Saturday, November 08, 2014

Teaching academic prose

This semester, in my senior capstone, I've been having my students choose most of the scholarship we read. We spent a few weeks reading and collectively working through essays that I'd assigned, but then they were loosed upon the MLA database to find their own.

It's been working well--better than some of my past strategies for acquainting undergraduates with academic prose--and I'll be reprising it for future classes. Still, I've noticed something curious: 80% of the articles my students have chosen have come from the same journal. Since I gave them a list of 10 possible journals, the reliability of this one isn't an issue; it's a solid publication, if not the most high-powered. If you'd asked me to rank those ten journals, back in August, I'd have placed it at maybe #8 or #9.

Having now read a whole slew of recent articles from that journal, I can't say I'd change its ranking--but I do have a new appreciation for what it does well.

First, it publishes shorter pieces, on the order of 15 printed pages of text, not counting notes, and they're usually well-structured and tightly argued. (I suspect the relative brevity of its articles is part of what attracts my students to this journal.) Second, its articles are surprisingly good models for advanced undergraduate and M.A. students: they demonstrate mastery of existing criticism; familiarity with the author's larger body of work (and/or the work's genre and/or its time period); facility in close reading; the ability to apply a useful theoretical framework where called for. And they generally do all those things both efficiently and explicitly, with every movement clearly signposted.

Indeed, reading this group of articles made me reflect on how tough scholarly articles can be for undergraduates and even many M.A. students, and how quickly they get lost in the weeds: they just can't figure out why the author is suddenly spending 10 pages talking about some minor historical event or track the way she's positioning herself within an existing critical tradition. That's not necessarily the author's fault, or at least not in the kind of articles I usually select; it's just that scholars write for other specialists and assume lots of prior knowledge. And over the course of a longer essay the big-picture argument and how its component pieces fit together can be harder to see.

But although I liked a lot of things about the articles my students found, even the most interesting and persuasive usually came up short. The best way I can describe it is to say that they lacked the final "turn": the explanation for why all this matters in some bigger way. In several cases I could see quite clearly what that turn might be--the dots were all in place, waiting to be connected--but the author declined to do so.

From a pedagogical perspective this isn't a crushing weakness, since it's an opportunity to talk about what more an author might have done to improve an already good piece of writing. And in the future, I can open the semester with essays from this particular journal as a way of introducing my students to the kinds of moves that academic prose makes before progressing to more sophisticated examples.

But I admit I find it odd that this journal publishes work that is so good in so many ways while mostly failing to rise to the next level. Maybe it's about length--a short essay can do a lot of things well, but it's not usually the place for a big claim--or maybe it's about the journal's place in the food chain: it gets tidy little essays that the authors either never wished to be bigger or that they tried and failed to get published elsewhere.

It's nice knowing that there are venues that publish modest but reliably good work, and a useful reminder that not every contribution to scholarship needs to rock the foundations.

Still, in the future, I'm imposing some quotas.


Susan said...

It's funny, but at dinner a couple of nights ago, we were talking about what we assigned for teaching, and while our students struggle with monographs, articles are often difficult in a different way because the take the place in the conversation for granted.

K said...

I wish I knew which journal this was, as I'm trying to get my students used to academic prose, and easing them in might be best.

Flavia said...


I genuinely don't think it would be useful for most people (it's a niche journal).

But I suspect that a lot of the journals that PhD students are encouraged to publish in--the good second-tier venues--may have articles that exhibit similar qualities. I'm going to be seeking those out, myself, in classes with other emphases. (In the past, I've assigned articles that I'm really impressed by, which it turns out are not necessarily the most useful or accessible to my students, at least at a beginning stage.)

Anonymous said...

So can I ask how you framed the assignment? What did you ask them to do specifically? Am thinking about my next syllabus and the ways to make an MA seminar more interactive, less me deciding and prescribing the readings.

Flavia said...


I asked my students to find an article from the past 30 years, from one of the 10 approved journals (and encouraged them to run their selection by me first). Based on the week they chose to do this, the subject of the article was loosely determined (i.e., it had to be on the work or the portion of the work we were currently reading, though otherwise the topic was open).

Then they were to:

1) summarize it in two double-spaced pages. I had a detailed assignment for how to do this and what to look for, but basically they needed to include a) a full bibliographic citation; b) the author's thesis, along with major subarguments; c) the context for the author's argument--that is, the preexisting debates the author was entering into, and which prior critics he or she was agreeing with and where & how he or she distinguished his or her claims from theirs; d) any theoretical or methodological orientation; e) any major passages or aspects of the work analyzed by the author, and the interpretation he or she derives from that analysis.

2) Upload it to our class server at least 48hrs before class, so that everyone could read their summary.

3) Present on their article and take questions.

In addition to the practice I wanted to give my students finding and working through scholarly articles, I also wanted to provide the full class with a small library of possible sources that any one of them could use for their final paper.

I'll make some slight changes the next time I do this, but that's the general idea.

(N.B. I can't take credit for this assignment--it's an amalgamation/adaptation of things done by two or three other colleagues.)

Withywindle said...

Just for fun, do put Pooh Perplex on reserve.

sophylou said...

Oooh, as a subject librarian I'm enjoying thinking about this exercise and thinking about how I might create an in-class version... limit journals to search in, have them practice searching for articles in class, report on/discuss what you've learned from the searching and the various components of the article record (abstract, subject headings, etc.)? Hmmmmmmmm....