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….

2015-2016 School Year in Review

It has now been one full school year since I started at my current teaching position. So this month, I am going to reflect on what I have learned about teaching and scholarship from this new start just over a year ago.

One of the things that goes along with a tenure track job is summer school teaching. I have never taught one of these, nor have I taught a night class. I have taken both, though not recently. Yet starting next week, I will be teaching a major level course on Renaissance literature sans Shakespeare two evenings a week, with a third evening online. The two weeks I have between the end of the spring semester and the start of the first summer school term are being split between preparing two conference papers to be given over the summer, and the rest of the time on preparing for class.

This is also my first hybrid course (part online, part in person).  I have taught classes with online components, but never regular class periods. I have noticed in other courses that when I assign reading from online sources, students either don’t do it (at a higher rate than with paper) or don’t have access to the text in class, which makes for difficult in class teaching. I have also frequently posted online supplementary material that students either don’t consult or don’t cite. It bothers me that most students would rather go to Shmoop or similar than check something out that has been vetted and recommended by me. I have lost track of how many times I’ve explained why Shmoop is not a good source to use, even though entries supposedly are authored by Ivy League graduate students. First, I don’t think students know that, and second even if authors were named, these kinds of things stop students from doing any kind of critical thinking about a text; instead, they just accept and use what the website says.

I am fairly certain that students at an upper level should know better, but we shall see. To set an example, I have cited all outside sources for all my lecture notes. I am hopeful this will encourage students to check out the sources themselves. I will likely have to wait until the end of term projects and evaluations where I ask students about the best and worst thing about class, and best and worst text (I do this in most classes) to whether or not this tactic will work. Given the subject matter, Luminarium.org will feature prominently as will the websites of several major research libraries, including the Folger Shakespeare Library and the British Library. If I can get all of my lecture notes set up before class starts I will be happy. The way things are going now, I might just make it.

On a different but related note, not too long ago I saw an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about work-life balance concentrating on publishing output. Among its conclusions and proposals were the idea that scholars who take time off for a life actually publish more, and of course the standard advice about planning and scheduling writing/research time. I didn’t know the first, but the second recommendation is pretty much ubiquitous in these kinds of articles. Even though it’s stuff I already know, sometimes a reminder is useful. I’m going to try a self-imposed rule for when class is in session: thou shalt write/research thine own stuff for at least 1 hour a day, with Sundays off. We will see how this turns out.

Something I promised myself at the beginning of this year was to make more time for personal, fun reading. I have managed to start making a dent in my to-read pile, but there is still plenty to go. I have found that public accountability like a reading goal is useful. For this, I am thankful to Goodreads (the book based social media site- it has a yearly reading challenge where you can set and track a goal for the number of books you read in a year) and Cannonball Reads, a review and discussion based site that uses its recommendations to raise money for the American Cancer Society. When you sign up at the beginning of the year, you commit to a certain number of reviews for the year.  For me, the problem is less the reading, but finding the time for the reviewing. This is my second year, and I think this time around, I am managing my time better.

This summer will be busy, not just because I’m teaching but also because I have two conferences and a good friend’s wedding to prepare for and attend, and then school starts in mid-August. I will also get to start learning more about the university bureaucracy, as I learn how to work the student advising system, prepare for my first year of committee work aka service, try to navigate funding proposals-procedures, and get ready for the fall semester.

I will sign off with a few observations about how medieval things fit into all of the above. I have yet to teach a strictly medieval literature course (this could happen next summer- fingers crossed) but I have managed to bring in the medieval to all but one class. Another goal for the summer is to figure out if there is a reasonable way to include medieval literature in a Composition 101 type class. Anybody got any ideas?

Coming back to a project for purposes of repurposing a little

I am coming back to a project I’d started over a year ago to adapt it into a conference paper, namely John Gower’s possible use of disputation in the Confessio Amantis.  One of the first things I had to do was re-read what I had. My first reactions were not what I expected. First reaction- wow, there’s a lot of footnotes/scholarship. Second- this is actually pretty good (for the re-purpose). Normally when I go back to something, my ideas have either changed or I just plain don’t like/agree with what I said or how I said it.

Shocker number two was that in the process of refocusing what will hopefully eventually become a book chapter into a conference paper, I now have a much clearer idea of a thesis for the chapter.

Original: The fourth rhetorical model, the debate, has gone largely unnoticed in the scholarship of Gower’s poem.  References to and instances of debate or disputation are scattered throughout the poem, but the instances in which Genius and Amans are involved are indicative of the importance of debate and disputation as influences on the poem. By tracing references to and moments of debate between Amans and Genius in the Confessio, debate-disputation becomes a new way to trace Amans’ journey of transformation from troubled lover to accepting soul at peace with himself.

Current: In spite of theses similarities, the fourth rhetorical, the debate, has gone largely unnoticed in the scholarship of Gower’s poem.  The first three rhetorical models model {after sermons, love complaint, and confession} share one major obstacle that disputation avoids: they do not allow for free interaction between the two speakers. By tracing the exchanges of disputative language and reasoning between Amans and Genius, disputation become a way to trace Genius’ influence and Amans’ evolving perspective as the result of active participation on both sides of the discussion.

This really should not surprise me though; when I was preparing a paper for a different conference this past fall, a proposal and paper I wrote only to fill in a panel I was presiding over, I ended up with an idea that I hope eventually will make a good article. We’ll have to wait and see. I do wonder though if this is a normal pattern. I don’t mind it, but we’ll have to see if it continues.

In the process of getting reacquainted with the previous work I’d done, I was reminded of why ILL is such a wonderful service to have and why librarians are fabulous people. In order to review the scholarship and citations that I hadn’t looked at in a while, I had to order nearly all of the books this way.  Since I ordered all at the same time and they came from mostly the same partner library, they all showed up at the same time. I was expecting that they would appear about the same time, but when I went to pick up what I thought was one book, I got the whole stack. The librarian checking me out wondered what was going on with the load of books he had to retrieve from the ILL shelf and process (it was at the end of the semester after all), then saw the faculty id and figured out “Conference paper?”  I saw the same librarian in the wellness center nearly a month later and he remembered me (or the stack of books he had to retrieve).

On a related note, a new twist for me is that I also have to remember when each book is due back because my school library does not do that. I almost got in trouble once, but thanks to that scare I have developed a strategy revolving around colored Post-Its, which are wonderful things. I probably could program my phone or an online calendar to send me reminders, but this way is faster. Another reminder that organization is important, not just with research information and ideas.

All together, this is a pretty good position to be in at the beginning of the summer (when most college teachers do a lot of research and lesson planning). I have 2 conferences to finish papers for, both of which have promise for publication. I am also facing teaching my first upper level English class this summer (exciting but a little scary), so I’m going to need to be really careful about balancing teaching and scholarship. To be continued…..

New Year’s Return

New Year’s Resolution: Get back on track with regular scholarship, including blog posts. My excuse for letting that slide is that I took a new teaching position on the other side of the country. My promise to myself was that I would take that 1st semester to get used to the new classes, students, system, etc. Semester 2 has begun, so back to the blogosphere and more. I hereby resolve to post at least once a month in 2016.

Part of moving to a new institution means getting used to a new way of researching, particularly learning the new library. I am now at a teaching-focused institution, not a research-based one as I have been in the past. The biggest change for me is the size of the campus library. I am now in the position of having to plan my book needs a lot more thoroughly. No longer is shelf-browsing an option. My library is just not equipped for that at a level beyond basic undergrad needs. The good thing is, that as part of the state university system, the ILL folks can get most anything; it just takes time.

I also have to be more organized about keeping track of what is due when. I was reminded of that the hard way when I figured out that not all external lending libraries would send courtesy reminders. At least I was only 4 days late getting that book back. On a related note, I no longer have access to the kind of scanning equipment and software which could scan a chapter easily if a return deadline was approaching and renewal was not possible. Again, planning and also good note-taking must now become the norm.

Just to be clear, I mean none of this as criticism; it’s just different.

Probably the best change is having my own office with a decent sized book shelf. Now I can keep all of my research books on a shelf and not under my kitchen table. But again, this means being organized. If I plan to do any scholarly work on the weekend, I need to remember on Friday to bring home certain books, and bring them back to the office shelf on Monday.

 Overall, the biggest adjustment is having to set my own schedule for scholarship. As a late career graduate student, that part of your life is dictated by your dissertation and by any conference papers you might have to prepare. While on the job market, it’s nearly impossible to have more than one project in progress (an article or conference paper) while you also write cover letters etc., and teach whatever classes you can get, probably at multiple institutions which is another adventure in itself.

Now I’m in the position, as an assistant professor, where a scholarly program of my own is both expected and necessary. Right now, I’m getting back into a part of my dissertation that I’m turning into a conference paper, trying to finish the research for turning another conference paper into an article, and trying to figure out how to continue with my Gower chapter. All the while, I have classes to prep and teach, grading to do, and institutional business (paperwork deadlines, etc.) to keep track of. I realize how blessed I am to have the job I do, but it’s not easy to manage everything, and still have even a little me time. Right now my social life is basically work, church, and the gym.

Self, welcome to full-time academic life. 🙂

Beginning a New Project

Embarking on a new project is always an interesting time. What I am beginning to work on is an extension of an older project, but it represents a new direction. My current long-term research project is a revision of my dissertation into a book. The original project, titled “Argument In Poetry: (Re)Defining The Middle English Debate Poem In Academic, Popular, And Physical Contexts”, argues that many medieval English argument poems tend to follow two models based on academic and popular practices of the times. The academic models come from commentary and disputation practices (Chapter 2), while the popular practices are derived from medieval drama and sermons (Chapter 3). The physical context, addressed in the fourth chapter, reviews a sample of representative manuscripts containing debate poems in order to analyze the types of texts, themes and marginalia typically preserved along with the poems.

I am currently working on a replacement for my original chapter 4. I will be replacing that chapter with an extended analysis of a single longer poem, John Gower’s Confessio Amantis. I plan to analyze the persuasive elements that relate to the commentary tradition, the disputation tradition, the sermon, and confessional literature. The first part of this project will be concentrating primarily on the interactions between Amans and Genius in order to analyze Gower’s treatment of the interpretive and persuasive dialogue in the context of the various related discursive traditions referenced above. The second part of the project will concern the same elements within the exempla presented by Genius.

I am proceeding thus:

1) Initial reading of the primary text for ideas and questions to guide research.

For this first step finding the right edition of your text is important as the edition can be used to start the secondary source research process.  The advent of the digital humanities has made this element far more accessible than ever before. To me, a good edition, traditional or digital requires several components. First, a good scholarly edition must have a good “Works Cited” and ideally “For further information see” sections. A second key element is the inclusion of a glossary and textual notes. Particularly if I am looking at the text in question for the first time in depth, a detailed “Commentary-Notes” section is also very helpful. I am partial to the TEAMS Middle English series because these editions meet the above requirements. In the case of the Confessio Amantis, I will be primarily referring to:

Confessio Amantis, Volume 1

 

{I will eventually be using all 3 volumes, but volume 1 serves as a good example.}

An interesting fact about this series of editions is that many are available online as well as in print.  If I am committed to a specific text as my object of study, I find that I prefer to have the printed text. I prefer to not be tied down by WiFi connections and battery or cord availability. That said, I do like the digital editions because they can save time with hyperlinks to notes, and a digital text can make initial word searches faster than a paper concordance. I always make sure to double check a full concordance (when available) simply because, especially with Middle English, there may be forms of the word or alternative spellings that I was not aware of.

2) Once I have some ideas and questions from the initial reading of the primary text, I next begin looking into the secondary research to see what has already been done in the field, and to find out who the major scholars are. For this literature review, I start in two places. First, I have search my primary academic library’s catalog for potentially relevant sources.

 

 

The second place that I look to build my list of works to review is the Bibliography section of my edition.

                                                                                  LIbrary search

As of this writing, I have gotten as far as the two steps described above. What follows is based on previous practices.

3) As I read through the first round of primary sources, I keep notes. Based on my initial questions and observations concerning the text, I write down the relevant ideas for each text. I also make note of any potentially useful sources referenced so that I can look up the original arguments or ideas for myself. I prefer to keep track of my sources in a searchable digital file, but I keep my notes in a notebook. Although the paper notebook is less easily searchable, I find that if organized by title and author, I can still refer back to what I need while not being tied to an available screen.

This part of the process is probably the most time-consuming. The Bibliography and Index can be helpful places for saving time, especially if a text is not the work of a single author, but a collection or anthology of essays. That said, I firmly believe that taking time during the initial research phase will save time later on. Keeping detailed, organized notes will be helpful later on when I might realize that I want to return to a source I haven’t looked at in six months for a specific reference. In addition to checking my notes, I will also go through the indices and bibliographies provided to re-view the source in terms of my current question or perspective.

4) Outline. I like outlines and I find that I work well with them. As I teach composition students, I record my claims and reasons based on the primary text, keeping track of the relevant passages. I then add to each claim-reason the relevant secondary references.

5) First draft. After ensuring that everything in my outline is compatible, I sit down to write. I find that setting a schedule is useful, but that flexibility must be included. I set myself a weekly page goal and a daily  progress goal with a catch-up day built in.

6) Review and Revision. A hard lesson to learn is that having someone else read your unfinished work is helpful. After draft 1 is done, I send it to a willing trusted third party, while I begin my own revisions. This step is repeated until a polished project is completed.

Given that I am currently in the middle of step 2, the Gower project of mine will be ongoing for quite some time. I hope to have an outline at least started by Summer 2015. In the meantime, stay tuned for occasional updates and observations about how works is coming along.

Research (Paper and Digital): 3 Rules and 2 Laws for Success

The Craft of Research is ever bit as much an art as a science (and yes, I do recommend the book by that title linked here). Every person has to find the method that works best for them and their particular situation.  A lot of people think they know how to do academic research by the time they finish high school, but as an instructor of intro to college writing, I am firmly of the opinion that the majority of these people are wrong.Looking back at some of my papers even during my senior year of college, I’m pretty sure I didn’t really understand real academic research until graduate school.

With the rise of digital technologies there has been an incredible rise in the amount of things that can be easily accessed and the speed at which such info might be obtained. This is sadly accompanied by a rise in minimal to non-existent attention spans which causes serious problems for true academic research. Research takes time. It requires in-depth and detailed attention to potential sources and avenues of inquiry. I can’t think of many people who have the patience to comb through fifty pages of database hits to find the perfect source. I have done this. It is painful, but worth it for a stronger paper. The standard ‘first-three-items-that-show-up-on-Google’ does not work in the long term. Let it be known that I have no problem with Google or Wikkipedia. I use them myself. But these types of resources work best for finding basic information and locating resources; they are not great sources themselves.

This problem is not limited to the digital realm. The same applies to academic books that might be potential sources for a research project. Reading the Table of Contents, Introduction, and Glossary are a start, but the book should actually be read. If the topic of the research is narrowed down enough, certain chapters or sections might be skimmed but should not be skipped. Like digital sources, books are not simply sources for soundbites. Many student who are just now beginning college do not realize this but there are databases on paper; they are called ‘Indexes’ of journals and generally cover the year’s contents of a given journal or publication. They often contain possibilities that are not available online. Yes, people, there are materials out there that have not yet been digitized (and may never be).

In addition to misusing digital resources and not taking enough time to sort through the material, problem number two is failure to keep records of research. One of the worst possible feelings when half-way through a project is to remember a citation that would suddenly be perfect, but not remembering where the fact-quote-reference was from.  To that end, I introduce K’s Recommendation 1: Keep records of searches, and notes on what has been read. This will save time in the long run, no matter what the scope of the project. I promise.

Also keep in mind the following:

Machan’s Law: Thou shalt not begin a project with a specific outcome (ie-thesis) in mind. This is the mark of an amateur. Begin with a question and possible answer, but be willing to change thy mind if the research so dictates.

Curran’s Law: If, in the course of a project, you are not wasting time chasing red herrings, you aren’t doing research right. In order to be thorough, you will run into dead-ends. This is not only ok, it is a sign that you are narrowing your focus. This is a sign of progress. Whine and cry if you must (I know I do), but embrace it.

In light of these two laws, based on some of the best research advice I got as a student, I also present K’s Recommendation 2: Be ready to find out that someone else already had your initial idea (or something very close to it). When this happens, do not panic. This is almost a moment of pride. As the old cliche goes, “great minds think alike”. You just had an idea that you share with a published scholar.  Keep working, and you will find a new, original angle. For example, you might find a different reason or way to reach the same conclusion. You might find other evidence that proves the same point, etc.

And finally, K’s Recommendation 3: Listen to your professors, students who have been in your program longer, and to each other. Go ask for direction; discuss your project with others. If someone recommend a title, it is probably for good reason. You are not obligated to use said recommended title, but you should at least look at it. Even if you don’t end up citing it, you might use it to locate other sources or directions from which to approach your topic.