Saturday, March 3, 2012

Transcending the Traditional Research Paper

To start with my conclusion:
We have to be willing to let go of familiar and comfortable formats for our best thinking if we want it to do its best work. We have to allow a different shape, a different approach, and not expect the world to beat a path to our doorstep, begging to read our thousands of words of linear prose. We have to allow for and accommodate collaboration as part of the transformation of our traditional kinds of research and writing.
Rather than having my students in one of my Shakespeare courses finish their semester with a research paper project, they have completed these at mid-term, and will now be transforming what they have created into something more. Now, how are we going to go about that?

This is the halfway point in my experimental, hybrid approach to composition and research. So, even though students produced a standard 8-10 page research paper, this has come at the end of a three-week set of mini-assignments about which they had to blog 10 separate times (see the assignment sheet). Half their grade came from the completed paper; half from this publicly documented process, which included an actively social component where they had to consult peers and experts for feedback.

As I have interviewed each student individually this week, I've asked them to reflect on their process, and especially how trying social proof has helped their writing. Social proof has been a breakthrough for me and for my students this semester. Not only are the students aware of and contributing to their peers' research papers within the class, but they are reaching out during various stages of their research and writing process to a variety of audiences to obtain feedback and proof that their ideas will interest others. This has far exceeded my expectations in being something that motivates students, that aids their ability to focus, and that gives them a feel for more authentic audiences for their work.

That's right, in the 21st century we teachers have no excuse to keep our students away from the communities who will truly be interested in both consuming and contributing to student work. NO MORE FAUX AUDIENCES! No writer has to write in isolation in the 21st century, and students need to feel the confidence that their ideas matter -- all along the way, and not just if and when they produce some shiny formally published thing. Happily, I think my students are starting to feel they truly have something to contribute, even while their ideas are in development and not in finished form -- perhaps even especially when they have not yet brought a project to perfection.

And that is why when I met with students whose papers were not yet "there" in traditional terms, that I didn't feel as though their efforts were wasted, nor that there wasn't much yet to be done with their work (and I'm not talking about just revising their research papers). I found this an interesting process for me as a teacher. When I saw their research papers as interim instantiations of their inquiry process, and when I anticipated them working with their peers and outsiders on transforming their current work into something else, their papers' imperfections seemed less of a big deal. I wanted them to know those weaknesses with logical coherence or appropriate support of ideas, but I was more excited to discuss with them possibilities of what they could do next.  Gotta love an iterative pedagogy.

So what is that next stage? I'm writing this post to help the students think that through, and to help me to do so. They know that I'm wandering out into foreign territory. It would be far easier simply to assign another play for them to read.

Audience-Appropriate Formats
The research paper is a sturdy form, but not the most social form of knowledge -- even for scholars, nowadays. So I am asking my students to think about their work once again in social terms: Who cares about these topics? Who is working on these ideas already? Who could benefit from the insights you've gleaned from your thinking and research? I've urged them to look beyond just scholarly audiences, and that means they will have to rethink how they present their ideas to those audiences for whom a formal research paper is unlikely to get much traction.

So, as they consider authentic audiences for their work, I want them to consider formats that would reach and interest those people. This means they might need to take an alternative rhetorical approach, or they might need to repackage their work in shorter form or in a sequence of some kind. It may mean that they must embed media, or mix media, or translate their academic research into a video or a piece of art or an audio recording.

Wait a minute, am I just tacking on some kind of creative assignment to their more serious research paper?No. I do want them to be creative and think outside of the box (the 8 1/2" x 11" box). The difference here is that their choice of form or format must relate to the authentic audiences they are trying to reach, and not just to their personal preferences for expression or media. Once again, social proof comes to the rescue, helping us to make more focused and relevant choices by grounding our work in something applied.

One student, Kayla, has already seen her way to next steps. She has written a paper that uses The Taming of the Shrew as a way of examining the issue of abusive relationships. She told me that women who struggle with abuse often turn to support forums online and look for stories. They are eager to see how others have dealt with such problems. So, she said to me while thinking this through for a  minute, perhaps she could begin with the story part of her current paper, maybe using the fictionalized abuse in that play as a point of entry to the larger issues. I think Kayla said that she might take just that part of her paper and contribute this to one of these online forums for abuse victims. Now, I'm not sure where she might take it from there, or how that might lead her readers into the larger paper or larger issues that paper addressed, but I thought this was a fantastic first step in thinking about how to repurpose and reformat her current work into something that could really reach and engage a real audience. She's definitely on the right track. Wouldn't it be nice if this undergraduate's research on Shakespeare could give hope and perspective to victims of abuse?

Collaborative Efforts
One place I will be directing my students now is toward more collaborative work. Just as I have asked each student to reexamine their own work in light of authentic audiences and new formats, I am asking them each to take a close look at one other student's paper from the same point of view. What if you looked at your peer's work, not in the standard peer-critique mode of helping someone perfect their standard research paper, but as a consultant, focused less on the present form of the paper but more on the potential for its ideas to reach those whom they could benefit?

I also want the whole class to consider possibilities of some combined efforts. In class yesterday I asked the students to restate briefly their individual papers' main ideas and to look for ways in which those papers had common ground. It was discovered that several had some kind of topic or subtopic related to emerging media and the digital world. Could your paper somehow complement another student's paper, especially on this common ground of digital topics? What sort of thing could we produce together that leverages our individual work and a common cause?

This is already bearing some fruit. Cortnie reported on her blog that after Taylor heard Cortnie explain fanfiction, she started to think that some exploratory fiction could help make her point in comparing Iago and Hamlet as villains. That's an angle on digital humanities I hadn't considered before: fanfiction as a mode of critical analysis breaking open the traditional text in new ways. And Ellie's look at Jung's psychological theories could benefit Bri in accounting for why folklore scholars fear the folk medium of the interent. Interesting. And of course, some of the students have each been looking at ways that Shakespeare can be taught differently in the digital age. Could they combine their work into some kind of collaborative teaching resource?

We have to be willing to let go of familiar and comfortable formats for our best thinking if we want it to do its best work. We have to allow a different shape, a different approach, and not expect the world to beat a path to our doorstep, begging to read our thousands of words of linear prose. We have to allow for and accommodate collaboration as part of the transformation of our traditional kinds of research and writing. I think my students are up for it, and I'm very excited to see where they will go next.