But before I begin with my musings on this topic, a few side notes. 1. I did not accomplish much today at all. I don't care. It's my fall break, dammit, and I've got two days left for productivity. 2. My "recent posts" as well as the archive of the blog seem to have disappeared. I don't know why. Ew. And when I look at the template in internet explorer the header is all fucked up. I feel like evil sprites have attacked my blog. I may need to spend some quality time monkeying with the template, even though I don't want to do so. Caro, can you hear me? Would you like to redesign my blog? I'll be your best friend!
In my two senior-level classes, the time for helping students to conceive research projects for their major paper at the end of the semester has arrived. Yes, I begin doing this with them this early.
I did not always do this. Once upon a time, when I was young and naive, I thought they all got what went into doing a research paper, and I'd start talking to them about it in earnest about one month from the deadline, although I'd give them the assignment earlier. But what I realized when I did this was that the papers that I would receive would turn out to be much more of a mixed bag, and that some students didn't understand academic research - and academic research writing - at all. And so, in the service of reading much cooler papers (my own selfish desire) and of actually making them "get it" to whatever extent they can about what "academic research and writing" means and is, I now start at about midterm, giving them two full months of periodic instruction to get them to the Big Paper.
Yes, these are juniors and seniors. And yes, they need this, even in classes that aren't writing classes, even though they've taken writing classes.
First of all, let me note for the record that I don't resent having to take class time to do this. When I was young and naive, I used to resent it - I felt like by the time they reached the upper level somebody else should have taught them this crap. Also, I resented it because I knew that I was teaching lower-level students this stuff in my comp classes, and so I wondered whether I was the only person who was bothering to do so.
Until I started getting students from my comp classes in my upper-level lit classes. And they didn't know their ass from a hole in the ground either. (By the way, that's a favorite saying of Crazy's Mom, and I really do love when I get the chance to use it.) It was at this point that I took a step back and re-evaluated. See, if they didn't get it even when I'd taught it to them, or if they didn't intuit how to take what I taught them and to translate it into advanced disciplinary research, perhaps that meant that they really needed instruction in the advanced stuff later on, when they'd be ready to get it. And maybe that wasn't something to resent, and was no reflection on students' abilities or on the quality of lower-level instruction, ultimately, but rather it meant that this stuff that I have internalized isn't actually self-evident or that even the basics don't necessarily penetrate on the first go-around.
The thing that I've realized most in beginning this early is that most students really don't have a clue about how to generate research questions independently. Thus, if their papers come out crappy, it's not that they are crappy writers most of the time. It's that because they didn't have a strong beginning they don't come out with a strong end product. So I find that most of what I do in the early stages is offering up lots of suggestions about ways to go. I ask a lot of leading questions, and I focus on getting them to narrow down further than they think that they should or that is reasonable. All of this is second-nature to me now, but for them, it's the first time often that they've ever done this, so it's not natural at all.
The next thing that I find I do a lot of is helping them to find sources. All but the best and the brightest have trouble with this, even after library instruction. They're not used to configuring their ideas in terms of search terms, and they're not used to using the many resources that the library offers. This goes hand in hand with the devising of the topic, because lame topics (I've found) come out of wanting a topic that "has enough" sources. The issue is, when a writer chooses a lame topic "that will work," a lame paper results. Often they think that there "won't be enough" on what they're interested in. It's a revelation to them when I can help them find those sources, and usually in 15 minutes or less.
Now, is this hand-holding? I'd say no. I'd say it's mentoring. See, the thing is, I'm not sure what the value is of expecting them to "get it" without demonstrating how to do it. And the fact that some students can get it without that mentoring doesn't mean that they don't benefit from it, too.
I guess I'm thinking about all of this because I've been thinking a lot of late about how my research and teaching connect, not just in terms of content but also in terms of form. See, the thing is, part of what my PhD meant was that I learned all of these techniques for how to produce scholarship. If I don't pass those on to my students, am I really teaching them as well as I could be? And what are the best ways for teaching them those techniques without insisting that they become little versions of me (a thought that I detest).
Example: a student of mine approached me to make an appointment for a meeting because "professors either love my writing or they hate it, and I need to know which kind you are." Talking to him further, I found that some professors responded very positively because he was playing with language in certain (I'd say out-dated) ways, while others called what he was doing "bad writing." I asked him for an example, and he gave me one. I responded: "Well, I would say as a rule that I would encourage you not to do that sort of thing." He asked me why. I elaborated: "Because it's not 1982, and you're not Derrida." He didn't seem terribly happy with this response. But then I went further. "I'm not saying that as a hard-and-fast rule. What I'm saying is that you need a reason for doing that sort of thing beyond that it's a cool thing to do. If you've got a reason in terms of the content that makes that sort of thing essential, it can be effective. But if you're doing it just because it's cool, then readers will think you're a joke. I'm happy to talk to you about your writing, and I promise you that I'll never just say that something is 'bad writing.' But I'm going to tell you what I think isn't effective, and when I do, I'll tell you why." He seemed happy with that, or as happy as he could be. See, now that's an example of me passing on to a student something that I only learned as an advanced grad student, something about form and not about content. Sure, I could have not had that conversation, and then I could end up unhappy with the paper that he turned in, but where would that leave either of us? And yes, I'm meeting with the student to go over his draft with him and to give him suggestions.
So anyway, this is a roundabout way of asking all of you to weigh in: how do you pass on the "scholarly tricks of the trade" to your students? Where is the line between hand-holding and mentoring? To what extent is it our responsibility to give students not just the content but also the form?
4 years ago