Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New Assignment?

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.


  1. I really like your colleague's idea, and I'm toying with doing something similar in my M.A.-level class on Donne: ask students to become experts on *one poem* by reading everything they can on it, looking at digitized copies of the manuscript witnesses (in which there are significant textual variants), etc.

    For your class, though, I wonder whether you might not be able to do a looser version of your colleague's idea by having your students find a critical essay (maybe you could pre-select some that are shorter or more accessible?) and then read everything they need to feel expert about the specific critical conversation(s) the scholar is entering. So, not everything in every footnote, but paying special attention to the early framing paragraphs where the scholar explicitly addresses prior trends in scholarship. (I find that my undergrads have a really hard time understanding the moves scholars make and the way they're positioning themselves within an existing discussion.) That might just involve reading two or three addition essays, or skimming a few books, but would still teach them some valuable things about scholarly writing and about how academic contributions work.

  2. Oh, that's a great idea, Flavia! Thanks!

    I really like your idea re the Donne poems. I think that would work really well for MA students.

  3. Anonymous6:39 PM

    In a poetry class (in a language other than English), I've had success with having them write a 5ish page explication of a poem (essay 1), and then to follow it up with a critical review of one particular piece of literary criticism written about that poem (essay 2), part of which involves taking apart those different moves that scholars make in writing. That ideally sets them up for their final research essay, but I want to tool around with the requirements for that one the next time I teach the class. In this most recent iteration essay 2 (the really focused, 5ish page analysis of a piece of literary criticism) was both an entirely new exercise to my students and very useful for them - they even told my chair so. It may be a bit more basic than what you're looking for, though.

  4. This may not work as well in lit as in history, but I have a colleague who has students reverse-engineer a scholarly article. Our students really struggle with finding the argument. So if you tell students "here are the pieces, now find them" they get something about how such essays are constructed. And it helps them both as readers and writers.

  5. I like Flavia's idea, too. I think my students also have a hard time understanding how scholarly articles work. This semester, I have the added disadvantage of a bunch of sophomores in my Shakespeare class who had either never taken Lit Crit or are taking it at the same time. They are definitely not ready to take a 300-level Shakespeare class. Meanwhile, I have a group of seniors in there, too, who have just finished reading Kierkegaard with me. It's going to be a hard class to navigate with so many different level in there.