This is the text of my presentation for the MLA 2014 Roundtable, Rethinking the Seminar Paper. (You can read a description of the panel here.) I did a little ad-lib here and there, but this is pretty much what I walked into that room with. Note: A certain something I said later struck a chord with some of my listeners: the part where I say professors aren’t trained to teach writing. I will expand upon that in a later post. For now, I will say, teaching content and teaching writing are two different things in my head, and there’s nothing wrong with having someone who specializes in writing support/instruction to assist with teaching graduate student writers how to write for an academic audience. In the meantime, you can read my Hybrid Pedagogy article where I explain further my suggestions for that situation.
So. Why do instructors assign graduate seminar papers?
I figured I’d cut to the chase right now and just call out the question that’s on our minds. To be fair, I don’t teach anymore, so I don’t have any emotional investment in uplifting or destroying this particular assignment, a staple of graduate school for so many in the humanities. However, the fact that I no longer teach allows me to approach that question from a different angle than, say, an instructor would. I deign to wonder out loud “why.”
Once upon a time I was a graduate student—actually it was in 2012 that I obtained my PhD. I was also a Graduate Writing Specialist until late last spring. This past fall, I taught a writing course for PhD students in biomedical sciences. It is safe to say that I have interacted with graduate student writers from many different angles: as peer, as teacher, as coach, as editor, as consultant, as cheerleader. In fact, I worked extensively with graduate student writers for the past three years up until I accepted my new position as editor at Women in Higher Education. As a writing instructor and writing coach, I have also seen lots of writing assignments, some good and some bad. I have also met with lots of confused and anxious students who didn’t know where to start or whether they were doing the right thing. I know their predicament isn’t new: writers in all sorts of genres feel anxious about their writing, and I’m certain many of you in this room feel the same way.
So what would I do when students came to me, anxious and upset? Well, first I’d remind them that these feelings were not unusual or weird, and then I’d ask them to tell me more about the writing assignment or requirement.
See, in my line of work one of my strong points is to help writers break down their writing goals or their writing requirements and help them understand what they’re being asked to do or why they’re being asked to do it. A lit review may not make sense, in narrative terms, but this is where you’re expected to insert it, I would say. Or, a teaching statement starts with you. I know you feel awkward about talking about yourself, but the teaching statement needs to show me what kind of teacher you are and what your approach is.
So when I was approached to present at this roundtable, I thought: instead of arguing for or against the graduate seminar paper, I want to encourage you to consider why the graduate seminar paper is assigned in the first place. Do instructors’ expectations match their writing assignments?
It’s been a while, but in my experience graduate seminars sounded a little something like this: we get together and read several texts at the same time. We have conversations about the texts, usually led by a discussion leader’s questions or a professor’s lecture notes on the author, book, socio-historical context, among others. If your students are anything like me, they’re taking notes on what everyone is saying, especially the professor. They’re trying to figure out where this is all going. And maybe you’re not hoping to go anywhere: maybe you just want to get the conversation going! Isn’t that what literary scholars do? Anyway, your students read and read and read all semester long until the last few weeks of the semester when the seminar paper is due.
And then all hell breaks loose. They don’t sleep. They don’t eat. They may rely on the sources you gave them throughout the semester. They may stay all weekend at the library looking up articles. And then they’ll write a paper in a week…or a few days…or overnight. (Come on, you know you’ve been there: last-minute paper writing. I know I have, and after that long night I vowed never to do it again.)
What just happened?
Oftentimes, when instructors assign the graduate seminar paper, it is in order to get students to practice disciplinary engagement, the kind that’s expected of scholars who plan to go on to a research-1 institution. Read, write, do some research, read and write again. The graduate seminar is meant to be the building blocks for future journal articles, dissertation topics, research areas. However, many graduate students write these papers hastily and forget about them later. They are not encouraged to build upon the work done in other classes, and when they’re told to convert them into journal articles, they’re not sure where to go with that. Not to mention, when they get to the dissertation proposal stage, all they have written are grad seminar papers
This brings me to my initial question: why the graduate seminar paper? I encourage you to take some time later in this session to think about what the seminar paper offers that other assignments do not.
When writing assignments, instructors should consider questions such as: what are you expecting students to practice in these seminar papers? When did you last revise your guidelines for this assignment? More importantly, are you prepared to teach them how to write a graduate seminar paper?
If the graduate seminar paper is meant to teach students how to engage with a scholarly discourse community in writing, they should work on the content as well as the craft. As I mentioned in my Hybrid Pedagogy article from last summer, “Help Wanted: Supporting Graduate Student Writers,” oftentimes graduate student writers have trouble with writing because their faculty is not trained to teach writing. And I don’t blame them! I understand that there are a lot of structural constraints working against faculty—not to mention, who has the time? Y’all spent plenty of time working on dissertations on very narrow research areas! Add “teach writing” to that?
However, I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I’m hoping today we can start addressing them, and I am eager to hear about your thought process.