Friday, December 12, 2014

Special Studies

I got a polite email the other day from a student enrolled in my Chaucer course who wants to do a special study thing through the honors program so that it counts as an honors course for hir degree; zie asked if we could meet.

I looked at the agreement form on the honors website, and it looks like the instructor and student need to agree on something that will make it count for honors.  The form suggested that the student might do an extra paper or project, might teach a segment of the course, might do research, or extra journal writing, and so forth.

So I emailed the student back, happy to meet, and suggested that zie talk to the head of the program about what sorts of things students did.  When zie came in, zie said the program head had basically shown hir the form with its suggestions and that was it for suggestions.

I'm at a loss.

I asked hir if zie had interests in medieval lit, or in a specific theoretical approach, but zie said no.  Zie thought zie'd read some Chaucer in high school, but couldn't remember if zie had read in Middle English or not.

Zie is qualified to take the course, no question.  But zie is not so qualified that I can imagine hir coming up with a project beyond what the course will require of all students.  Nor does zie seem qualified to teach a segment of the course.

I really don't think it's my job to think of a project.

I suggested that the student go back to the program director and ask what he'd do if a student who'd taken only a single intro course in Spanish, and were in an upper level Don Quixote in translation course wanted to do this sort of project. 

In an ideal world, I'd have a lab where I could slot the student to measure some plant growth or something, and that would count for the extra work.  But in the humanities world, it's hard to see how to do this sort of thing without it being a lot more work on my part.  And unless this student's exceptional (some are!), it's hard to see the student actually doing meaningful work on Chaucer without a huge amount of extra work on my part.  And honestly, I don't see most students being willing and able to do a huge amount of extra work.  Some are, and I'm happy to work with them.  But most aren't.

Has anyone else done a similar sort of thing with humanities?  Can I ask for project suggestions?


  1. I did something like this last year--BUT--it was a sophomore-level American Lit survey course, and the student was a senior psychology major, so we agreed that the student would do some research on psychological topics relevant to some of our readings and present the results to the class. For instance, when we read "The Yellow Wall-Paper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the student did a 10-minute presentation on S. Weir Mitchell and the rest cure. It worked pretty well because the student was able to draw on actual expertise instead of trying to quickly become an expert on the literature itself.

  2. Is it possible to turn it around and have the special something extra be translating the knowledge learned for a particular community group that would benefit? The local senior center? A middle school class? A theatre group? etc

  3. That's a neat idea, ajowen! I need to think about that.

  4. You could give the student an extra book to read -- maybe a cultural history or something like that? -- and have him or her write an extra paper (more work for you, I know) or journal about it and also give a 10-minute presentation in class on what he or she or you think is most relevant for the other students. And if you all decided on that book now, the student could start reading it over winter break.