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….

New Year’s Goals 2017

I find goal setting useful, and doing so in a somewhat public way even better for self-accountability. I have found that setting goals for different things regularly actually helps me get more realistic about it, especially in how to build in flexibility. So on that note, here’s my Goals for 2017:

Teaching

I’m going to be able to teach a course in my specialty area over the summer, assuming it meets registration minimums that is. I want to be careful to write this one well, and plan ahead to make sure I don’t over-do it. It’s totally true of first time teachers, both in the sense of being new to the classroom (which I am not) and in terms of building a new course from scratch (which I am), that the temptation is to be too ambitious. I’m going to follow the general technique I used last summer of building the course thematically, because that worked out very well (see my earlier post “English Renaissance Lit: The 5 Week Edition” for details).  The difference though is that this upcoming class isn’t quite as period centered like last year (Literature of the English Renaissance); it’s Middle English Language and Culture. I haven’t taught a full-scale language course in a few years, so this will be a welcome but challenging return and review. It’s also going to be a challenge to combine grammar and vocabulary building with literature and material culture, all in a 6 week hybrid course. I’m looking forward to this.

I also want to plan to re-focus the writing 101 course that I’ll likely teach in the fall to center more on the actual craft of writing. I’m considering using the trivium to help do that, and I also want to find a reader that students might actually read. I’ve finally found a handbook I like and a way to get students to actually use it, but I still need that reader and possibly something on the trivium itself.

I also want to work on the research components of all writing and literature classes to develop a basic guide/review to use in all levels of both composition and literature courses. I have such a set of notes for basic composition, but I am realizing the need for one concerning research and citation as well. I was grading the first set of homework in a sophomore level literature course yesterday afternoon and I found myself thinking “We’re going to have to go over in-text citation”. I then had almost the exact same thought going through the homework for a section of composition 102 (intro to lit).

Scholarship

Once I again, I resolve to post once a month, or 12 posts this year. I may not be exactly on time each month, but I found last year that making myself come up with something each month, even though sometimes thinking of a topic was hard, was good way to keep myself reminded of the need to make time for non-teaching related work.

On that note, I am setting myself a schedule for scholarly time. This practice is recommended in “how to survive academia” articles all the time, and it’s a good point.  I’m undecided whether it’s better to do 1 hour a day or 1 day a week. I’m leaning towards the former as more productive, especially since I think the best writing advice I’ve heard from an author (Joann Fluke writes fiction but her advice is still applicable) was to always stop before you’re fully done with a thought, so you have a place to go when you pick up again.  I’ve tried the one day a week, and I’m not sure that way was as productive as it could have been for me. I’m going to try the one hour a day most days, and see how that goes for a while.

As of now, I have 2 things to work on. First, I am starting to get into new project. I presented the first part at a conference last summer (NCS 2016), and I’m going to present the second part at a conference this coming summer (Gower Society 2017).  As I do the research for this second part, I need to keep developing and writing the first part while also keeping an eye on an outline for the article version.

My second project is to go back to my dissertation to see what I might do about converting it into a book. This year I think it’ll be a do-able goal to set up a plan for what to fix, remove, and add to turn it into a book manuscript. I haven’t really looked at it in almost 2 years, and I think the time away will be good for a change in perspective.

Personal

If someone told me a few years ago that I would have to make an active effort to do fun, non-work reading, I’d have thought they were crazy. Then, candidacy and dissertating happened. I built up quite a pile of future personal reading over the two years it took to complete my dissertation, and I’m still working on it, although admittedly I also keep adding to it. Something I’ve found motivating, helpful, and just fun is that I’ve joined a book review blog group; this will be my 3rd year there. The basic premise of Cannonball Reads is to read and review 52 books per year; that’s called a Cannonball. The first and second year I thought it would be more realistic to do a half-Cannonball (i.e. 26 read and reviews). This was manageable the first time, but last year (2016) I actually managed a full 52. This year, I plan to repeat that effort. For me, I’ve noticed that it’s less the reading time than the reviewing time that causes more time management problems. I’ve noticed that the reviewing really forces me to evaluate why I react to a book the way I did, and that’s useful, since part of my job is to help my students figure out how express such things. I also like the social, community aspect of the whole thing, and it raises money for cancer research.

In addition, I intend to be more active on Goodreads. I’ve been pretty good about updating what I read, but not much in the way of reviews. I don’t think I’ll be able to present full reviews of everything I read, but I plan to at least comment briefly on most things I read and rate this upcoming year.

 

A Realization, Excitement, and Vadamus!

A new writing project is always an exciting thing. I admit that for me personally it feels especially good because I was not as productive as I would have liked in the fall. The change in habits required pre- and post- PhD was a bit more difficult of a transition than I was imagining. That said, here’s the plan: I am still reading for my Gower project, which given the scale of the project, is not unexpected. I am in a position  to start writing for my pastoral in medieval English poetry paper. I recently read an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that made some relevant points. I had been using my heavy teaching load as an excuse to not spend as much time as I would have liked on my own work. While my new schedule (5 classes (3 courses) at 2 schools; 2 of the courses were new to me), I was emotionally and almost physically stretched. But Jenkin’s article resonated with me, especially the points that you can and should use previous ideas that can be expanded (from blogs etc), and that even with a hard teaching schedule, scholarship is possible though it requires detailed planning and some sacrifice.

Now, onwards to pastoral features in English literature during the medieval period. I have already done the writing that illustrates how the Latin pastoral traditions carry on into the medieval period (dissertation work that can be easily adapted), and it turns out that much of the reading will not be new to me based on that and previous graduate school papers/presentations. I will be writing about how the pastoral tradition is clearly present as a part of the gradual evolution and adaptation that happened between the Latin Classical period (Virgil) and the English Renaissance (Milton, Shakespeare, Spenser,etc). Chaucer, Gower, Henryson, and several anonymous poets will provide the texts using pastoral methods and tropes both in their frames and their central messages. This is going to be fun. Stay tuned…