Feminist Pedagogy: Scaffolding the Research Paper

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Teaching Consent in the College Classroom (Part 2) [Read Part 1]

Backwards Pedagogy and a Gender Studies theme for the semester turned out some really thorough and unique research papers in my Intro to Writing About Literature class. As I’m grading: there are papers drawing from medieval science and the humours as well as neonatology and the psychology of twins; I’m reading take-downs of Freudian psychoanalysis; papers exploring the complexity and fragility of masculinity and what social pressures might lead to domestic violence; and papers comparing the systemic oppression of Bosola to today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement. The papers are polished, thoroughly supported with scholarly sources, and I couldn’t be happier. The only thing that I changed this semester was I started teaching to the research paper from day one.

I went from teaching one play (Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew) to two (Taming + Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi), which took up a larger chunk of time in the syllabus, so I built the research paper into my lesson plans from the beginning. I’ve narrowed down my technology choices to the things that have worked best for me, and I’ll briefly touch on those here before I get to the assignments. At any point, if you want to view the full assignment I handed out to my students, click on each Scaffold (1-4) header.

I use DropBox instead of Blackboard because I find it easier to store and share things as a class. I use Prezi instead of PowerPoint to introduce new texts because they’re more dynamic and visually engaging. I use Norton Critical Editions of both plays because of the awesome essays in the back, but I also find that Folger Shakespeare Library Editions are equally useful to students given their explanations of Early Modern words and metaphors. Finally, I’ve tried to incorporate creative assignments into the critical learning process to cater to students with different modes of learning, using Twitter and Creative Script Writing.

Scaffold 1: Individual and Partnered Critical Evaluation

We began the semester with Taming and students’ first assignment was to write a critical evaluation of a scholarly article about the play. This year I chose it for them: Shirley Nelson Garner’s “Inside or Outside of the Joke?” We had already read George Hibbard’s “A Social Comedy” in class together (located the thesis, identified the original date of publication for critical context, and assessed his assumptions). Then, I had them read Garner’s piece and write a first draft of their evaluations individually. Clearly outlined expectations led to better results for a 2-3 page paper: the 1st paragraph had to summarize Garner’s argument, the 2nd and 3rd had to begin to evaluate the merits of the argument, and the final paragraph had to examine the larger assumptions at work in the article.

On the day they brought these into class, I went over Garner’s thesis, situated her in the discourse, and we discussed the underlying assumptions in her work. Briefly, Garner argues that the play is bad because it’s misogynist, so we discuss if historical context can excuse misogyny (most agree: no!), and we also define as a class what makes a “great” work of literature. This usually results in the conclusion that we can’t–and shouldn’t–ignore misogyny, but while acknowledging that it’s there we can do critical work to examine how it’s operating, who it’s affecting and how, and try to get at what the play can illuminate about misogyny or domestic violence now. (This led one student to write a paper connecting Taming to sexual assault on high school and college campuses drawing from a close reading of Gil Junger’s 10 Things I Hate About You.)

After the discussion, students got into pairs to combine their evaluations. Putting more faith in students’ ability to work things out themselves works better in the end. I’m all for doing less micro-managing. In pairs, students combined essays, taking the best from both and then synthesizing what they had individually written. They also gave me their individual originals, so I can attest to the fact that their paired work was much stronger. Two heads are better than one. (If you’d like to see the full assignment, click here.)

Scaffold 2: The First Paper, A Close Reading

Taming offers students an arguable claim that’s easy to grasp: it is arguable whether Katherine Minola is truly “tamed” at the end of the play or not, so I make this the working thesis question for their first paper. It gives me room to walk them through what an arguable claim is, and we spend most of our time in class performing close readings to find evidence in the text. The paper is an exercise in applying their interpretations to a literary argument on their own. We go over what makes an argument analytical (and not simply descriptive), how to incorporate quotes, and how to avoid summary. I don’t require any outside sources but some of them use Garner. They know that they will have the option of turning this paper into their research paper should they choose to expand it, so some of them decide to get a jump start on the research paper. It’s a pretty standard assignment, and they write their papers while we begin reading The Duchess of Malfi. (If you’d like to see the full assignment, click here.)

[Aside]: Duchess is great to teach after Taming because it’s a tragedy of a strong female character instead of a comedy about taming a woman (or is it really about taming Petruchio?). The Duchess’s death is noble and avenged, giving more weight to the violence of misogyny in Webster’s time, whereas Taming asks us to consider if Kate has perhaps outsmarted Petruchio. Both demonstrate bell hooks’ claim that patriarchy oppresses both men and women. Students writing (or expanding into) longer papers find that bringing these two plays together complicates their theses just enough to add content and evidence to their arguments instead of trying to stretch the same simple argument out too far.

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Scaffold 3: Title, Annotated Bibliography, and First Paragraph

Now we’ve almost finished our work on Duchess and I introduce them to the research paper assignment components. The first assignment that’s due includes what you see above: a title, annotated bibliography, and an introductory paragraph. It’s at this point that I go over my Prezi on How to Write a Paper About Literature. I remind students that the title is a guide to conceptualizing a longer argument that will take about 7 pages to fully articulate. We workshop their thesis statements in class and I give them feedback via email. (If you’d like to see the full assignment, click here.)

Scaffold 4: First Draft and Take Home Peer Review

Peer review takes up a lot of class time and I think the majority of it can be done at home. On the day the first full draft is due (for a 7-page paper I ask for at least 4 pages, and for a 5-page paper, I ask for the first 3 pages), I pair up students with their peers. For 10 minutes, they discuss their drafts and what problems they’re trying to work out and want help with. I post the peer review worksheet onto the class DropBox and ask them to fill it out and email it to their partners on the day it’s due, along with a draft edited in Microsoft Word using Track Changes, and copying me to the email so I can see their work.

I give them until the next class for their peer review, so they have about 2-3 days to work from home. In class on the day their peer review is due, I give them another 10-15 minutes to discuss each others’ drafts. Then, they paraphrase their peers’ arguments for them, saying, “It’s my understanding that your paper is about…” This exercise helps them talk out what they’re really trying to say in their papers, better understand their own arguments, and to determine whether or not their claims are arguable. Next time, I’ll ask each peer to try to disagree with the paper to determine if it is in fact an arguable claim, and show them what counterarguments they can anticipate.

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The Final Draft

By this time, most students have come to meet with me during my office hours, and they’ve received ample feedback. It’s the most writing-intensive and grading-intensive time of the semester, which is why I appreciate doing this in the first half (or 2/3rds) of the semester. They still have two shorter papers due (3-5 pages), but the big project is done, and the rest of the semester is spent refining their skills in different genres. While the assignments have been scaffolded, my policy is to reward improvement, so if the final draft grade is better than the rough draft (or better than the Taming paper if they chose to expand and revise it), then I replace that earlier grade with the final draft grade.

To view the full assignment, with the scaffolding, writing prompts, and grading breakdown, click here.

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