Monday, June 11, 2007

Thinking About Teaching Research Again

I'm up this year, after a break of a couple years, to teach our intro graduate research class. I've taught it before with fair success (or so students said during their graduation assessment interviews: things like the class being useful and such), but I want to do it way better.

So, I thought I'd think out loud a little about it. Dr. Virago, over at Quod She (is there anyone who doesn't get a silly grin on their face just at that title?) has hinted that she may do a post on how she teaches her research class. I'd also be interested in other people's experiences, both as students and as teachers.

Part of the difficulty of doing a research course in English is that we don't tend to share a single methodology in the way that a lot of fields do. For the most part, we're working with unique stuff (a novel, a play, a poem), and we take all sorts of approaches. In broad terms, we tend to approach things historically and theoretically, sometimes overlapping those lots, sometimes little. The difficulty is that knowing historical and cultural context about any given era takes a long time; knowing much about every possible context?

And it's not just knowing historical and cultural stuff, it's knowing how to get at that stuff in a given field. I know there are ways to get at LOADS of early 20th century periodicals, and that it's a really interesting project for students to choose a periodical and read a whole year of it, paying attention not only to the articles, but also to advertising and such. But I have no idea where I'd begin to look for those periodicals, especially at our university. (Okay, I know I'd go to our librarians and to my colleagues who do early 20th century lit, but on my own, nope.) Part of our long apprenticeship in English involves learning to access stuff, learning to read it (in Latin, secretary hand, whatever), and learning to interpret it. It matters, for example, that we call the "Geneva Bible" the Geneva Bible, and that we have some ideas about what that means to readers.

So, I gather, most folks teaching research make some choices: teach broadly, and hope to know enough to introduce students to lots of areas. Teach within one's own field, and hope that the students gain enough in that field to learn on their own in their own field. Then there's the added problem of actually having the necessary resources at my school (thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster for EEBO!).

And theory is just as, or perhaps even more, difficult!

So, the question to the internet: If you've had experience with a research course, what's the most important thing a student should learn in a research course? What are the best ways to get a student there?

What projects give the most bang for the buck?


  1. Is the assumption that all English research is literature research? Because if not, comp/rhet research can look very different.

  2. Good point, K8! Ours is only a lit MA program, so I'm strictly thinking in those terms.

    Comp/rhet research is fascinating in its own right, and while I read some to learn, I wouldn't know where to begin teaching it, except with basic, basic questions.

  3. I hardly know what to say, because I was profoundly clueless about research when I entered grad school and some days I think I'm still profoundly clueless, but I think a course like that should include some practical instruction in how to propose a paper for a conference, how academic publishing works, that sort of thing. I remember being incredibly frustrated that everybody seemed to expect us to intuit this stuff, and judging by some of the abstracts I saw when I vetted submissions for a grad student conference, it's not being taught at other instututions either.

  4. Bardiac, I am definitely going to do my post on this (and when I *have* a syllabus, we can swap them!), but I wanted now to respond to fretful porpentine's comment a bit, which also suggests where I'm going with my class. The issues of "practical instruction in how to propose a paper for a conference, how academic publishing works, that sort of thing" is going to be one of the major components of my course. I'm going to build it around what it means to be a "junior scholar," what the point of research and scholarship is (broadly), what it means to enter the scholarly conversation, and *how* to do that. And I think a major component of my class in the second half is going to be a kind of workshop of sorts -- of works in progress, of potential abstracts for conferences, etc.

    More later in my post -- as you may have noticed, I'm burning off some of the silly, summery things I promised to write about first!

  5. What I've seen work is a overview of the different types of methodologies and then doing paired readings. Two articles using each methodology, one that is well done, and one that isn't. Then, have the students write a critique of the different articles, discussing what works and what doesn't. For those methods that you aren't familiar with yourself, you could ask colleagues who use them to recommend articles.

    Another side benefit of this assignment is that it builds confidence in your students. I remember hearing multiple times, "If that got published, I can get published." Not that we're trying to inspire poor scholarship, but it does make that initial publication hurdle seem a little bit more reachable.

  6. That makes sense then, although if some of the students are secondary ed teachers working on the subject area MA, classroom research might be useful. But it is impossible to cover everything.