Research after writing

Here’s a question that has bugged me for a long time: how can we teach research skills at the introductory level? Or, even trickier, how can we teach research in a non-disciplinary skills course at the introductory level? This semester, I’m trying out a new answer: teaching research by having students research papers they’ve already written.

Every first-semester Grinnell student takes a class we call the Tutorial: a content-based introduction to college-level skills in writing, reading, discussion, presentation, information literacy, and more. (The course is famously overloaded with priorities.) My versions of the course emphasize writing skills, and in the past, I have chosen not to do much with research beyond quotation and citation skills and an introduction to our library facilities; that is, I have covered information literacy rather than independent research skills, leaving the latter to upper-level courses. In thinking about adding a research component for Tutorial, I have always gotten stuck on the problem of assigning research when students cannot read enough to get a strong sense of a research field. Under such circumstances, how can I avoid turning the “research” into the reading of a few semi-random sources, chosen for their vague relationship to a developing paper topic?

This semester, I will try a new approach: building research into the revision of papers. The students will assemble annotated bibliographies of secondary sources for the course’s final portfolios, and they will choose the readings based on issues that arise in my initial responses to their papers. Because the course is portfolio-based, we can identify areas in which secondary sources would help amplify and refine a given argument. The students’ research will thus have a sense of purpose often lacking in preliminary bibliographies: they will go to secondary sources to solve specific problems. Here is the assignment. Comments are most welcome. If this approach works well, I will work to generalize its application to other introductory courses.

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There’s something I need you to do.

Charles Baxter came to Grinnell and, in addition to his reading, did a roundtable discussion for students yesterday. It was terrific. He talked about his realization that many pieces of fiction gain their momentum from a “request moment,” an interaction in which one character asks another character do so something urgently or within a limited time, and the second character either accepts or refuses the request. As soon as you hear this idea, you’ll see it everywhere. One of the first examples it brought to mind for me was this:

STANWYK: “I want you to murder me.”

FLETCH: “Sure.”

How’s that for getting a plot moving?

Then I read Coleridge’s “Christabel” for today’s class. Bingo: the action takes off when Geraldine makes a request of Christabel: “Stretch forth thy hand . . . And help a wretched maid to flee.”

Baxter said that his insight into this pattern came from Shakespeare, for example in Hamlet’s ghost coming to make requests of Prince Hamlet, and that comment made me realize how thoroughly the play is driven by request moments:

[pre-history] Claudius asks Gertrude to marry him, though she knows it’s too soon.

[pre-history] Claudius asks some of the men of the castle to stand guard, though they don’t understand why.

The guards ask Horatio to come talk to the ghost.

Laertes asks Claudius for permission to leave the country.

Hamlet asks Claudius for permission to leave the country; Claudius and Gertrude ask Hamlet to stay.

Polonius and Laertes ask Ophelia (more or less) to break up with her boyfriend against her will.

THEN the ghost asks Hamlet to avenge his father.

Hamlet asks the other guards to swear their secrecy and allegiance.

Polonius asks Reynaldo to spy on Laertes; Claudius asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet; Polonius asks Ophelia to set up an observation of Hamlet, etc.

Holy moly. I’ve said to my students for years that the key phrase of the play may be Laertes’ description of Hamlet: “His will is not his own.” In these request moments, we can see why that phrase is so important: the characters’ wills are never fully their own, as they are always inflected and constrained by the demands placed on them by others, and the others often have a lot of structural or emotional power.

What other request moments come to mind for you? Or, I should say: Will you tell me—and soon!—of other request moments in fiction?