Challenges of Research and Teaching It

July means 2 things for me: conference presentations and starting to think about fall syllabus prep.

Prepping a conference paper is its own unique academic exercise. It’s a research paper but at the same time, it’s not. Often, one leads to other, sometimes both. There are challenges every step of the way, which isn’t surprising, but what is interesting to me is that many of the issues are very similar to what students run into, just at different levels. My thinking is that by considering the same difficulties and challenges that professional academic scholars face and how we solve or address them, maybe that’s where more useful or promising possibilities for helping students can come from.

The first step is generally the same, whether you’re drafting a researched paper or article, and a conference paper. The research reading and drafting comes first. Two common issues here are getting hands on sources, be they digital or paper. It’s not just getting sources you know you need though; this is also when finding all the sources that you should look at. This is as much a process as the developing of ideas and writing. You have to maintain and build a list of titles and authors to find, so that you cover previous scholarship as thoroughly as possible.

Bibliographies and annotations are a step in this direction, but I’m still working on finding a method that gets students to actively research what fits their topic or thesis best, not just what they find first and seems to work.

Near the end of this part, comes the usual struggle with introductions and-or conclusions. It’s not only coming up with the concise and precise statements of argument and intention that can be difficult here; it’s also about making sure that the ideas match without repeating. These issues are a struggle for introductory composition students on up, and they don’t seem to go away.

The standard advice seems to be to work out a good strong thesis, and build the introduction around that. Generally, this seems to work. The conclusion though is another story, and the question becomes how to review your key ideas without copying and pasting your introduction with a few minor vocabulary changes, as seems to be a favorite technique. I’m planning to try the following prompt: what did you learn in the process of creating your argument and why might it be useful or valuable to know? We’ll see how this goes.

With conference presentations, or presentations in general, there’s the usual time and visual restrictions to consider, but also the audience. When teaching composition using rhetoric as a major factor, audience analysis is something students need to do, but the question is how to get them to really consider their target audience. This is more a problem in a composition class than a conference though, because you already know what kind of person will likely be at the conference. I was recently at the combined meeting of the John Gower Society and the Early Books Society, and someone joked how nice it was to be at a conference where you didn’t need to summarize the Confessio Amantis as a part of your presentation. Another benefit of this level of presentation is that arguments need not be fully developed or even complete, as many scholars use these gatherings as places to get feedback and advice on how to proceed or improve.

Since a presentation based paper from a student needs to be fully developed and polished at the time of presentation, and doing dress rehearsals or peer review of presentations can get boring for students who then get stuck seeing the same or very similar talks given twice, I’m thinking I might do small group presentations with mandatory Q & A as peer review, and then have the final version be turned in as a standard essay. This idea needs more work, so we’ll see what ends up happening.

Even at the professional level, feedback can get tricky. It seems like, on a standard panel of 3-4 papers, 1 or 2 almost always get more questions and attention than the rest. It’s also often the case that certain people ask the questions almost every time. These are factors I’m going to try and circumvent with presentation peer review, but again, to be continued…

With professional conferences and even with advanced student project/presentations, the final challenge comes when you’re faced with adapting a 5-8 page essay into a full scale research project, or vice versa. The challenge of re-finding sources and citations, or choosing what to keep and take out as the case may be, is more one of time than anything else, and time management is a tricky thing to teach well. Even I sometimes forget to cite as I go, and I almost always regret it later; but no matter how much I remind students and tell them my own horror stories, it doesn’t seem to get through. Finding new sources to include is also a reality, though one more for the advanced student or scholar than an introductory type composition course.

Extending the time frame for a major research assignment, and breaking it down into a series of smaller steps seems to be the best option, but keeping students interested and challenged as they go becomes harder.

Coming at the challenges facing introductory composition from the perspective of a writer and researcher seems promising, but for now as there are more questions than answers, I’ll leave things with one final to becontinued….

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