I recently finished teaching our graduate program’s sole required course, ENG 500, formerly “Introduction to Graduate Studies,” now “Theory and the Practice of English Studies.” Most of us remember this kind of course. Its purpose: get students into the habit of doing English studies, providing an introduction to research methodologies, common issues, and graduate-level work in general. For Western, that’s complicated by scheduling: because we admit students in Spring, and because the course is taught biennially on our Quad Cities regional campus, we can’t assume (neither for the course nor the program) that 500 is a pre-requisite which happens early for everyone.
With others on the graduate committee, I established five goals for the course:
- awareness of the major theoretical movements and disciplinary structures in English studies;
- understanding the position of English studies in culture and society;
- articulation of theory and practice, a problem faced by all practitioners of English and taken up in scholarly discussions in all areas of English studies;
- building a professional identity as an English studies scholar and practitioner;
- developing research, presentation, writing, and self-promotion skills.
In the rear-view, three conclusions. First, I’m seeing the third, fourth, and fifth of these goals as the most critical for the students in our program. I don’t want to take away from #1, the usual framework for these kinds of courses–coverage of the -isms of literary theory via anthologies, histories, and/or introductory texts. And certainly our students could benefit from a better knowledge of the field (broadly speaking: literary, writing, and media studies). Similarly re #2, not to overstate our students’ grasp of the role English studies plays (or fails to play) in culture. However, for me their problems performing #3, #4, and #5 trump #1 and #2, in part because redesigning the course to focus on this work would allow the first and second goals to be achieved indirectly–perhaps not in the framework of a single semester, but over time. That is, I think students have some idea where they want to go, even if they don’t know how to get there. I think we should ask students to assess themselves professionally and make connections between the literature of English studies and their everyday work as high school teachers, writing center tutors, librarians, etc. Theory/practice work needs exigence, and has to be individualized. Articulating these goals would explicitly situate theory/practice readings as support for a concrete activity, hopefully leading to understanding of the shape and scope of English studies via investigation of one’s own particular positions, theoretical and professional.
Second, I am glad I relied more on single-subject, single-author books than anthologies and collections. That is, I prefer sampling to the coverage methodology: better to profoundly engage a few texts and a few issues than hop about. For this semester, the focus was anti-intellectualism and the tensions between writing and other media such as television. (A few texts moved radically outside that realm, just for a change of pace.) Those back-and-forths proved nice ways to talk about the other pairs which we have to balance: theory and practice, research and teaching, literature and the popular press. I do see value in coverage work, but I’m not sure it needs to occur in courses. I read Cross Talk in Composition Theory and Central Works in Technical Communication long after my coursework was over. For me it was easier to backfill that knowledge, fitting the texts I had already read into the narratives those coverage-model anthologies and their apparatus provided (and given the filter my own particular focus provided). I think the same movement transfers to our students.
Finally, my biggest mistake this semester was backloading development of the big project. That was okay for the students who know how to play the game–who are comfortable writing in English studies and know the moves scholars make: working closely with texts, drawing on multiple external sources, understanding the appropriate level of support, situating one’s work in relation to others, etc. My wide-open assignment–isolate one of the issues raised by the course texts and write about it–was ideal for these students, offering them a chance to develop an essay, web site, or other text germane to their (already delimited) long-term interests. Though I spelled out my criteria for “graduate-level work,” many of the students who were new to graduate study and/or who hadn’t been pushed as undergraduates struggled to find and delimit a subject, manage readings, and write at length about it. As a result I issued many rude awakenings during Thanksgiving break, when I emailed multiple students to say their drafts didn’t measure up to graduate-level standards. (I’m glad to say most folks got things straightened out before the end of the semester.) Obviously, I should have asked students to submit written work to me earlier, in order to determine whose reading, research and writing skills need the most help. For some of those folks, the path forward is a well-rehearsed form, such as a literary analysis or a review essay, which solves the “What do I write about?” question and provides ready examples of structure as well.
In the future, I think the semester should begin by asking students to submit a writing sample. That won’t be difficult, since we require it for admission, and it clicks nicely with the professional development content of the course, with the added benefit of providing more structure. While the course weblog provided an excellent space for students to work through the course materials in writing, some students didn’t take advantage of it (despite my repeated exhortations), and course weblogs are not the appropriate space for detailed criticisms of work in progress. (At least not to the level I consider necessary for effective critique.) Chris Morrow, who will teach the class next fall, has suggested making the course more oriented around academic conversations. For example, he thought it would be productive to get all the students to attend an academic conference, with an eye to understanding the discussions that go on there, and giving them more acclimation before our annual graduate organization conference. Good idea; in my zeal to get students to learn by doing, I think I sometimes overlooked the value of modeling that would provide. Given that my department is about to revive its faculty colloquium series, on hold last year because of our multiple job searches, there’s a second strong possibility for conversation about conversations. We can also encourage students to participate in the talks, presentations, and other events which occur throughout the year. While we don’t have a bazillion of those at Western, interesting people do come through Macomb, and we should encourage our students to hear these talks, and think about how it might become a part of what they want to read, write, and talk about.