Rationales and Realities in Assigning Research Papers at SECAC

Last year I chaired a session on survey classes at SECAC and I got so many new ideas, that I decided to propose another pedagogy session this year. While I always love regular conference sessions in my own field, sessions on pedagogy always end up being incredibly invigorating, giving me new ideas and getting me excited to plan next semester’s classes and introduce all sorts of new assignments! Incorporating ideas from AHTR and from the session I chaired last year, I made my survey classes textbook free last year, using smarthistory articles and videos as the majority of my reading assignments. Last year I proposed my pedagogy session based on ideas that I was wrestling with in my own class and the session ended up giving me lot of exciting new ideas. In addition to getting rid of the textbooks, in my Mon-Wed-Fri survey classes, I began devoting each Wednesday to just a single work of art, with students in learning communities and looking at the work more closely, reading a variety of sources, or playing games related to the work. On these days, I incorporated many ideas from last year’s SECAC session, and students looked at fewer works, but they really analyzed them in greater detail and learned about new ways of looking at and understanding artworks.

While I focused on my survey classes last year, this year I have been planning on reworking my writing assignments, and I was especially interested in new ideas for research paper assignments. While I am mostly teaching lower level classes, the papers presented in my session addressed a range of lower and upper level classes. One of my favorite parts about pedagogy sessions is when the presenters discuss specific assignments in detail, addressing which elements worked well and which ones need additional tinkering. For me, this is especially effective since it helps me troubleshoot my own assignments, adding and changing elements based on what has worked for other professors.

Here is a run-down of the presentations, focusing on the issues that I found most exciting:

Sarah Glover presented a writing assignment from her medieval survey where, in addition to writing components, the students produce their own artwork. Most of her students are art majors, and her project incorporates making, while still requiring enough writing for a Writing Intensive course. Although the final product is a visual artwork, the students learn to use writing as a tool, developing their ideas through a series of writing assignments. Students chose to make a specific work for a certain patron (either developing their own topic or picking from a list of about 10 options she provides). The first written component is a 5-6 page paper on their sources, influences, and comparative medieval artworks. Next, students pen a 3 page letter to their patron about their proposed artwork, followed by an oral presentation to the class in which the other members of the “guild” vet the project (based on a set of criteria that are predetermined by the class). Finally, students submit another written assignment on their process and materials and then give another oral presentation unveiling the final project. Projects that Sarah showed us included a wide variety of manuscript pages, as well as an Anglo Saxon shield, and several reliquaries.

Jeremy Culler’s presentation focused on flipping his students’ focus from the final, written project, to the writing process itself. Several of his projects focused on conceptual mapping, including timelines and mind maps. In two of his classes, students have developed final exhibitions that they displayed at a local gallery. One of these focused on mapping 20th century art, in a timeline format, so that students put their own conceptual maps and frameworks on view in the exhibition. This led students to think more about the process of teaching and the best way to organize their materials. The other exhibition was part of a photography class, which addressed 19th and 20thc photography. In this class, students were each required to produce a photo that recreated the style and technique that they researched. The students then organized an exhibition of these works, which was accompanied by an exhibition catalogue that they wrote.

Parme Guitani discussed a writing assignment that her entire department instituted in their lower-level classes. This type of assignment is called an I Search paper. The department replaced their previous paper assignment because their assessment results showed that even though professors thought their students’ biggest problems involved writing mechanics, they actually had major issues with critical thinking and information literary. I Search papers are written in the first person and are organized around a series of questions. Students start with a topic they find interesting and develop a series of questions, which function like topic sentences in the paper. Throughout the paper, students research these questions and provide explanations of their research, addressing what kinds of sources they used, what they found, and how this information relates to other information that they found. While these papers do not have a thesis statement, they must end with a reflection on the process and must address how the student’s thinking on the topic has changed.

Melissa Geiger assigns an exhibition project to her upper level classes. This project builds on assignments from her lower level courses, including an image analysis and an article analysis. The Image Analysis project from her 100 level art history courses requires students to answer a series of questions, guiding students to research 15 specific aspects of their selected image (such as patronage, original function and context, etc.). Her Article Analysis report is assigned to students in 200 level classes. Students select an article (following a specific series of guidelines, such as the dates and length of the article) and write a report on it (based on a series of specific questions) that includes several specific items, including at least five paragraphs on the argument and a discussion of one content footnote and one citation footnote. In her 300 level classes, Geiger’s students complete the exhibition assignment. In the example she discussed, students developed their exhibitions out of the collection of the Musée d’Orsay. During the course of the semester, they wrote an exhibition proposal, bibliography, and exhibition essay, and gave a presentation on the exhibit.

After every pedagogy session I attend, I come up with a list of new changes and ideas I intend to implement and this session certainly provided me with a long list! Based on these presentations I am considering incorporating an I Search paper into my own survey classes, since it will introduce them to research an earlier point, without requiring them to develop an entire research paper at such an early stage. While students will not develop thesis statements, they will work on their ability to answer research questions with appropriate sources and improve their ability to develop their own questions. Additionally, in my 200 level classes, I think assigning a short article analysis report a paper assignment early in the semester will help them develop their abilities to analyze specific sources. I already assign an exhibition assignment to my 300 level Contemporary Art Theories class, although I am considering adding a detailed checklist like Geiger uses and incorporating some type of vetting, with specific criteria, like Glover includes. I have only ever had students plan and propose their exhibitions, without actually creating them, but based on Culler’s presentation I am considering having the students exhibit and discuss parts of their process or the conceptual framework for their exhibits.

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