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Teaching Annotation

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Let me just preface this with one simple fact: I should be working on something else, but I keep thinking about this.

So anyway. Here it is.

One thing about teaching that’s been bothering me for a long time is how my students conduct research. Or rather, how they don’t.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, partly as a result of my own frustrations with seeing them do some kind of close reading only to bolt on criticism (usually very poorly) after they’ve written, and partly as a result of my exposure to Becky Howard’s work with the Citation Project, which has revealed to be true that what all we English teachers have suspected, but not known: our students typically suck at conducting research, and for a variety of reasons—chief of which, I would argue, is that we have never bothered to really teach them how to do it.

At the undergraduate level, I’m really not that concerned with research in my literature courses. I don’t discourage them from it or anything, but I don’t necessarily require it, either. I tend to be more concerned with whether or not they can read and understand the text at hand, and whether they can construct arguments about its meaning or about something that it does. If they drag in some research along the way, that’s fine.

Part of my role, I tend to think, is to introduce them to the parameters of the critical conversation about whatever text we’re dealing with, so when I teach something like “Goblin Market,” I’ll walk them through 4 or 5 interpretations of the poem, many of which are mutually exclusive. I hope that they find this notion that there is not one “true” interpretation of the text liberating, and even more, that they understand that I do not want them just to parrot back whatever reading I push at them.

But even though I don’t really push research, I’d really like to help them become better at it, and doing that means rethinking how I approach lots of things. I know, now, that sending them to JSTOR with some keywords will not end well. They will find the articles confusing and frustrating (and they should). If they turn to Google, they’ll find SparkNotes or some random blog post or god knows what.

Last semester, I made some radical changes to my Advanced College Writing course. I tend to teach it as a course on how to write long-form arguments about literature (I don’t pretend to be able to teach them to write anything else). In the past, we read a smattering of poetry and short fiction and then a novel. During this time, they wrote little position papers/close readings and read a couple of articles. Then they wrote a half-page proposal. Then they wrote a 10 page conference paper. Then they delivered that conference paper on a panel in front of the class–20 minutes each with 15 minutes of Q&A from the class afterwards. Then they revised that up to 15 pages, which we workshopped like a creative writing class would. Then they revised that up to 20 and turned it in.

It worked well for a while and the other departments and programs the course serves didn’t seem to have any complaints.

But I was unhappy with the research they were doing. They found crappy sources. They didn’t read articles completely. They didn’t understand the articles they read. They would quote bits that had nothing to do with what they were arguing or misinterpret the quotations.

So I decided to confront the problem head-on and force them to do their research before they wrote anything.

I also cut back the readings significantly. Instead of a bunch of poems and short fiction and a novel, we read one poem and one short story. I specifically picked two texts about which a great deal had been written. We read the two texts and went through them really just in terms of what they said/meant and what kinds of questions they raised. Then we read, very closely, two critical essays about each text. There, we focused largely on thesis identification, presentation and treatment of evidence, and structure. I wanted them to see that once they understood how these essays broke down into a handful of stock moves (e.g. the presentation of the problem, the literature review, the thesis, the evidence, the conclusion), they were much more approachable. They really seemed to like this, and more than one student remarked to me that they were amazed that everything they were reading had a literature review. It had simply never occurred to them that it would be useful to demonstrate, early on, that you understand the critical discussion going on about a text.

I cut out the conference presentation, opting instead for two rounds of workshopping.

The results were amazing. They read everything they could find before they wrote anything, and so when they began to mount their arguments, they were located within the context of the critical discussion about whatever text they were working on.

It’s amazing what happens when you teach students to do what you want them to do.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how this might be applied to other courses, and one of the things I want to do is get them to drill down really, really deeply into a single text, focusing not only on what it means, but on what the critical conversation about it is.

Here’s what I think I want to do, either for an upper-division course on c18 or c19 literature or for a research methods course:

1) Pick a text with a lot of meat on its bones and with lots of criticism about it, something like Moby Dick, “Goblin Market,” Jane Eyre, or Middlemarch. It doesn’t really matter so long as there’s a ton of criticism about it and that it’s consistently interesting on a close reading.

2) Place an etext version of that text in some kind of wiki software (or possibly Google Docs)

3) Make the course about creating annotations on that single text. Essentially, I’m wondering whether asking upper-division students to create an annotated/critical edition of a single text might not be an incredibly useful experience. Basically, they would footnote the text extensively, creating explanatory notes, marking items of historical or contextual significance, and noting the critical conversation.

I’m not sure how I’ll offer this course, but I can imagine many scenarios in which it could work for my department. I think I might push this as some kind of experimental course on research/bibliographic methods, but I can also imagine adopting this as an option for upper-division students in other courses.


Written by srogers

July 13, 2012 at 10:56 pm

Posted in Teaching

3 Responses

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  1. There was a mandatory course for history majors in which we learned about working with different kinds of sources. That was the whole course. Go to the library and find x, y, z. Write about how source J compares to source K, which is about the same subject but is a different kind of source. And so on. It was very helpful.


    July 15, 2012 at 1:06 pm

  2. We have a course like that, but only at the graduate level. I used to teach it,but apparently the students whined that I was too hard. So they remade the course to make it easier. Then the faculty complained that the students couldn’t do research, and so they remade the course–almost exactly like the one I taught.


    July 15, 2012 at 1:12 pm

  3. Hrm. We had another one of those for grad students (it was much more difficult, as it involved formulating a thesis topic). The undergrad one wasn’t so hard, I felt at the time. I *did* almost fail it, though, because I had a deadline issue. I charmed my way out of it.


    July 16, 2012 at 4:23 am

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