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Teaching Research in the First-Year Writing Classroom in the U.S.

Strategies for incorporating research into first-year writing.

January 1, 2020
 
 

Sritama Chatterjee is a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of English at the University of Pittsburgh. You can find her on Twitter @SritamaBarna.

I’ll start with a confession: I have never taken a writing class in my entire life. This is because writing courses are not part of the curriculum in India. Teaching writing in public universities in India is a huge challenge given the number of students in a classroom, plurality of languages (India has so many languages. In what language does one teach writing in India?) and a government that spends less than 4 percent of its national budget on higher education. The latter makes it very difficult to bring about the major infrastructural shift that would be required if teaching writing was made compulsory in India. However, what did happen in the two very supposedly elite and urban universities (Jadavpur University and Presidency University) that I went to in India was a more organic way of building writing within the literature classes that I took and allocating professor as mentors who would read your writing very closely and provide feedback. I am aware of my own privileges here, because such mentoring was possible only because the university where I went for my undergrad had significantly better student-teacher ratios than most public universities in India.

Given this situation, it may be challenging to think that someone who has never been taught writing in a formal writing classroom has gone on to teach writing in a different country in a completely different setting (well, ask international graduate students how they feel about it). Interestingly, despite my lack of formal training, I was not scared. Instead I was very excited (I am still excited!) to have the opportunity to teach writing, especially research writing, one of my favorite things. I have been imagining how to teach research in a writing classroom since 2016, when I started working with an E.U.-funded collaborative research project on online learning called E-QUAL and encountered an online writing class titled Academic Writing that one of the institutional partners had designed. I was very dissatisfied when I saw the course structure because I felt that students were extremely restricted in their choices of what and how to write. I understand that teaching academic writing is not necessarily equivalent to teaching research, though it is an important aspect of it and I do realize that not all of my students are going to pursue research. But for me, teaching research in the first-year writing classroom was a powerful way to offer a space to my students where they could imagine possibilities that a normative discourse might not necessarily offer them.

While in some universities in the U.S., first-year writing has a fixed syllabus that instructors are required to follow, Pitt has a fairly flexible structure, and I am grateful that this flexibility allows me the scope to work out some of the things that I have been envisioning for the last three years. It goes without saying that there’s no one way to teach research, but here are some ways (and I don’t claim that they are unique) that I approached teaching research and which I think worked.

Use midterm conferences: One of my goals during the midterm conferences was that I would get to know where my students stand in relation to research writing and if they have done any amount of research in high school. This was especially important for me to be able to scaffold the assignment depending on what the students needed. I had a class of varied individual strengths, and I had to be mindful that I had students who had written five-page research papers in high school, students who did not have any research experience and students who had done research as group projects but not as individual assignments. Therefore, my goal was to ensure that research did not end up overwhelming them so that they could enjoy the process and approach research in terms of a collaborative and communal process. The midterm conference helped me to design the research unit better after hearing input from the students.

Scaffolding the research unit: The task of scaffolding the unit or breaking it down into small segments began right when I started thinking of the intricacies of the assignment sheet. I wanted to be able to give my students options in terms of what they could do for the research unit, but I also wanted to keep it manageable for me in terms of what could be accomplished within a time frame. Furthermore, one of the assumptions that my students had about research writing was that they could not put their personal selves into research assignments, a myth that needed dismantling through selection of readings (described later in this piece!).

While I was grappling with these competing objectives, I turned to my brilliant colleagues and dear friends Christine Case and Celena Marie Todora, who generously shared their assignment sheets and materials for the unit that helped me to think through some of these issues. Borrowing from some of their ideas, I decided to give my students the opportunity to choose between two options: one was a conventional research paper and the second a creative-critical paper where they could retell a historical event/myth in their own way. So before providing options, it is important to be honest with oneself about how much one can scaffold the unit from one option to another, without overpowering oneself or first-year students who might end up baffled. Furthermore, the unit was divided into several small sections: a topic proposal, annotated bibliography, literature review (for those who went with the creative-critical piece, two to three ways in which they want to retell the story), a draft, research presentation and final draft.

Library day: It’s important not to automatically assume that students are familiar with the resources/databases available in the library and how to streamline searches in terms of looking up credible scholarly sources, databases or what constitutes credible sources in the first place. Librarians are wonderful people and always enthusiastic in doing a session with students. After my students had turned in their topic proposals, I made it a point to reach out to our departmental library liaison, Robin Kear. I shared my assignment sheet with her to give her an idea of what I was looking for and the broad topics that my students were interested in researching. As a result, during the library day, she was able to get students started in looking up for credible sources, and my students were really thankful for that. Some of my students were also pleasantly surprised that each subject has its own librarian or contact person whom they could reach out to, something that they were not used to at their high school.

Selection of readings: While one of the expectations for this unit was that focus would be more on the readings, related to their area of research, it was also important to give an idea of what a conventional research paper or a creative-critical piece might look like. What fundamentally guided my selection of readings were the methodologies that my students might need to use in their papers, the kind of research paper that I would be expecting from first-year students and finally a piece that would be able to communicate that it is possible to blend the personal with the research that one is involved in (I chose Christina Sharpe’s “The Wake”).

In-class exercises and activities: During the midterm conferences, a common difficulty that students shared with me was how to go about thinking about what they wanted to research, since they are interested in so many things and it was difficult for them to focus on something specific. While I am not claiming that all activities were useful, my students told me that they found some activities specifically helpful to their research. One of them was a keywords exercise, in which after they had come up with a topic they had to come up with a few words relevant to that topic, often anchored to a specific time, place or texts. Keywords also helped them in their literature review and looking up sources. The second activity was more to do with research questions that I found here. On a piece of paper, they were required to write two questions that they were interested in finding out more about. Then they kept on passing the paper until I told them to stop. The idea is that the students would have someone else’s broad topic and two questions. They had one minute to add at least one question to the existing set of questions. This was repeated two times till every student had at least two more questions added to their list. This was followed by a discussion with students sharing questions that they had not considered earlier.

Research buddies: One of my goals for this unit was to be able to communicate to my students that research is not done in a solitary way inside libraries and archives, but it is important to have a community of people around you who would be supportive about your work. So while peer reviews were an integral aspect of the class, the concept of a research buddy was particularly interesting for my students because they could reach out to their research buddies or share reading materials/drafts. The students chose their own research buddies, and it happened very organically that every student had a buddy. While some chose their buddies based on shared research interests, some chose them on the basis of their already existing friendships. The one important responsibility that a research buddy had was to provide their peers with feedback on their research presentations and ways to move forward. Honestly, the thoughtfulness and the generosity with which they responded to their peers was something that filled me with great hope for the future.

When I was reading their research papers, I felt so much joy, because I could see their growth, and I was humbled to see how bold and yet thoughtful my students were. It was a deeply satisfying moment for me as a teacher.

What are some of the ways in which you approached teaching research in your writing classroom? We would love to know. Please let us know in your comments below.

(Image courtesy Sritama Chatterjee)

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