Saturday, November 12, 2005

When do our Students Learn to do Research?

Dr. Crazy reveals at the end of her entry the other day ("That Time of the Semester") that her senior level students have confessed that they don't know how to do research. Boy howdy, does that sound familiar. I really came face to face with the problem here at NWU the first time I taught a real senior level seminar and had students tell me at the end of the class that they'd never learned about the MLA International Bibliography On-Line, much less how to use it. Worse, far worse, they mostly still thought in terms of wanting to write about a vague topic rather than having a question they wanted to answer or even work on.

We faculty folks in the NWU English department have been slowly coming to terms with this problem as we've revised our undergraduate curriculum. In many ways, we've done a really solid job revising the curriculum; we mostly agree on what different levels of classes mean, the core requirements make sense and compliment each other, and the other requirements are clear (and reasonably easy to advise) and give our students the kinds of experiences we want them to have in our program.

But we haven't really discussed where we expect students to learn the research skills (both in finding resources of different sources and in developing meaningful research questions) that we expect them to have by the time they reach our senior level seminars.

As the home of first year writing classes, the English department feels the heat from other academic departments and faculty members who argue that we don't adequately teach writing and research. We respond, generally, by arguing that first year writing classes can't be the be all end all of student writing instruction. Rather, we argue, writing is something students need to work on continually and progressively, especially in classes where they'll learn research and writing skills within their major area.

So it's especially disconcerting to face up to the fact that we in the English department aren't doing quite as good a job teaching research writing to our own majors as we want all departments across the university to do.

I'm not really sure where I want students to learn the basics of research in our field. But I do think that we need to teach these skills in more than one class (or group of classes), and that we need to reinforce and have students practice these skills a fair bit.

I lean towards teaching and reinforcing basic skills at the sophomore level. I think those fairly general classes are a good place for students to learn about MLA and practice finding articles on MLA. I think they're also a good level for students to be exposed to other, more sub-field specific databases and resources. I don't expect my students to remember them forever, but the exposure will teach them that each sub-field has such resources.

At the junior level, I want to reinforce students' skills finding articles and resources, and work more directly on reading critical works ethically. I also want students to hone skills in developing research questions. (Probably, I should find a way to introduce research questioning in sophomore level classes, I suppose?) I know that some of my colleagues think we should start teaching research skills at the junior level, and I have a feeling we're going to have some long discussions in department meetings about this issue.

In junior level classes, I should be able to give a research paper assignment. I think it's too much to think that we can adequately teach resource searching AND developing questions well in one class or level of classes. But if students already know some basics about finding resources, then we can focus on the specifics of developing good research questions. Given our curriculum, our junior level classes are fairly specific and in depth in approach, so students should be able to work with interesting topics in some depth.

Finally, senior level seminars should push students to develop better research questions and to learn to find resources specific to a more narrow area of investigation, to read critical essays more fully, and to say something much more interesting about their question. That's my fantasy, and I'm sticking to it!

I started thinking about the problem of teaching research more critically last spring, after teaching a senior level seminar and talking to other faculty members who were teaching seminars at the time. We generally felt that too many of our students didn't have the knowledge to find resources or the skills to ask good research questions that we expected them to have in a seminar.

This fall, teaching a new sophomore level Shakespeare class for the first time, I tried to build in a few assignments to teach some basic research skills. One of these assignments, I explained a bit in a previous post ("Head Meet Wall"). In the end, the class discussion on sonnet day was GREAT!

I've also asked each student to do three short writing assignments; one of these assignments asks students to use the MLA database to find an article on one of our texts, to read the article carefully, write a short summary of it, and write a short response to it. They have to turn in a copy of the article along with their summary/response. I spent time in class talking about using the MLA database, and also gave them an electronic "handout." So I'm hoping they'll learn a little about MLA and also about finding and reading an article carefully. So far, the papers I've read give me hope.

Now I have to figure out how to work useful assignments into my sophomore level theory class next semester. I just can't really see asking students to research much theory at this point in their education in English studies. I have some colleagues who do research assignments in the class, and they're going to share, when we have time. Yeah, that should be easy!

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