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.

Teaching with blogs, episode 1

I gave my first blog assignment this week.

I’ve done email and discussion board assignments for many years, but this was a gen-you-ine blog assignment for my Tutorial.

I had wondered how well students would pick up the blog interface. (It’s a private group blog on Although few, if any, of them had blogged before, they all registered and posted with no trouble. The only minor problem involved tags: I asked all the students to attach the same tags to their posts, and only about half of them did. Of the others, one made up his own tags, and the others added nonw.

No problem. I fixed the issue for the first set of posts and planned to note it in class this morning. I present to you a study in contrast:

Plan! Have computer and projector ready to go, show students how to enter tags on WordPress, ask them to add the required tags to each of their posts.

Execution! Ignore the computer, paraphrase the introductory chapter of David Weinberger’s Everything Is Miscellaneous (with substantial detail about the Staples prototype store), argue for tagging as a wonderfully flexible reinvention of hierarchical categories. As students pack up at the end of class, remember the computer and say, “So here’s where you enter the tags, OK?”

And that was fine. I think I liked the execution better than the plan, in fact, but I did realize after class that, for better or worse, I am becoming a different kind of teacher.