There were a lot of things that worked really well in the first year seminar and I plan to blog about them over the next month or so. For now, though, I want to mention some things that went wrong, before I forget about them.
One of the things I really underestimated was the students’ understanding of what constitutes a college-level research paper. I received several of what John Bean characterizes as “all about” papers, paper which included an abundance of material about a topic, but which lacked anything resembling a point. Even the papers built around a thesis ofter came across as rather superficial. I found this surprising and disappointing since in general the students did quite excellent work in the course. I expected the research paper to be an opportunity for the students to explore a topic of particular interest in more detail than were were able to do more generally in the course.
Over the course of the seminar, I presented many of the things students should know about writing a research paper:
* We talked about scholarship as a conversation between competing arguments on a question, and how to construct scholarly arguments.
* We spent a couple of class sessions exploring on-line databases and search techniques, with the help of our excellent reference librarian, Charlotte Jones.
* I modelled the process economists go through as they conduct research.
Despite all this, many students failed to grasp what I was looking for in a research paper. It was as if they didn’t make the connection between the activities mentioned above, which were spread out over the term, and the research paper assignment which was due in two drafts over the last month. I clearly didn’t do a good job of making the connection explicit.
In retrospect, perhaps the outcome shouldn’t have been surprising. I’ve never taught a course exclusively to first year students before and in those courses I have taught with first years I’ve never assigned anything as extensive as a research paper. This experience has given me new appreciation for what my colleagues in the English Department confront in the Freshman Composition class. Next year, I’ll build more explicit scaffolding into the assignment.