The First-Semester Student and the Topic-Driven Seminar
This semester I’m teaching a seminar in Case Western’s SAGES program for first-semester students entitled “Age of Revolutions: Political, Social, and Scientific Disruption in Britain and America, 1770-1820.” Like other SAGES seminars, the first-semester version, or First Seminar, aims to cultivate students’ abilities in critical thinking, research, and writing. Many instructors focus their energies on the writing process and the mechanics of writing in the First Seminar in order to prepare students for the sophomore-level University Seminars that require a 10-12 page research paper, but I decided to do the opposite and foregrounded critical thinking and research.
I took this approach because in teaching those sophomore-level SAGES seminars, I had seen the students struggle to find, evaluate, and integrate evidence into their papers. While topic-driven core courses have a lot of value, they do present a challenge if you are asking students to do research. It takes time to learn the landscape of scholarship in a field, and students are limited in the work they produce because of that. Again and again, I found myself frustrated by (and saw my colleagues frustrated by) papers that never really managed to have both good arguments supported by strong evidence and good mechanics and style. I began to suspect that communicating their ideas was taking a backseat as students grappled with the challenging content presented in these topic-driven seminars. If that were the case, then how could I lower the hurdle for my students and make the course material and topic more accessible to them in a 15-week semester? And, how could I do that without sacrificing rigor in my writing instruction?
Using The Age of Revolutions Bibliographies
As I anticipated, in the final papers, the mechanics, style, and organization of the students’ writing was not as sophisticated and polished as their previous work though the papers were clear and meaning was never impeded by the writing. And this makes sense, I think: working from the bibliographies meant that the students were having to make sense of the most important scholarly works in the field as they adjusted to expectations for college-level thinking and writing. Topic-driven first-semester seminars provide an answer our students’ desire to learn deeply but, like upper division seminars in the major, such courses also demand that students attend to inquiry, research, and writing all at once. While we as instructors might not expect students to attempt to master all three skills at once, our students often do not realize (or trust) that, even when we think we have communicated it to them.
Yet, even as it seemed strange to set aside the means of communicating the argument–the writing itself–for the time being, there were moments that reinforced that decision. For example, when the students began their individual projects later in the semester, I observed in their writing and in their contributions to class discussions that they had begun to pick up on the landscape of early American scholarship. For example, students began to cite articles from the William and Mary Quarterly and made reference to materials from the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. I’m not sure how aware they are of their growing familiarity with the field, but it is certainly there, and stands in stark contrast to other seminars I’m working with as a writing consultant in which students continue to struggle to find and use topic-specific evidence appropriate to academic discourse.
Thinking Ahead to Next Time: Making the Learning Visible
While I have been encouraged by the results of this experiment, I have to admit that shifting my emphasis from communicating ideas to critical thinking and research has been uncomfortable and continues to be so. To teach writing, don’t you have to be a stickler for topic sentences and transitions and concise language? Don’t you have to model and lead students through the writing process in its entirety? After a decade working with undergraduate writers, I know that good writing is more than mechanics and that it starts with good thinking, but moving away from time spent drafting and revising 3 or 4 essays in a semester still feels strange. In sum, taking this approach has encouraged me to revisit my understanding of the writing process itself; in the course of doing that, one thing that I’ve come to realize is that in my teaching I need to acknowledge better the parts of the writing process that don’t involve writing at all.
I plan to assign this project when I teach the class again but between now and then the challenge is how to make this learning visible to the students. The mid-semester feedback I received from my students indicated that they didn’t realize just how much they had accomplished. Several of them indicated that they felt like, in comparison to some of their peers, they had not done as much writing. Yet, in the course of this project they had each written nearly 10 pages–and in all 10 pages, they had been wrestling with materials that advanced sophisticated and nuanced arguments on very specific topics in a field to which they had just been introduced. I’m not sure yet how to make that work more visible to my students though I did initially plan to have them present this work using Scalar, an open-access web publishing platform. However, I underestimated the time that I would need to introduce my students to the technology and abandoned that idea early in the semester. Perhaps some form of digital publication could be part of the answer though.
While I don’t have a solution to the visibility problem in this class, I do know that in the future I will be crafting course bibliographies to give the students a good starting point for their research. Becoming familiar with the foundational studies and top presses in a field just takes time–time that is hard enough to come by in upper division seminars and nearly impossible in introductory level core courses. Bibliographies help to orient students. The alternative to using such tools tends to be simply requiring a certain number of sources and maybe a brief introduction to available library resources. For students, that can too easily devolve into an Easter egg hunt or academic game of whack-a-mole in which they either look only for evidence that confirms their claims or work their way blindly and haphazardly through a list of search results. Bibliographies can keep students from treading water like that, so to speak, and allow them to focus their energies on engaging with the material.
A final note: many thanks to the editors of and contributors to the Age of Revolutions blog for the work they have done in compiling these bibliographies and providing access to the vibrant and constantly evolving conversation surrounding revolution in all of its forms and meanings. Scholars are often hesitant (and often for good reason) to share their work but sharing bibliographies is one way that we can cultivate the conversation and community in our fields, opening them up to wider audiences that includes our students.
So, how do you use bibliographies? What bibliographies would you find useful to your teaching? Leave us a comment or let us know on Twitter or Facebook!