Methods in Study of Literature: Doing Assignments for PhD Intro Course

I have several times (4?) taught Kent State’s introductory PhD-level “Methods in the Study of Literature” course, which we in the university catalog describe as follows:

Analytical reading and interpretation of published research and criticism, its assumptions, trends, controversies; course will identify and contextualize present opportunities for research in field.

Students blog on assigned readings (critical theory from Norton anthology, their choices, Gregory M. Semenza’s Graduate Study for the 21st Century book, some type of history of discipline book), and early in the semester I pressure students to immerse themselves in the to-them unfamiliar library databases with another assignment, encouraging them to consult the guidance of Harner’s Literary Research Guide (a now-defunct volume: somebody please resuscitate that), but those are participation work, both preparatory to and alongside the project work, which is the major work of the class. The class in truth has five major assignments, all part of the “project,” framing a paper recognizable in the literary studies discipline and writing a draft of it:

  • Two Draft Reading Lists, i.e., area lists for qualifying or comprehensive exams
  • Bibliography and Analysis of Critical Trends
  • Enough Theory
  • Databases and Archives
  • Conference Presentation
  • Seminar Paper/Article Draft

You will notice that my count of “five” major assignments is in fact “six,” and one of the reasons is that students routinely balk at having to both do “enough theory” and “databases and archives,” two dizzyingly difficult assignments that are due 2 or 3 weeks apart. Then, being the nice person that I try to be, I explain that yes, “theory-only papers” can get published and that yes, “archive discovery papers” can merit publication too, but lacking either is not a good recipe for publishable work. In interest of being nice, as I said, I will encourage them choose to the one in which they feel least confident (databases or theory), and 80 percent of students promptly choose the theory option, where they are in fact more confident: I suppose because many of my colleagues are theory-emphasizing professors. In my view, where most ought to be genuinely insecure is in their ability to successfully navigate research databases. But students need to live their own best lives, so I approve a syllabus revision, letting them choose one option rather than requiring both. Now that I’ve said it in public, I suppose I can’t spring the generosity on them this semester.

On the other hand, I fully sympathize. The last time I taught the class I decided that if I would assign the work I must think it is valuable. Therefore, I decided to also “do” the assignments alongside the students and hold myself to the same deadlines. And, for it to be valuable to me, I decided that I needed to push into a different area of study somewhat out of my wheel-house. Frankly, I was thrilled with the option to drop one of the two assignments (theory or database)–and thanked them profusely when they explained they were overwhelmed. After hemming and hawing, I endorsed enthusiastically the option to drop one of them. Maybe they saw the sweat beading off my forehead as they started their back-and-forth on the value of doing both assignments–and took pity on me.

Rather than drag out the preface any longer, the purpose of this post is to share the assignment series and my own efforts to do my own assignments. That way, in future, I can have a model product toward which the students can aim. Sometimes I struggled against my own rules, and I hope students feel empowered to adjust the result–within reason. If there’s genuine rigor and effort, I don’t oppose adjustments. If there’s avoiding the assignment or trying to re-package previous work without significant efforts at enriching, then I do push back and insist on more rigor. Below is the assignment and my efforts to do the assignments alongside my students from Fall 2018 semester, at least most of them.

Unfortunately, now in Summer 2020 I can’t reconstruct the final two parts, conference presentation and seminar paper. The final seminar draft was split into two parts in December after the semester ended, and the next “version” that I can restore from my files is now in two independent streams. One December draft now looks like a discontinued book chapter draft. I always think of myself as having everything preserved, but apparently not. Rather than claim as class draft something that I spent another month on–and not wanting to share later drafts, which have ballooned–I’ll not attach links to last two. But that’s typical of class work. Not everything can be expected to move smoothly into other later work, such as a dissertation, which like a book project is conceived over a longer period.

These tasks were overwhelming, but I don’t quite apologize as I think still they introduce an aspect of our profession, what we expect scholars to do. Nonetheless, I do sympathize more with my students. Having previously done similar work, I knew what the assignment should look like, even though I could not say that I particularly enjoyed forcing myself to do it in the way that I had assigned. The mere fact of its being assigned–even though I was the assigner–made it more psychologically difficult to do it that way. On the other hand, the deadlines did what deadlines do best, make you do stuff, which is psychologically beneficial. My three semi-complete drafts from June 2019 and February 2020 remain on a backburner while I turned to two other projects.

In the project assignment I credit Prof. Tammy Clewell (Kent State) and Prof. Natalia Cecire (Edinburgh University), Prof. Clewell for the overall conception of the semester-long assignment series and Prof. Cecire for her “Enough Theory” crash course. I thank them again now. And if anybody teaching a Methods-style course has recommendations or finds the materials useful, I’d appreciate your letting me know. And no, next time I teach the course, I won’t be forcing myself to do all the assignments. I in grad school was forced into three Methods-style courses–and I’ve now almost taken again the course of my own design—so I think that’s enough for me. If someday I claim to undertake an intellectual “turn” in my career–I won’t call it that: the phrase has always sounded kind of pompous to me–this is what I design Methods for, to illustrate how to do it.

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