feedback sought on paper 2

This term I am very happy to be teaching British Literature, 1660-1740, a period with plenty of my favorite literary works. It’s a senior-level course, and I’m trying to learn how to calibrate properly what I expect of the students. This week I’ll blog some (or all) of what I’m doing, and I would like your feedback, dear reader. Below I describe one assignment that I’m trying to tweak until it’s just so.

Goals for this assignment include

  • having students learn what professional literary scholars do with eighteenth-century literature in published scholarship,
  • improving the level of class discussions by taking our cues from a wide variety of professional literary scholars throughout the semester,
  • and challenging students to improve the sophistication of their own observations–both in writing and in class discussion–concerning literature.

In the past, I have required an annotated bibliography in which students researched, read, and wrote a critical annotation of five recent scholarly articles on a particular text or author on the syllabus, and then wrote up a two- or three-sentence critical overview of that scholarship. They then made use of that research in the final paper for the course. (I’ve used this assignment roughly a half dozen times.)

I’m dialing things back this semester, hopefully not too far. For many students, this assignment simply combines too many skills they haven’t yet mastered: finding and selecting 5 useful scholarly articles, summarizing effectively the argument found in each essay, evaluating that argument, synthesizing the issues at stake in those 5 articles, and then incorporating what they’ve learned into an original argument of their own. I could complain about the students not knowing how to do these things already, or I could thoroughly teach them the basics of some of these skills. It makes more sense to me to do the latter.

Furthermore, this assignment feels to me (and I suspect to some students) as too far removed from the general flow of the rest of the semester. They immerse themselves in one specialized topic–five essays on one novel, say–while continuing to do the reading of other works on the syllabus and engaging in discussions where what they are learning in their research is not put to use.

Finally, I’m not convinced students do that careful a job of completing this assignment or that they gain very much from it. Last semester, during an office-hours conversation with one of my students (a first-year education major who somehow landed in my senior-level lit class), I praised her for writing one of the best annotated bibliographies I have ever received. She explained that unlike some of the other students in the class–who told her all she had to do was read the first paragraph and the last, plus a few here and there in between–she actually read the entirety of the articles.


So why not create an assignment in which

  • the difficulty and complexity of the assignment is lessened by having many of the steps removed,
  • reading scholarly articles is directly connected to class discussions,
  • students are responsible not only to me but to their classmates for doing a good job of demonstrating the relevance of sophisticated, rewarding scholarship,
  • and exceptional students are able to model for the rest of the class that, yes, you can gain a lot from reading these articles?

Okay, here’s the new plan. First, I provide a list of essays from which the students will choose one. Second, they read the essay and make marginal notes or highlighting marks as appropriate. Before moving on to the third step, they have the option of meeting with me to discuss the essay to ensure they understand it. Third, they come to class prepared to present the central argument to their classmates and to prompt class discussion based on that argument; more on this in the next paragraph. Fourth, they write the paper described below.

After reading and digesting the article, the student will post to the course website 2 or 3 discussion questions inspired by the article; other class members can read those questions prior to the class meeting. The student will next come to class with a plan to summarize what the article says and with those 2 or 3 questions. Class discussion will ensue. One week after that class, the student will turn in the written assignment described below. The due date for this assignment will vary based on the relevant course text assigned. For example, if a student has been assigned an article on Gulliver’s Travels, then she or he will present during the weeks we are reading that novel.

(Note: I plan to model for them what I expect by assigning to the whole class early in the semester a scholarly article that we will discuss, first by going over its central argument and main points, then by evaluating the argument and considering some of its implications. I will generate 2 or 3 questions from the article in order to spark class discussion.)

Please share your thoughts about this assignment. And if you have any suggestions for the wording of the following description, I would love to hear them.

Précis & analysis of scholarly article
Due Date: Variable. Enter your due date here:__________
Length: 750-1000 words
Value: 15% of final grade
Description: In this assignment you will read a scholarly article, chosen from a list provided by me, and write a short paper about that article. There are three parts to this paper:

  1. Bibliographic Entry: At the top of the first page–underneath your name, the due date, the course number, and my name–provide an MLA-style citation for the article.
  2. Précis: The next part (about one and a half pages) is strictly a summary of the argument being made. At the top of this section use the heading “Précis.” You should start this section with a one- or two-sentence statement in your own words of the argument being made in the article; the argument is usually stated by the author in the first couple of paragraphs. Following that, summarize the essential points being made by the author in support of that argument. Do not get caught up in the details or examples used by the author. You might provide some brief quotes from the article where appropriate. These quotes should be formatted in MLA style.
  3. Analysis: The next part (about one and a half pages) is an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the argument being made. At the top of this section use the heading “Analysis.” Your analysis is not about whether you liked the article or not. Nor is it about whether you understood the article or not. Instead, you must evaluate the quality of the author’s argument. Is appropriate evidence from the text used? Are the conclusions drawn from that evidence reasonable? If you are able to, identify the scholarly approach taken by the author (for example, deconstruction, new historicism, feminism, reader response, cultural materialism, book history, psychoanalysis).

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3 thoughts on “feedback sought on paper 2

  1. One thing that works well for me when having students do presentations, is make sure that they have some work that is due before (at least a week). It sounds like you have this built in, where you say they can meet with you. You might want to think about formalizing this, although I have no idea how many students you will have (at 10 this would be easy at 30 a bit time consuming). Perhaps have them turn in a one paragraph summary of the article, this is actually a tremendously useful skill to have, and one that I think is often not developed. I am not talking analysis, just in one paragraph state clearly what the essay is getting at. But having something written before hand makes them less likely to put off the preparation to the last minute (a chronic problem especially for oral work) and gives them the sense that presenting requires more preparation on some level than writing a paper.

  2. I remember being baffled by what was expected when I was asked to do an annotated bibliography as an MA student. It was different when I was writing my BA thesis, since I had chosen the topic and thus already knew something about it.

    I’d suggest a few variations. I’m not entirely sure that undergrads are quite ready to evaluate scholarly works on their own. What might be more useful is an exercise in which you pick two academic articles that disagree with each other. Not that author A says author B is an idiot, but let’s say an old-skool author who prefers to think of The Tempest as a treatise on political philosophy, versus a more recent postcolonial reading. First asking students to see where the authors are coming from, and why they are talking about different things, will put them in a good position to evaluate articles, perhaps not necessarily on the criterion of academic merit, but of usefulness for the particular argument the student wants to make. Thus, the political philosophy view of The Tempest might not at first seem to be useful to a student who wants to do a postcolonial reading, but then again a good academic essay should include a treatment of evidence that works against the thesis, so investigating an alternative viewpoint can be very productive.

  3. Dave, having students responsible for something before the presentation is a great idea. The class is small enough that I can afford to meet with each of them in person during office hours.

    Dennis, I like your suggestion very much. I’m hesitant because I’m not certain that there are enough pairs of articles that disagree with each other so clearly. Since generating a bibliography for students is on my task list for today, I’ll make this a part of my searching.

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