by Caitlin Scholl, Comparative Literature
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2016
Something that I struggled with since I first started teaching R1B courses was how to design assignments in such a way that my students develop their research skills incrementally throughout the semester. Anyone who has taught the second part of the reading and composition (R&C) series knows that much of the semester is spent on developing students’ critical thinking, analyses, and argumentation. With so much territory to cover it can be difficult to incorporate research skills early in the semester; as a result, the independent research component of their final essays can feel tacked on in the final weeks. Were students coming out of my R1B courses with the confidence and know-how to engage in the many different types of research they might be called upon to do in their diverse fields of study?
Previously, in order to familiarize my students with the kinds of materials that they would later seek out in their research for their final essays, I would assign selections from secondary (and, sometimes, primary or tertiary) sources for class discussion in addition to the literary texts that are our main objects of inquiry in a literature course. However, it seemed like the fact that I was the one bringing in these sources prevented my students from understanding this to be the kind of research that they could do themselves. I was confirmed in this suspicion when the end of the semester would roll around and, invariably, a percentage of the class seemed lost as to what might constitute appropriate, academic outside sources to draw on. So last year I decided that instead of bringing in outside sources myself, I would have my students do it: it would be a scavenger hunt.
I made short lists of primary, secondary, and tertiary sources related to the literary texts on the syllabus and had each student sign up to find and summarize a couple of sources to present to the class on an assigned date. For each particular source that they were to locate and bring in, I provided a few questions to guide them in summarizing the argument and reflecting on the type of source that they were using. For example, while we were reading Olaudah Equiano’s slave narrative, one student was assigned the task of bringing in a library copy of Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death and summarizing the introduction for everyone; she also was instructed to skim a couple of reviews of the book available through JSTOR. Through this assignment she learned the material skills of how to find a book in the library and how to use an online journal database, as well as the higher-level skills of summarizing an influential argument and determining its cross-disciplinary relevance. Guided by the assignment questions, she even went on to explain to the class the difference between a book published by a university press and one published by a trade press, and the difference between reviews published in academic journals and those you might find on goodreads.com — information that would have sounded pedantic coming from me, but that appeared to be revelatory coming from a peer.
The scavenger hunt removed the double burden of identifying relevant sources and analyzing them, allowing students to focus on the more foundational research skills of physically locating materials and summarizing them. The class was exposed not only to new ideas for discussion through the peer-produced summaries, but also to a wide range of academically viable sources (e.g., the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, recent historical studies, academic journal articles, an online visual archive) and information on the mechanics of finding and using those sources. As a result of this assignment, when it finally did come time for students to identify and analyze outside materials independently, I was impressed by the fact that everyone chose academic sources appropriate to the arguments that they were developing.