Friday, April 28, 2006

Conceiving research and Friday poetry!

I'm a crappy teacher.

An hour or two ago, my department had a meeting, and several people teaching senior seminars talked about the kinds of schedules they work with for research papers. Clearly, I am behind the times. By week five, one said, I've had my students look at all the works we're reading this semester and they turn in a basic topic idea.

By week five in my Chaucer class, I had given my students a short oral quiz on reading Middle English, we'd begun The Canterbury Tales after reading a few short poems and The Book of the Duchess.

By week eight, my colleague continued, the students turn in their first short draft of their final essay.

By week eight, I was trying to get my Chaucer students to brainstorm about research questions for their paper.

It got worse and worse. And it's not getting better.

Some of my students have no problem coming up with research questions; they have all sorts of questions, so it's a matter of helping them focus on something they can work out an answer to within the school term.

Many others want to start with a topic: women in Chaucer, religion in Chaucer.

I wish I could say that I instantly resolve their problems, but I don't.

I tend to conceive of papers growing out of questions, rather than topics. Why does X and not Y happen? What the heck is Proserpina doing in "The Merchant's Tale"? Why do we have no married women amongst the pilgrims, while so many of the women represented in the tales are married?

Once I start asking questions, then I have somewhere to go with my research, and I try to model that for my students. The most difficult thing is to get them to think through the question themselves, work with the text to propose a possible answer, and then figure out how to justify or disqualify that answer, or perhaps refine it.

Proserpina in "The Merchant's Tale" speaks more than May does; she's a wife, a wife by rape; she defies her husband and sides with human wives; she and Pluto represent the incursion of an active, involved Pagan supernatural in a story set in a very Christian milieu.

I try really hard to get students to brainstorm a possible answer through freewriting and listing about their text BEFORE they start reading what other people say. Because, let's face it, once you read Kolve's chapter on "The Miller's Tale," it's hard not to be bound by his reading. And there are lots of smart, convincing critics out there, many of them very convincing; so if you don't have an idea what you think before you begin writing, you're going to find it hard not to follow someone else, even if they're wrong.

Having an idea of a possible answer also makes focusing research easier: do I need to know how the middle ages thought or knew about Proserpina? Fabliaux history? Ideas about female orgasm in the period? Feminist interpretations of the Proserpina story? Chaucer's other uses of Pluto or Proserpina? Classical mythology in Christian medieval England?

The alternative, of course, is to get a depth of knowledge about the critical conversation so that you can begin to work with lacunae and problems in what's already out there. But my undergraduates just aren't at that level. I think it took me several years of grad school before I could really conceive of that level.

But teaching students to conceive of research questions is difficult for me at every level, every semester. I sometimes think I do it better in my first year writing course than in my upper level lit courses, even though those are nearer and dearer to my heart.

In honor of students (and others) with writing block everywhere, and the coming of term paper deadlines, here's the first sonnet from Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophel and Stella.

NB. Early modern typography often switches U and V, so that loue is love; also I and J. They also didn't have nearly the spelling rigidity that we do. Sometimes, I wish I were an early modern. But then, my first year students spell equally loosely.

Sidney: Astrophel and Stella (first sonnet) [1]

Louing in trueth, and fayne[2] in verse my loue to show,
That she, deare Shee, might take som pleasure of my paine,
Pleasure might cause her reade, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pittie winne, and pity grace obtaine,
I sought fit wordes to paint the blackest face of woe;
Studying inuentions fine, her wits to entertaine,
Oft turning others leaues[3], to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitfull showers vpon my sun-burnd brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting Inuentions stay[4];
Inuention, Natures childe, fledde step-dame Studies blowes;
And others feet[5] still seemde but strangers in my way.
Thus, great with childe to speak, and helplesse in my throwes[6],
Biting my trewand[7] pen, beating myselfe for spite,
Fool, said my Muse to me, looke in thy heart, and write.

1. Astrophel=star lover, Stella=star
2. fain=desiring
3. leaves: pages, of poetry, for example
4. stay=support, help; think of a cane
5. feet= as in poetic feet, meter, thus other people's poetry
6. throes= of labor, birthing a child as a metaphor for conceiving a poem
7. truant= wayward, uncooperative

The moral of the story: figure out what YOU want to say, and only THEN look to what others have already been talking about, or you'll never get out your conception!

(How pathetic to need footnotes on a blogpage.


  1. That's one of my favorite poems and one I often think of when I'm writing. My Ph.D. exams were on sonnet sequences and I've done some presentations and written papers about images of birth (or lack thereof) in sonnets by women. I love sonnets, especially the really old ones.

  2. Ooh, that's one of my favorite sonnets, too! But darn, now I can't use it myself for Friday poetry blogging. Oh well.

    As for student research topics, this is why I don't assign research papers in my literature courses. When the heck am I going to be able to teach them *how* to do the research??

    I give them topics instead so that all they're working on are the texts themselves. It's all very New Critic of me, I know, but ugh -- how do I teach them how to do research?

  3. Hey, creative spelling is supposedly the 'in' thing now.

  4. Now THAT'S my kind of spelling! :)

  5. You know, we had the same discussion today, only w.r.t. the grads. We were musing on why the students take so many incompletes, and one faculty member berated us all for not setting lots of intermediate deadlines.

    I know she's right, but frankly, it annoys me that it's true. Why should GRADS be so irresponsible that they can't get their work done unless you force it on them with intermediate deadlines? (Undergrads, different story. It's probably a good tactic to use there.)

  6. Wow, Laura, so you're the expert we're looking for! I love the birthing image in Sidney, but I'm not remembering any in women writers' works at the moment. Care to remind me?

    Dr. V - No reason you can't use it some other Friday! It's not like repeating reading a poem would hurt anyone, right? (Okay, maybe Wordsworth hurts more the second time...)

    We should talk about teaching research, Dr. V, because I think it's both really important for undergrads in general to be able to conceive of questions and figuring out/researching answers, and because I think research teaches us to be better thinkers and readers. (/notes for later blogging)

    History Geek - my l337 57ud3n75 7h!nk 5o!

    Ianqui - you're right. Giving intermediate deadlines is invaluable. Part of my problem is that when my colleague's getting his students' topic ideas, my students are still beginning to "get" Middle English. His students probably read some of his class's works in high school; none of mine do.

    But it's something I really need to figure out better! Thanks!