Filling a Gap in the Doctoral Process

Subject: The expository lecture as the principal means of instruction.

Inciter: The expository lecture is simply a talking textbook that has endured too long since the invention of printing.

Subject: The student-selected curriculum.

Inciter: According to the interest theory of value, the value of academic subjects is not intrinsic. It is bestowed on them by the interest that students bring to them. It follows that students should study only those subjects in which they are already interested.

Subject: The purpose of a college education.

Inciter: “If then a practical end must be assigned to a university course, I say that it is that of training good members of society. … It aims … at cultivating the public mind, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasms and fixed aims to popular aspirations, … at facilitating the exercise of political power, and refining the intercourse of private life.” (John Henry Newman in The Idea of a University) —F. Champion WardFilling a Gap in the Doctoral Process (Chronicle)

Now that we’re at the midpoint in the semester, I think my literature students have for the most part grasped the idea that a college lit course demands more than the ability to summarize plots, analyze characters, and apply the themes of a literary work to the student’s own life. Their high school teachers praised those skills, and for students who haven’t taken any lit since high school, getting them to make the shift is a challenge.

I first asked them to turn to close reading, so that they can practice supporting their claims with evidence from the texts, rather than details from their own lives or personal opinions about love, sin, gender, etc.

Yes, a paper on one possible meaning of the titular bird in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” makes a good topic, but such a paper isn’t an argument unless it considers alternative views.

The students have submitted their rough drafts for their first big paper, and so far the papers have been very rough indeed — but I expected that. It’s a struggle to get students to collect a bunch of academic articles first, and then build an argument based on the sources they’ve been able to find, rather than having them write out the opinion they held before they conducted any research, then have them looking through the databases to “find quotes to support” the opinions to which they’ve already committed several pages of nicely-crafted prose.

Given that the rough draft is only worth a few measly percentage points, I’ve been pleased with the effort most students have put into it. Several students who got the draft “wrong” revised it after I gave them initial feedback, and submitted it along with a note saying they weren’t asking for credit, they just wanted to know whether they were now closer to the right track.

I’ve warned students about the “bottom of page 3” problem, in which students who aren’t quite sure what their argument is churn out three pages of general fluff before they hit on a really good idea, which they develop for half a page before tacking on a conclusion that basically says, “Therefore, this paper has [repeat introduction here].”

I wonder if these examples of “inciters” will be of use, as we try to move from a collection of interesting observations to a paper that has been written entirely in order to defend a particular thesis, so that the reader won’t discover on page 4 what the paper is really about, but will rather be introduced to that controlling idea in the thesis paragraph, if not in the very title of the paper.