Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Cooperating Professor

That's what they call it over in the history department when a student working on their capstone asks another professor for advice.  Usually, it's another history professor, which totally makes sense.  For a student who's interested in Tudor stuffs, it's me, I guess, because there's no one in the history department who does English history.  (They've made a conscious choice to focus on US public history, with a few offerings from around the world, but they're not big enough to cover everywhere equally, and that's that.  They do a good job with the US public history stuff, and contribute a lot to regional work.)

Just over a month ago, I met with the student, who'd asked me before to be the cooperating professor.  At that meeting, I'd made some suggestions.  And then I didn't hear from the student, and since I've been busy in the way we all are, I hadn't much thought about the project until I turned the leaf on my weekly calendar and saw that the presentation was last evening.

So I got there a bit early, and the capstone professor was happy to see me, but also embarrassed because the student was supposed to have sent me a copy of the paper so I could read it ahead.  I did have time to read it while things were finishing up with the previous student, and then I joined the room of students sitting around a seminar table all civilized and such.

They have this pattern.  First, the professor in charge asks the student a friendly question about why they chose the topic they did.  Then the whole group looks at a manual of writing history papers and they talk about the formatting issues.  Then one of the students who was assigned as "editor" talks about the suggestions they made and what more they'd suggest.  Then another student who was assigned as "critic" makes some suggestions.  While this was happening, I was making some notes to prioritize what I thought would be helpful to say, having only quickly read the paper.  I came up with four points I thought would be helpful, one of which built on what the "critic" had to say.

And then it was my turn.  So I tried to be helpful.

The thing is, I'm not a historian.  I think I'd find a real historiography class fascinating, and I've read a tiny bit of historiography, but not much; I don't have the training to think like a historian.  But, I read historian's work.  I read, and admire, and reread, and think, and reread, because what historians do is amazing and fascinating, and how they work with the evidence they find is just so interesting.  And I've got a sense that a lot of the hard thinking that historians do gets sort of hidden when they write things up because they make it look so much easier than it really seems when I look at the sorts of records they work with.

Anyway, I hope I was able to be helpful.  It was weird because the professor in charge is pretty senior around the university, very smart and well-respected, and I partly felt like I needed to perform for him in providing feedback.  But, the paper was really not very good.  So, I don't know.  I'm guessing (hoping!) this wasn't typical of the capstone papers, but rather was a pretty weak paper.  I'm guessing (hoping!) that the papers written on areas he's more familiar with and the department's stronger in are stronger papers.

There was a core of an interesting idea, but really, not the sort of thinking about evidence and sources that I expect in my own students' senior work, and our students don't have two semesters to focus on writing a project.  So, is the capstone professor embarrassed by the student's work?  Was I too harsh because he thought it was a good paper?  I don't know.

I don't know if the student secretly was aware the paper was weak and so didn't send it to me or remind me, or if the student didn't send it to me or remind me because the student is a weak student who let's things go. 

At any rate, that task is done.  I tried to give helpful feedback, and the student has two weeks to work before the paper is due for real, so maybe the student can pull it off.

November is over.  Finals grading looms, though I have only a few straggly things to grade right now and an SAA project to work on (and, of course, some class prep) for the next couple of days.

Happy December, everyone!  May your students all head into finals with their pens poised!

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