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capstones: thinking about final projects

Full disclosure: this post will be especially relevant for 252 instructors, but I hope it sheds light on the issues all instructors face in planning, executing, and evaluating final projects in English courses.

I’m teaching ENGL 252 for the first time, and I’ve found it stimulating and challenging to work with students at a prior stage in the curriculum to my usual 300-level service courses (320, 306, 321) and more advanced topics courses. The biggest challenge has been to teach them how to do things that I generally assume (perhaps wrongly) that they’ve already mastered: namely, dreaming up an original research topic, finding appropriate sources, digesting those sources, and constructing an argument that marshals the arguments of others (i.e., professional critics) rather than being dissolved into them in a synthetic or summary mode.

I thought about this a while and considered an assignment that terminates in an annotated bibliography, along the lines Brian Croxall has laid out. But I wanted something that pointed a bit more aggressively to the endpoint of the robust term paper that we all want upper-level majors to be competent at producing. So I started thinking about my usual practice: what’s wrong with it in absolute terms, and what aspects of it are particularly inappropriate for 200-level students in the major.

In a nutshell, it struck me that my usual approach emphasizes a high-stakes product–a 15-pager grounded in an original argument and self-directed research–while glossing over the process. If I’m being honest, I tend to drop the assignment on students after the midterm with minimal fanfare and with insufficient context. I do provide a generic guide to research and some suggested topics, but given the relentless pace of the semester and anxieties about coverage of content, the writing process often gets short shrift. And the majority of students procrastinate and then freak out in the form of a Red Bull-fuelled binge of writing (and panicky Google-centric “researching”) that yields a shambling mess that I very minimally mark and they rarely even bother to pick up.

Thus, for this assignment, especially given the lower skill level of the students, I wanted to think about how to flip this model, putting more of the emphasis (and the evaluation) on the process and having reflection on that process itself become part of the students’ work. You can see the entire sequence here (rah rah OER), but here are the basic steps:

  • submission of research question (4 weeks from deadline): students post their questions to the blog, which we then discussed in class. In my view, making them state their topics as questions leads to more arguable topics that point more clearly to the research needed to answer them.
  • submission of “simple biblio” (2 weeks from deadline): in the wake of our session with the inimitable Jennifer Newman in the library, students submitted posts that included a simple list of cites with a reflection on the research process (e.g., what search term, what d-bases) that generated them. I then shared a summary post that called attention to exemplary efforts.
  • submission of annotated biblio (1 week from deadline): Monday, students will post pretty standard annotated biblios that should build on a core skill from the course, digesting the basic argument and methodology of new research in a given lit-crit field.
  • “pairs” conferences (also 1 week out): in the penultimate week of class, the 20 students meet with me in randomly selected pairs for 10 minutes during class time to discuss their progress. Here’s the tipsheet they have to prep for it.
  • Final project (last day of class): They have to write the first four paragraphs of a hypothetical essay, plus paragraph-long responses to each of four prompts that reflect on their research process. Here’s a link to the template they will use.

The jury is still out, obviously, but I can already say that they are getting more feedback from me (and it’s not been too onerous on me, since it comes in lots of quick sips rather than a few big gulps). And I anticipate that I’ll get the best part of the “final essay” with less of the “filler” students use to joylessly reach a page count. Finally, throughout the term, they’ve reflected on how research works, and they’ve done so in full view of peers, learning (I hope) from each other’s successes/failures.

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