actually looking forward to reading them.

[Dramatic pause as my readers take that sentence in.]

Yes, that’s right: I’m actually looking forward to reading them. Say what??? Am I delusional? Overly optimistic? Idealistic? Will my dreams be crushed?

No, I don’t think so. You see, a month before the papers were due, students turned in a proposal with an annotated bibliography of at least five secondary sources. And before that, I took three class periods to talk about how and why we do research, what a literary research paper looks like and how to write it, and how to use things like the MLA International Bibliography and other databases and library search engines. And because of all that, I got really good proposals. I’m sure the papers will have some of the usual problems, but if the proposals are any indication, they’ll actually have theses and make arguments, and many of them will have fresh and interesting things to say about the texts.

I’m offering this here and now as a kind of preview and also a test. Maybe my dreams will be crushed and the promise held by the proposals will be left unfulfilled. I certainly hope not. At any rate, I want to write more about this project, in more detail and with more about my pedagogical methods and justifications, when I finally see the fruit of it. And then I can look back on the class as whole, in which I really pushed my students and they rose to the challenge, turning in the best work as a group that I’ve seen since coming to Rust Belt U. I think that may have as much to do with the pushing as with the luck of the draw of who was in the class, and the research project is part of that. We’ll see.