As many of you know, this past spring semester I assigned students a research paper as their final project in my medieval literature course. This is more or less a medieval survey course — from the beginnings of English literature through the 15th century — but I tend to think of it more as a medieval “highlights” course. Relative to the body of literature written in the British Isles in what we call the Middle Ages — Old English, Middle English, Anglo-Norman, Latin, and the Celtic languages — I teach only a small selection. So this year, I decided to teach them how to read and write about medieval literature on a more complex level and in conversation with more advanced readers: professional scholars. But before I did that, I wanted them to learn how to read the literature on its own terms and with their own wits, before the voices and ideas of others drowned out their own nascent thoughts.
Stage one was an idea I totally ripped off from Rob Barrett (with his permission), who rocks for giving me access to his syllabuses and his great pedagogical ideas. Theoretically this was supposed to improve discussion, too, but I’m not sure if it did or not. And they were expressly forbidden to write about plot or character development. OK, so what does this have to do with the research paper? Well, for one thing, I was trying to teach them how to come up with interesting questions and to find discrete parts of a text worth investigating closely — the basis for good research papers. I was also trying to get them to hone their close reading skills, which I wanted them to apply to the more formal assignments as well. Next time I need to be more explicit about this, because I don’t think all of the students got that, and slipped into the usual broad generalization in their research papers.
Most of them did get it, however. In the second stage of preparing them for the research papers, I asked students to write a more formal essay. Often I give topics, but frankly, I’m pretty crappy at writing specific topics — they all end up being “write what I’m thinking” topics. Ugh. So I left this one rather open-ended. However, it had one requirement: they had to take some element of text that a casual reader might overlook in a first reading and argue for its significance to the text as a whole. Again, this was designed to teach them how to ask the good questions and find the good topics to write about. I modelled this approach throughout the semester, as well. For instance, we talked about the word “aeglaca” in Beowulf and how it’s applied to “monsters” and “heroes” in the text, as well as the various ways it’s translated even in single translations.
We talked about how the very multivalence of that word might hold meaning for the poem as a whole. Then, soon after that paper, in the second half of the semester, I began teaching the research paper. So I took three days out of my syllabus to talk about how to do research. Because I already expect not to be able to “cover” all of medieval literature in my class — and don’t see that as the point of the class — doing this is perhaps less painful than it might seem. The only thing I’d change is that last day. I think I’d use a different article. But Chance’s article frontloads the critical history of Grendel’s Mother, and the rest of the article consists of her original argument. As I told students, that’s a fine way to structure a paper, but it gave us fewer opportunities to see the rhetorical “moves that matter” in action.
I think I’d give more attention to audience on that last day, as well. I might even have students imagine that they’re writing for a journal to be distributed among their classmates, so that they’ll assume a wider audience. 8-12 pages and have a bibliography with at least 10 secondary sources. The proposal wasn’t graded, but I gave them detailed feedback, helped them find more sources, and warned them if some of their sources weren’t appropriate. As you may recall, I was really excited by the proposals students turned in. And for the most part, I was not disappointed by the final products. Again, I need to emphasize more that the close reading they did in the Busters is still necessary in the research paper. Students still have a problem with being specific, using evidence, and getting close to the text, even when they’re reading models of such criticism. I think I need to point out more how they might model their own essays on the scholarly essays they read! But what I was really pleased with is the fact that almost every single paper actually had an argument. With only a couple of exceptions, gone were the merely descriptive papers and the plot summaries. Students said something about the texts they were addressing. And as far as I’m concerned, that is no minor triumph. So I’m going to do this again, and not just in my medieval survey class, but also in Chaucer (where the online Studies in the Age of Chaucer bibliography makes things oh-so-easy). And here’s another cool outcome: one of the students who wrote one of the best papers is going to turn into her senior honors thesis with me.