>Teaching the research paper in my upper division literature course

>As many of you know, this past spring semester I assigned students a research paper as their final project in my medieval literature course. This is more or less a medieval survey course — from the beginnings of English literature through the 15th century — but I tend to think of it more as a medieval “highlights” course. Relative to the body of literature written in the British Isles in what we call the Middle Ages — Old English, Middle English, Anglo-Norman, Latin, and the Celtic languages — I teach only a small selection. I prefer whole texts where possible, though that means selected plays from cycles and collections, selected Lais from Marie de France, selected books of the Morte Darthur (though in their entirety), and generous parts, but the not the whole, of The Book of Margery Kempe. And then if you think of manuscript collections like “The Exeter Book” as a whole, obviously I’m only doing parts of that, as well. This is an “excluding Chaucer” class as well, which I’m fine with, as Geoffrey gets a class all to himself. But even with Chaucer excluded, there’s still so much I leave out. But I rather teach a text thoroughly and give students the opportunity to know it well, than to skim lightly over it in the name of “coverage.” I see my class as teaching them how to read medieval literature with a selection of texts that work best for me and that speak to each other well.

So this year, I decided to teach them how to read and write about medieval literature on a more complex level and in conversation with more advanced readers: professional scholars. But before I did that, I wanted them to learn how to read the literature on its own terms and with their own wits, before the voices and ideas of others drowned out their own nascent thoughts. So over the course of the semester, they had three stages of writing assignments (no tests — it was all about the writing this term), one of which was a series of short writing all semester long, the second of which was a short, formal essay, and the last of which was the research paper, in two stages (proposal/bibliography and paper).

Stage one was an idea I totally ripped off from Rob Barrett (with his permission), who rocks for giving me access to his syllabuses and his great pedagogical ideas. It’s a short writing assignment called a Crux Buster (his name for it, which I love), in which students must take two non-consecutive passages from a text and write a two-page, informal response that addresses how those passages shed light on each other or the text as a whole, and/or how they are meaningful (locally or globally). I had students write six of these over the course of the semester, and they always had to address the part of the text we were discussing that day, so that they’d do this writing *before* hearing class discussion. (Theoretically this was supposed to improve discussion, too, but I’m not sure if it did or not. That’s a post for another day.) And they were expressly forbidden to write about plot or character development. It took some students to catch on, but since I had a grading scale that ended up being very generous, it gave them some room to fail miserably on the first couple of Busters and still come out with a good grade in the end — thus giving them the space to learn from mistakes.

OK, so what does this have to do with the research paper? Well, for one thing, I was trying to teach them how to come up with interesting questions and to find discrete parts of a text worth investigating closely — the basis for good research papers. I was also trying to get them to hone their close reading skills, which I wanted them to apply to the more formal assignments as well. Next time I need to be more explicit about this, because I don’t think all of the students got that, and slipped into the usual broad generalization in their research papers. Most of them did get it, however. I think a lot of them realized that a good paper — whether a research paper or not — is an extended and more shaped Crux Buster, that close attention to one’s subject (in this case, the literary text) is what an essay is supposed to convey, too. And I think they were more primed to see the critics doing this, as well.

In the second stage of preparing them for the research papers, I asked students to write a more formal essay. Often I give topics, but frankly, I’m pretty crappy at writing specific topics — they all end up being “write what I’m thinking” topics. Ugh. So I left this one rather open-ended. However, it had one requirement: they had to take some element of text that a casual reader might overlook in a first reading and argue for its significance to the text as a whole. Again, this was designed to teach them how to ask the good questions and find the good topics to write about. It also forced them to think of themselves as something *other* than a casual reader, and to think of themselves as teaching an imagined audience about the text under discussion — something a good research paper should do, too. I modelled this approach throughout the semester, as well. For instance, we talked about the word “aeglaca” in Beowulf and how it’s applied to “monsters” and “heroes” in the text, as well as the various ways it’s translated even in single translations. We talked about how the very multivalence of that word might hold meaning for the poem as a whole.

Then, soon after that paper, in the second half of the semester, I began teaching the research paper. From advice I got here on this blog, I learned that it’s important to really *teach* them how to do this — not simply expect them to be able to do it. So I took three days out of my syllabus to talk about how to do research. Because I already expect not to be able to “cover” all of medieval literature in my class — and don’t see that as the point of the class — doing this is perhaps less painful than it might seem. Here’s what I did on those three days:

Day 1:
Why we do research (student perspective / scholar’s perspective)
How we do research – Part I: Asking the right questions
How we do research – Part II: Judging the sources; using good sources

Day 2:
How we do research – Part III: Finding secondary sources (met in library – orientation to MLA Bibliography, etc., by library staff member)

Day 3:
How we do research – Part IV: Writing the research paper

Readings to be completed: They Say / I Say (entire book); Jane Chance article on Beowulf
Review of research tools, skills in using them
Discussion of Chance’s article as model research paper, in light of the “moves that matter” outlined in They Say / I Say

The only thing I’d change is that last day. I think I’d use a different article. The one I used is Chance’s classic argument for the centrality of the fight with Grendel’s Mother to the structure and meaning of the poem as a whole, and while it’s a clear and accessible article, and though students were intrigued that the Grendel’s Mother episode was once seen as a mere footnote to Grendel, it didn’t work so well with They Say / I Say. That book teaches you how to make an argument in context of the critical discussion already going on (no matter what your topic), in response to other writers, so it’s a great introduction to how to *write* the research paper. But Chance’s article frontloads the critical history of Grendel’s Mother, and the rest of the article consists of her original argument. As I told students, that’s a fine way to structure a paper, but it gave us fewer opportunities to see the rhetorical “moves that matter” in action.

I think I’d give more attention to audience on that last day, as well. I might even have students imagine that they’re writing for a journal to be distributed among their classmates, so that they’ll assume a wider audience.

Once students got down to doing the research, they had two assignnments to turn in: 1) a short proposal and an annotated bibliography of at least 5 secondary sources of scholarly value, turned in about a month before the final paper was due; 2) the final paper itself, which had to be 8-12 pages and have a bibliography with at least 10 secondary sources. The proposal wasn’t graded, but I gave them detailed feedback, helped them find more sources, and warned them if some of their sources weren’t appropriate. (Even with this warning, two students did poorly on the final projects because they lost serious points for non peer-reviewed, non-scholarly sources.) Next time I do this, I might more emphatically warn students how much time ahead they have to start the research, and I will also spend more time talking about how srouces that are generally about their subject might be of help, too. Some students doing cool topics such as “homosocial desire in Guigemar” claimed they couldn’t find secondary sources, but that’s because they were only looking for sources specifically about “homosocial desire in Guigemar.” D’oh!

As you may recall, I was really excited by the proposals students turned in. And for the most part, I was not disappointed by the final products. Again, I need to emphasize more that the close reading they did in the Busters is still necessary in the research paper. Students still have a problem with being specific, using evidence, and getting close to the text, even when they’re reading models of such criticism. I think I need to point out more how they might model their own essays on the scholarly essays they read! But what I was really pleased with is the fact that almost every single paper actually had an argument. With only a couple of exceptions, gone were the merely descriptive papers and the plot summaries. Students said something about the texts they were addressing. And as far as I’m concerned, that is no minor triumph. So I’m going to do this again, and not just in my medieval survey class, but also in Chaucer (where the online Studies in the Age of Chaucer bibliography makes things oh-so-easy).

And here’s another cool outcome: one of the students who wrote one of the best papers is going to turn into her senior honors thesis with me. So at least one student was inspired enough to learn more, and *that’s* what it’s all about.

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>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.