Teaching English Graduate Students to Write

Type Away” by Laura D’Alessandro

When thinking about teaching and writing for PALS about teaching, I also spend a fair amount of time reflecting on how I was taught over the course of my educational career. One aspect of my education that I have thought a lot about is how I was taught to write. And within that larger topic, I have been considering the pedagogical aims of writing assignments given in graduate school. Thinking over the various writing I did during my MA and PhD, I have struggled to fully understand the goals of one particular assignment: the seminar paper. Specifically, I am wondering why it has become the default assignment in graduate education (at least in literary studies).

Almost every course I took in graduate school required a seminar paper at the end of the semester. I never got very much guidance about what actually went into a seminar paper or how I should approach it. I always thought of them as just much longer and hopefully smarter versions of what I had been doing since undergrad—making an argument and supporting it with claims from the text and criticism from scholars. When writing seminar papers, I did learn a lot about the topics the papers were on, but, upon further reflection, I didn’t learn a lot about writing. I would read the comments my professors wrote when I got the papers back and try to absorb them for future papers, but I wasn’t learning much about the genres that professors actually write in.

When told about the reasons for writing semester papers, we were usually instructed to think of them as preparation for writing articles. While working on my first article, I realized that this formulation of the seminar paper as a kind of pre-article was a false construct. Seminar papers were insular in ways that articles are not, and the construction of a seminar paper as “they say, I say” was really nothing like the structure of an article. Maybe if I hadn’t written so many seminar papers, I would not have been frustrated by this. But I felt unprepared to write an article, and at the risk of being melodramatic, I felt a little bit betrayed. Why didn’t anyone talk to us more about writing? Why had I been writing in this form for years when it wasn’t what scholars actually did? When I started to formulate those questions, I discussed them with my fellow graduate students and my graduate school professors. Both professors and students generally agreed with me that seminar papers were not always a productive form and that usually there was a long road to go to get a seminar paper into shape for an article. I didn’t really find any strong defenses of the seminar paper, but I also didn’t find very many people who were asking what alternative assignments could do better than seminar papers could.

I would like to spend the rest of this essay highlighting some of the writing assignments I did in graduate school that were useful and some other projects that I didn’t do but would have liked to have done. Instead of just complaining about the seminar paper, let’s use the outline of these assignments to think about what constructive writing assignments look like. If you are reading the following list and teach graduate students, maybe reconsider some of the assignments you give your students. Or, if you teach graduate students and have already diverged from the seminar paper model, I would love to hear which of these options you use and if you have created other types of writing for graduate students. Finally, if you are reading this and you are in graduate school, maybe very politely suggest to your professors that you would be interested in alternative assignments.

These are writing assignments that I found to be useful in graduate school (shout out to the professors who used them in their classes):

    • Response Papers

      One of the best series of response papers I was required to write was in a class on Emily Dickinson where we were asked to write about one poem every week using the variorum. This was useful for how deeply it lead us to engage with a poem every week. It also asked us to not only think about the poem as it existed in printed form but also to consider Dickinson’s fascicles, the variant words she used in her poems, and the different versions of these poems. While I haven’t worked on Dickinson’s poems in a while, this way of focusing on the materiality of texts and their various forms has informed my current work. In this case, even if the content is not something I am contending with in this moment, the process and methodology was important for me to learn.

    • Book Reviews

      I have never been very adept at switching between genres (which probably has some bearing on this essay that I am writing now). The first book review I wrote was pretty bad, and the guidance my professor gave me on it helped me understand how the book review works as a genre. How do you structure it? What from the book do you emphasize?

    • Conference Papers

      I wrote at least one conference paper for a class in grad school that I went on to actually present at a conference. How useful is that? I also wrote other conference papers for classes that I didn’t present at conferences but that gave me good practice writing conference papers. It felt useful to practice that genre I would be using in my future, even if I didn’t directly use that paper.

    • Group Papers

      I only wrote one group paper in graduate school. It was with a partner (hi, Naomi!) in a Women’s and Gender Studies class. I’m not so sure that the paper was any good, and I remember specifically laying on the bench in the coffee shop while we were writing it because I was so exhausted from the end of the semester. However, the process of working with someone else on a paper laid the groundwork for a lot of the collaborative writing that we do at PALS. I learned how to blend my writing into someone else’s, and I learned to not be too precious with my writing.

    • Archival Projects

      My dissertation involved a lot of archival work, but it was my first sustained archival project. I wish I had done more before (I can remember two archival projects in grad school) because knowing how to do archival work would have been useful to my dissertation. Also, one of the projects—on the author Eleanor Early—is memorable to me because it turned into a publication, which was an obvious plus. I know a lot of scholars do archival work, and I would like to see more of the work scholars do in classroom assignments.

These are types of projects I didn’t do but would have liked to:

      • Pedagogy Projects

        I witnessed a few people do this as an alternative to a seminar paper. I think for the most part when someone did this they created syllabi and wrote about how they would teach the texts on the syllabi. This would be excellent preparation for a class in your field, but it would also be a useful exercise in a field where you might never teach. Practice thinking like a teacher is useful even if you are not going to directly teach those texts.

      • Digital Projects

        I thought about this when I read a tweet (below) from Colored Conventions about a class project to help digitize records. Two of the founders of Colored Conventions are graduate students and several other graduate students are rather involved in the project. Many graduate students work on and create their own digital projects, but if you are a professor and working on a digital project why not have your students, graduate or undergraduate, participate in it? (I know that many people do this already, but it is something I definitely wish I had had the opportunity to do.)

At the end of my time in graduate school, it seemed like more professors were starting to move away from the seminar paper. I would love to hear more about whether the trend of writing assignments has continued to shift in the last couple of years. I would also be interested in your thoughts on seminar papers. What did seminar papers teach you? What didn’t they? Why have they been the go-to assignment for graduate courses? What kinds of writing do you wish you had more practice with?


2 thoughts on “Teaching English Graduate Students to Write

  1. I really enjoyed this piece! When I started my job at a master’s institution, I thought a lot about what assignments would be beneficial. I ended up frequently teaching 2 conference papers (one at midterm and one at the end) instead of one longer seminar paper, the book review (I just did this for the first time this year and, boy, it is definitely going into the regular rotation!), and the abstract, which I find really useful as a starting project. A good abstract has a strong, specific argument, offers some contextualization, and requires precise and concise writing.

    When I teach freshman composition, I strongly believe in an open revision policy and I’ve decided this year to adopt the same policy for my graduate classes. I always tell my freshmen that they need to take their writing skills to the next level and that the way to do that is to revise and keep working on a piece. I just decided this year that the same is true of graduate students who are likewise struggling to take their writing to the next level. So we’ll see how that goes!


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