My position is obvious

So, like Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, I had to write a short “position paper” recently. Mine is for a special issue of a journal dedicated to new research and research opportunities in the sub-field of medieval literature for which I am currently most know. Yeah, you know, the one that is the subject of my book and in which I have a co-edited anthology coming out in two weeks.

Like Jeffrey’s position paper, mine had to be short (although I had 500 more words that he did), and that doesn’t leave you much room to be subtle or to make nuanced, carefully constructed arguments. So I kind of feel about it the way Flavia feels about her SAA abstract, as if it’s a RANDOM STRING OF NOUNS!  Seriously, over in Dame Eleanor Hull’s writing group this week, I had this to say about it:

[It’s] kind of stupid. It’s supposed to be a short “position paper” and the position I took was, “We need more of this thing we’re already doing! Because there’s not enough of it! Even though some of you might think there’s lots of it!” And then I added, “because of this trendy new way of thinking about these things!” Yeah, dumb. Sigh.

But I suppose if my dumb piece gets people’s knickers all in a twist and makes them shake their fist and me and shout, “But we’re already doing that! And how is your trendy way of talking about it any different from what we’ve been doing in any practical way?!” then I guess it fulfills the editors’ call for something that “provokes” — although I’m not sure they meant “provoke” as a synonym for “annoy.”

Anyway, I’m writing this in part because I’m in sympathy with Flavia and Jeffrey right now, but also because, like Flavia, I need to remember that this is often how my students feel about their writing, although probably with even higher levels of anxiety about how “dumb” what they’ve done is. Between Flavia’s post and my own thinking about this “dumb” position paper, I’ve been reminded that I need to be gentler with my students and their writing, but also more open about how it *is* a struggle, especially when you’re writing about something difficult or trying on ideas that are new to you, and that the struggle is part of the process (if you’re doing it right and not coasting), one that I go through as well, even at my stage. I also should remember that it can take me all semester to write 2500 freakin’ words (at least 2500 *good* ones).

>Giving directions for writing assignments: I’m doing it wrong

>Over the years my handouts for writing assignments of all kinds — short, long, research papers, close reading analysis, whatever — have gotten longer and more detailed. These days they have a structure that looks something like this: general overview (including goals and point of assignment); format requirements (sometimes this comes later); details of process (what students will need to do *before* writing); summation/repetition of over-arching goal, often underlined or written in bold. So that last bit on a short assignment might say, “Write a short essay (about 4 pages) in which you address X and Y. Be sure to give concrete evidence to support your claims, state those claims with clarity, [etc. — insert appropriate necessary move here].” And it will essentially repeat what the general overview said, but with more language about the “how” (the process detailed above it). The longer the assignment, the more complicated this summation might be, but it’s never longer than a short paragraph.

So, in other words, I see my assignments as teaching student how to do what I want them to do, rather than just assuming they know what’s expected in whatever the assignment is asking. And in the process section, I often point out that the order they *do* things is not necessarily the order they will *present* them in the finished product, or that they won’t ultimately use everything they discover in the process of preparing.

Sounds good, right? Sounds like I’m setting them up for success, doesn’t it? And in some ways I’m even writing my assignments like a well formed essay or narrative, with a beginning, and middle, and an end. And yet, somehow it doesn’t work. More and more students seem to miss the point, the big picture, even when it’s underlined and in bold and repeated at the beginning and end. And the students who miss this big picture include English majors, honors students, and even MA students. I had one assignment in my graduate methods class that was an utter failure — not as single finished assignment addressed the big picture.

Instead, they get all hung up on the details. In that grad assignment, for example, they were seriously angsty over how to site the web page for a scholarly journal. Seriously. A whole bunch of them. I couldn’t figure out why so many of them were spending so much time on those web sites. And no one asked me substantive questions about the larger point of the project, which was to report on journals in a given subfield and educate each other on what journals were out there, what their emphases were and what kinds of articles they published, how difficult it was to get published in them (in terms of time and percentage of accepted articles, etc.), whether they published scholarly articles only, or other kinds of writing (forums, reviews, etc.). It was clear in many of the assignments turned in that no one in some the groups (it was a group assignment) had even bothered to open an issue of the journal! I should have known that they were missing the point from the weird questions they were asking. In fact, I’m now thinking that instead of asking students if they have any questions about the assignment that I should say, “OK, who can summarize the point of this assignment for the class?” I think I might a) catch misunderstandings and b) open the eyes of a lot of other students.

And recently, in another class, a short assignment had final directions along the lines of “Once you’ve done all that, write an essay in which you draw from the evidence you’ve gathered and answer the following two questions: what does that tell you about X and how can we apply it to Y.” More than half the class forgot to address the “apply it to Y” part and the ones who did threw it in as an afterthought. And the practice of “apply it to Y” has been part of every assignment this semester. As in the graduate journal assignment, I think theses students also got so hung up in gathering data that they forgot why they were doing it and what it was supposed to be used for.

So, clearly, something’s wrong with the way *I’m* doing things, if all of these different groups of students are missing the point. I have to say that I long for the approach most of my undergraduate professors used. Twice a semester they’d say, “Go write a paper.” Seriously, the syllabus (which was usually a single page, btw) would have two days marked “6-page Paper Due” (or something similarly laconic) — one before the midterm and one after — and that’s it. And then there was a midterm and a final (no details about those, either). Of course, that would be going to the other extreme and there all sorts of reasons I can’t do it that way with my students.

At any rate I’m starting to think I’m giving them too much guidance and they’re getting lost in the details. And I’m also giving too many assignments. While that theoretically gives many more opportunities to learn, I’m not sure the students who need it the most take those opportunities. It definitely gives students more grades (each weighted very little), but then some of the flakier ones fail to do every one. And it burns me out on grading.

So what do you all think? Give fewer directions? Let them work out the how? Or maybe move the process-oriented guidelines to an appendix and limit the first page to big picture stuff (and move it all there)? A perverse part of me now thinks I should have a class day dedicated to how to read assignment instructions! But that would be a little insane. What do you think?

>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.

>Sometimes students are just so darn adorable!

>An actual sentence from a piece of informal student writing:

Textual evidence from the poem indicates there is no heir to Beowulf.

I don’t know why, but I find this utterly charming.

For those of you who don’t have Beowulf fresh in your minds, the hero, in his dying moments, actually says, outright, that he would give his armor to a son if he had one. It’s not exactly a textual puzzle, even in Old English, and certainly not in the translation my students are reading. I think this is coming from my tendency to write “you need textual evidence here” in the margins when students says something interpretative or analytical without evidence. But this is factual — it just needs line numbers for reference (which he doesn’t provide, but oh well). Apparently I’ve trained them too well already and now they’re salivating when a bell rings!