Thursday, November 04, 2010

Assignments for grad students

As my second semester teaching M.A. students starts to wind down, I've been thinking about the skills that I want M.A. students to have and the assignments that best develop or refine those skills--and I'm interested in hearing my readers' thoughts as well.

Personally, I'm not a believer in the 25-page term paper. I suppose a doctoral program could argue that 25-30pp. approximates the length of an article or a dissertation chapter, and thus it's important for students to master projects of that size. But a) RU is not a doctoral institution, and b) I was myself a doctoral student, and most of my own seminar papers were utter, flailing, blithering crap. Producing three 25-page papers, in less than a month, on subjects that I knew little about (in one semester: Keats, Spenser, and the respective attitudes toward culture of T. H. Huxley and Matthew Arnold) did NOTHING to prepare me for the much longer and more intensive process of researching and writing my first dissertation chapter.

So although there's virtue in learning how to write a paper of that length (and I definitely think M.A. students should write a couple of them during their time in the program), they have to be built up to. In each of the two M.A. classes I've taught, then, I've described our final paper as "15+ pages." More importantly, I've tried to devise shorter written assignments that prepare them for that final paper.

In my Milton class, my first assignment was a conventional close-reading essay; I wanted to get a look at my students' writing and interpretative skills, for one, but I also wanted to make sure that they were comfortable analyzing poetry and using the technical vocabulary of poetic analysis.

In my Dunne class this semester, I came up with what I think a much better version of a close-reading assignment--which was to have each student produce an "edition" of one of Dunne's poems based on the manuscript and early printed editions (a selection of which are available here). In making their editions, each student had to establish a copy text, provide a textual apparatus with variants, and then write a narrative explanation and analysis that justified, in literary terms, the choices she'd made.

It required a lot of preliminary work, but in the end produced better results. I think the interpretative work felt easier to my students (because the stuff they were focusing on was more obvious and more seemingly pragmatic: why prefer this word to that word? why leave the comma in or take it out? does spelling change the meaning in this case?), while actually demanding much more of them. We talked a lot about how manuscripts circulated in the Early Modern period and how they made it into print; whether and to whom authorial intention matters; and what editors do and where the texts in their Norton or Penguin editions come from.

The second paper I assigned in both classes was more straightforward, but no less practical: find an article or book chapter in a reputable scholarly source, and then write a short essay that engages with it--summarizing, critiquing, noting any theoretical biases or omissions or areas for further study.

My feeling is: if students can close read and if they can deal with secondary sources in a critical, responsible way, then they can write a longer work of scholarship--whether it's 15 pages or 25. But isolating and focusing on those skills matters.


From your experiences as teachers or students, what kinds of skills do you think are most important for grad students to work on--and what kinds of assignments have you found that do the trick?


Pantagruelle said...

I'm teaching my second grad class in two years, and I have to teach yet another one (and yet another new prep!) next semester, for a total of 2 new grad courses in two years. My grad classes are MA/PhD, but mostly MA.

Partly because it's a format that worked for me in one of my own PhD classes, and partly because I need to keep my own grading workload under control with all of these new grad preps, I use the same format paper assignment that my PhD prof used.

I have them write a 10 paper for midterm, then I grade it as quickly as possible, and I have them revise and expand it to 20 page paper for the end of the semester--revise and expand really meaning revise and expand, not just tagging 10 new pages onto the end of the first 10 pages.

This basically mimics the scholarly pattern of writing a quickie 10 page conference paper, putting it out there and receiving feedback, and then continuing to rework and revise it until it's something closer to a the draft of an article for publication.

They learn how to take the seed of an idea and to keep thinking about it and working on it to make it better and better. They learn to edit their own writing. They learn to take an undeveloped point and develop it into something more substantial.

And when it comes to grading the 20 page paper at the end of the semester, I've already got their marked up 10 page version on my hard drive (since I have them submit everything electronically and I use Track Changes in Word to grade), so I can see exactly what changes they have made and how much work they have put into reworking, while also cutting down on the time it takes me to correct the 20 page paper since I've got the 10 page corrections right there in front of me too.

Also in the interests of both 1) preparing them for eventual teaching and 2) cutting down on my seemingly endless course prep, I have them lead the discussion for an hour twice during the semester. They don't have to write a paper but merely submit 4-5 pages of point form notes 48 hours before class, which gives me time to make suggestions for changes if necessarily. It takes the burden off me to write up tons and tons of notes (and I keep their notes for when I hopefully will teach the same course again), and it helps bring them out of their shells and it places the burden on them to talk among themselves and take responsibility for their own learning, to join a discussion in a community of scholars rather than just sitting there passively waiting for me to put info in their brains. It didn't work very well last year with a weak and quiet group of students but it is working exceptionally well this year with my new group of bright and talkative students.

Pantagruelle said...

Oops, I meant a total of 3 new grad courses in 2 years. It's insane! And as you can tell, I'm not sleeping much! :)

Susan said...

Last year in an interdisciplinary course, we had students submit questions several times during the semester, and asked them to think about "what made a productive research question".

More generically, I think the difference between an MA and Ph.D. is that the Ph.D. is supposed to create new knowledge, and the MA needs to understand it well enough to critique. Which suggests that you assignments are getting at that task.

Anonymous said...

One of the most useful assignments I had as a student was substituting the final paper with a final grant/fellowship proposal. This was for a methodology class, and the professor explained that she used to require a research proposal as the final project, but this required a literature review, which might require us to spend a lot of time researching an area that we weren't all that interested in, in addition to focusing on the methodology, which was the point of the class. However, we would all likely write a grant or fellowship proposal, or many, at some point in the future. Writing one for the class would be good practice, particularly at explaining the literature and methodology clearly to non-specialists, which we would also have to do in the future (this class was MA and PhD students in an interdisciplinary field). I ended up using the grant proposal I wrote for this class to apply for the grant that is funding my dissertation research, so it was even more useful to me. I suppose this might be more useful for PhD students than MA ones, although at least in my program, MA students sometimes apply for fellowships of various sorts after graduation. Needless to say, the length depended on the fellowship, but it was usually 5-10 pages.

life_of_a_fool said...

I like Pantagruelle's paper assignments a lot; I might try that in the future.

I teach MA students and used to have them write periodic short papers about an individual week's reading. This semester I'm having them write papers about "units" of 3 weeks -- so that they get better at synthesizing research and engaging with it. This is similar to your goal of focusing on the smaller skills. I then have a 10-15 page final "term" paper, in which they use course readings and articles/books they've found on their own.

I have tried having students lead discussion, and it has almost always been bad. A few students really get into it and do a great job. A lot are incredibly tedious. It may be a learning process for them, but the cost to the rest of the class seems too high. I either need to better figure out how to give them better structure, or just not do it with these students. This semester, I'm having them submit discussion questions instead. Not perfect by any stretch, but am improvement at least in terms of class time.

Flavia said...

I, too, like Pantagruelle's assignment. The problem is that in many classes, the material students are they're likely to want to write on (say, Paradise Lost) comes in the last half of the semester, making the expansion of a 10-page midterm paper unfeasible.

I don't have students lead discussion, though I do have them present on secondary readings (which I've selected in advance, so I don't have the problem of lame or oddball readings--and since we've all read them, we can still have a good discussion even if the present flubs it). I've been considering building in a conference-paper-style presentation, though haven't gotten there yet.

Shedding's assignment is great, too, and for some of the same reasons. At least for me, learning how to do something "practical" often felt much more illuminating and intellectually exciting than just writing another research paper. I think those projects made me reflect in a larger way on the whole purpose of being a scholar, and take personal ownership over the process. (Whereas with a research paper, it was hard to feel more than a student, or as if I were doing something meaningfully different from what I'd done in my undergraduate days.)

One of my own grad school classes featured four short assignments and no final paper, and some of them were brilliant. One was a sort of research scavenger hunt, involving tools like the DNB, the card catalogue, and the ESTC; another involved finding a book in the rare books collection and writing about the differences between that book and a modern edition.

But the one I remember best was the assignment to make an argument for or against the literary "value" of any primary text we'd read. The process of thinking through and defining for myself what literary value was--in what contexts, and according to whom--and then proving it through a careful analysis of my text, was hands-down the most worthwhile project I did all year. (And from talking to others in my cohort, the kinds of assignments we turned in were wildly different, and probably pretty interesting to grade.)

Fretful Porpentine said...

I think I might have to stick up for the old-fashioned research paper, to be honest, since I came to grad school deeply and profoundly clueless about how to do research. (I had not done an honors thesis as an undergrad, mainly because I hadn't a clue where to begin. My undergraduate program did, in theory, require a senior seminar that culminated in a longer research paper. Well, somehow I managed to write -- and get an A on -- this paper without reading a single scholarly article. I did cite a bunch of books, to be fair, although I don't think I made much distinction between scholarly and popular books. Other than that, I managed to get through undergrad -- and most of the first year of grad school -- on the strength of being a very good close reader with a flair for prose. It wasn't until my second semester that a professor finally called me on it.)

moria said...

I'm so with you on the seminar paper as a genre, Flavia.

I love your edition assignment – a similar thing on a smaller scale in my intro-to-the-major course in undergrad is responsible for my being an early modernist. Did that assignment lead to a bigger paper, and if so, how?

Some models I've liked as a student, both (the first especially) better suited to doctoral than M.A. students, depending on the goals of the latter:
* Requesting different work from different students depending on degree of specialization and level of advancement in program. So, annotated bibliography + short introductory essay for nonspecialists; 15ish-page-paper for specialists in their first year; fully-developed 25-30p. paper for more advanced specialists.

* Final paper in conference-paper format, with or without accompanying day-long class conference. The conference can be a beautiful thing – we rarely get to hear each other's seminar-level work, and it can be a great way to close a course on a communal note. Especially if there's beer after.

Additionally, one instructor my first year had us give presentations in the form of read papers of 6-7 pages / 12-15 min. – sounds terrible, but was actually the best presentation format I've encountered. Prevented incoherence and (otherwise inevitable) endless presentations. The paper would synthesize the assigned readings for the day, and perform a close-reading of some kind on a primary text, and close with two or three questions to guide discussion. Most students in that class used at least some material or ideas from these papers in their final projects.

Flavia said...


Oh, I could barely write a proper research paper when I started grad school, too. But my point is that 25pp. is much too long a research paper for a student who doesn't quite know how to do the job to do it--and especially if she's writing a whole bunch of other ones at the same time.

My 15+ pp. final paper is a research paper. And my second assignment, in many cases, is a first step toward developing a topic for that final research paper (and even if it isn't, it requires students to engage with an outside source in the same kind of way--through critical reading, not just summary--that they will be engaging with sources in their final papers).

Moria, et al.: okay! You're making me come around to the paper-presentation assignment, too. And huh. Wonder if I'm allowed to bring beer into our classroom building for our last day. . .)

Pantagruelle said...

Actually, quite a few of my students write their midterm paper on texts that we study in the second half of the semester. On the first day of class, I give them a brief overview of what each text is about, since I also want them to have some idea of what they are signing up for when they choose which week to lead the discussion. I encourage them to read ahead of schedule for both the paper and the discussion leading sessions, rather than leaving the reading to the actual week we do the topic, and so far most of them are good about doing that for their assigned week. File that under teaching them "time management" skills, which, admittedly, some do better than others, but is also one of those key things they need to learn in making the transition from undergrad to grad.

Withywindle said...

Never having taught a grad level class ... I strongly suspect that the answer differs strongly by discipline. History just doesn't focus on the close reading of texts the way English does; although perhaps it should. But given that ... my grad school experience included one independent study at the MA level that in essence was practice for researching an article (and which I did turn into a conference paper at a low-level conference), a two-semester research seminar that I used to research what became my first article, and then, in essence, a whole bunch of historiographic research essays for the various subject proseminars I took. I don't know if that sort of segregation between research practicums and historiographic papers is ideal, but it does give you a fair bit of what you need to do to be a professional historian.

This doesn't remotely address your question of proper assignments. I would rephrase it as a question about preparation. In the research seminar class for undergraduates I taught, I tried to get them to write a 20 page research paper, integrating primary and secondary sources, etc.--i.e., not that much different from what a graduate student would do. And a graduate student really should enter graduate school having already done one such paper, to have already become acquainted (if only sketchily) with the techniques which they should then perfect as a graduate student. What sort of assignments do you give to grad students who haven't done this? (And I should say that none of my students really fulfilled the assignment as they should have.) I don't have a good answer for how you conduct what amounts to remedial education at the graduate level.

Flavia said...


I don't consider my students to be in need of remedial education, but I do think that most grad students benefit from focusing, in a more conscious way, on the component skills of their discipline--and in literary studies I'm skeptical that the 25pp. research paper (esp. while simultaneously writing two or three others) is the best way of achieving that.

This may be a disciplinary difference, as you suggest, and/or it may be a temperamental one: personally, I'd rather get a well-written, tightly-argued 12pp. paper that makes thorough use of three or four outside sources than a big ambitious mess of a thing that's 30pp. long; some of my friends feel exactly the opposite, for totally defensible reasons. . . but I suspect our rationales are bound up with our individual writing and learning styles, rather than reflecting a universal pedagogical ideal.

Fretful and I both wrote long research papers in college, and many (although not all) of my grad students did, too. But as you say, the acquaintance made there with research techniques is often rather sketchy. That's fine for undergrads who aren't going past the B.A. But an M.A. program seems to me the right time to break down the act of scholarship into its component parts, make sure students are good at them--and thus prepared to write 25pp. essays in their other classes.

It's not remedial work, unless practicing scales or doing wind sprints is remedial.

Withywindle said...

I should mention that I have talked with both history and English professors teaching grad classes where the students (they say) are incapable of writing at a graduate level, or sometimes even an undergraduate one. So when I mention remediation, it's not random dourness, but response to Stories I Have Heard.

And also a response to the fact that most of my students, in every class I have taught, have been in some need of remediation. I'm not actually sure of what sort of assignments to give to students who don't generally need remediation.

I'll probably post on my own blog about this all; it's an interesting thought piece.

thefrogprincess said...

These comments are fascinating and, if I ever end up teaching grad students, I'm going to use some of these.

I'm a history ABD so I am coming from another discipline but to a large degree, I'm with you on this, Flavia. Those term papers are pointless and rushed and I don't know anyone who has turned a term paper into an article. (MA thesis on the other hand is common but my program didn't require a masters' thesis.)

The single best paper I wrote during the coursework phase of my program was a ten page paper in an English class about a single novel. The length was long enough to really hone in and craft an argument but short enough to do it with care. I remember slaving over that piece and then getting a better grade on it than anything I got in any of my history classes. Even now, I look at it and am impressed. (That's mostly because lit isn't my strength but also because the other term papers I wrote were so embarrassing.)

Moreover, in history, I think your approach to "component parts" is still key. From what I've been able to tell, students come into grad school having either having done extensive primary source research or having done a lot of secondary reading but rarely both to the same degree. Plus historians are expected to do several types of writing over their careers: conference presentations, lectures, journal articles, book reviews, review essays, etc etc. Those all require different approaches and the standard 25-page paper (whether it be research or historiographical essay) rarely translates to any of those.

Renaissance Girl said...

Our MA program has recently laid out some guidelines for term-paper expectations; graduate faculty are encouraged to have the "term paper" be a conference paper (about 10 pages). Of course, different kinds of prep go into crafting a good conference paper, including wide reading, close reading, taking stabs and then refining ideas... I have some mixed feelings about it, but the students do tend to get themselves passionately invested, and often present their papers at conferences, and build them into articles or into their MA theses. That's maybe a more accurate reflection of the real process of academic writing.