Moving Away from the Big Paper

Moving Away from the Big Paper (in Graduate Courses)

The traditional graduate course final project assignment is the Big Paper due at the end of the term.  Sometimes a shorter paper is due mid-term; sometimes there are process drafts such as proposal, annotated bibliography, rough draft, etc., but the main focus is often an essay that could be developed for publication as an essay in a journal or anthology.

But in recent courses, when I’m teaching a methodology that is unfamiliar to students in my program, I have seen that although students do very well in the discussions and the early process steps, it was difficult to carry on all alone to the Big Paper (meaning, about 25-30 double-spaced pages).

I’ve also noticed that it can be difficult for people to try to present from a Big Paper they wrote for a graduate course: academic (humanities) presentations tend to have four people in a 90 minute panel, so each person has to present their paper in 15 minutes (sometimes a few more) to allow for questions at the end.

Seeing people try to cram a Big Paper into a short presentation is painful.

For some years, I’ve used presentations at conferences as part of my writing process:  I do a presentation or two on a paper topic I’m developing, then turn them into a paper to submit for publication.

So I started thinking:  why not have three presentation-length papers (10 manuscript pages maximum) in a semester, each one tied to a theme unit?

And why not give students the chance to dump one that doesn’t work, and revise the two remaining?

When I teach a graduate course during the mini-mester (2.5 weeks) or summer (5 week) term, I assign shorter writing assignments (a detailed proposal for minis, and a presentation-length paper for summer terms), but I’ve usually done the Big Paper in the long terms. But things can change!

In my Lord of the Rings as an Event Film course this fall, I have set up three themed units relating to the major aspect of film making that also fall under a cultural studies approach. The units are production, marketing, and reception. Students are choosing specific essays from a group I’ve assigned from each unit, doing primary research in fan communities, and developing presentation length papers on some aspect of reception of Jackson’s film during the past ten years.

An academic presentation makes an original argument, or the start of one, and it is (the best ones!) embedded in the “they say/I say” dialogic of academic discourse. But presentations are understood to be early work in developing the larger projects, and it’s possible to get feedback at the conference that will help in developing that project.

Students have a good deal of choice in terms of their three papers: they can work on the same topic, more or less, for all three, or work on three different ones entirely, or do two on the same topic, and a third one on a different topic. The main thing is that they are will be practicing the academic rhetorical moves of using academic scholarship, analyzing primary sources, and developing an original argument. They are practicing these moves in ten pages rather than twenty-thirty.

I’ll be doing something similar next spring with my Marginalized Literatures graduate course except that in that class, since we’re reading six novels, there will be a range of shorter writing assignments: reviews of novels, analysis of published reviews of novels, working bibliographies of relevant sources for a cultural studies research project, as well as informal discussions in the online course, all leading to a presentation-length paper.

In both classes, students revise the discussions and short writing assignments into two types of longer work: a selection of materials for a “Curated Collection” that will be posted online after the end of the term, and a paper or papers that students may present at an academic conference or develop further after the end of the course.

I am already seeing differences in how students are working through the assignments in the third unit this fall, and I am looking forward to seeing their final choices, and projects, next month.

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