Like most instructors, I'm constantly trying to think of better assignments for various courses. This time around, I'm thinking about my junior level Canterbury Tales course. I'm quite happy with the word paragraph assignment that Sisyphus (at Academic Cog) shared with me a while back. That gets students writing regularly, focusing closely on the text, and makes up about 5-7 pages of writing for the semester.
But I'm looking for a longer assignment, one that will challenge students, but not be out of reach. The thing is, they're learning Middle English in the course, and our library resources are limited, and I'm not a real medievalist, so I don't feel like asking them to do a full on research paper is right. When I did, some while ago, they tended to either find one tiny idea and then look for critical essays to support that idea, or they'd find a critical essay and like that idea, and try to rework it. In any case, they weren't really researching anything new. (That contrasts with my senior seminar students, who can usual do something new because I tend to teach several less canonical texts, and they can find new things to think and argue about those texts.)
I had a conversation not too long ago with our honors guy, about a student's potential project, and he had an idea of asking a student to find a critical essay and then read everything the paper cited, and then write a paper talking about the critical conversation represented in the original essay. Now that seemed like a great idea, and I started thinking about it in case the student wants to do a project, and then I thought maybe that would work for the longer project for the course. So yesterday, I started looking at crucial essays written in the past ten years about the various tales, and I realized that it's probably unrealistic to expect my students to do that sort of project. For one thing, most of the critical essays cite 40 or so other texts, many of them medieval, some Latin, and many very theoretical (Derrida, for example). They looked like really interesting essays, but my students just aren't strong enough readers of criticism to work with them very well.
I'm thinking of using one of them, though, to work with students on reading critical essays, and then building an assignment from there. In the past, I've given students a list of topics and had them do basic lit reviews, and I think I might go with that.
I'd love to hear about what sorts of assignments people give for lit students to help them build towards real research skills.