Next semester, I return to teaching, and for the first time will be teaching our graduate program’s Thesis Workshop, which is designed to help students develop identify a research question, engage in research, and draft a thesis proposal. When I was first approached to teach this, I admit, I was not pleased. I find research methods-based courses to be pretty boring. Necessary, sure, but also boring. But once I realized that I can change that, I became increasingly interested in this course.
I should also note that I’ve only had about two weeks to draft a syllabus for this course, which I think worked in my favor. Had I more time, I likely would have talked myself out of the various…non-traditional things I want to do with this class. I would have over-thought everything, and in the end likely would have gone with something more traditional, and perhaps more boring.
In short, I want to spend less time on the research-methods focus of this course, and introduce into it some readings and exercises that (hopefully) will inspire interdisciplinary thinking and creative approaches to their research questions. I may fail, and I may even fail spectacularly. But that’s ok, too; I fail all the time.
I’m still working out the week-to-week details, but I wanted to share some of the broad strokes, and solicit any advice you might want to share.
Part of this course will involve sharing and workshopping various drafts of the thesis proposal (which includes an annotated bibliography). At four points during the semester, students will workshop their drafts, with each workshop focusing on a different set of questions: How clear is the research question? What different disciplines are engaged? What are the smaller pieces that must be addressed in order to complete the project? How is the project changing with each revision (and as more time is spent in research)? Ideally, students will become comfortable with the idea that research projects change over time, and that embracing this inevitable change leads to better research, as well as a more profound learning experience.*
According to the course description, this course builds upon the interdisciplinary research methods developed in Intro to Graduate Studies (which I will be teaching for the first time next fall). And while it’s useful to spend time on the various resources used by scholars in various disciplines, I also think we need to spend time reading interdisciplinary scholarship to help students see what an interdisciplinary research question might look like. How do we formulate interdisciplinary research questions? How do engage in the research to address them? How do we work within multiple discourse traditions? For this reason, we will be reading Arthur I. Miller‘s Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time and the Beauty that Causes Havoc. We will spend two weeks reading and discussing this work, focusing on how and why he identifies the parameters of the research project, as well as how he addresses it.
This, admittedly, will be the most difficult part of the course. How does one inspire creativity? It’s common to invite students to “think outside of the box,” but how does one encourage that? As one friend (herself a sharp thinking with an interdisciplinary academic background) puts it, we should engage in “intellectual cross training.” I can personally attest to the value of getting one’s head out of one’s work and exploring something new. Earlier this semester, I took an online Intro to Mathematical Thinking class. At times, it was quite challenging, and there’s a great I didn’t fully grasp. But doing the work worked my brain in unexpected ways. And this is why, of all the works of interdisciplinary scholarship I could have chosen, I selected one that works with art and physics. Given that most of the students in our MA program come from the broad umbrella of “language arts,” I want my students to be engaging with a discursive tradition outside of their background and training.
Additionally, my students will be reading Lynda Barry‘s Syllabus, and completing some of the assignments she gives to her students. The purpose is not necessarily to get them to draw, but to get them to engage in work that allows them to stop thinking directly about their projects and to, to continue the athletic analogy, work under-used muscles that contribute to overall health. We will also spend one week listening to various versions of “My Favorite Things,” and investigating the ways such different performances can all still be manifestations of one song, while also looking at how one different artists can all build off of the work of previous artists. Ideally, students will see how all projects are built upon the work of other, existing projects.**
Although unstated in the course description, one reason for this course is to help students engage in professional development in drafting and revision professional text. Alongside that aspect of professional development, I will also be helping students develop their conference presentation skills.*** Developing good work is important. But if that work isn’t shared with the right audience, then that work might just go to waste. How do we identify the best audiences for this work? How do we present that work to those audiences? Hopefully, by the end of the semester, we can start to address these as well.
The final piece to this course is one that I’m not including on the syllabus. I know that I get fidgety and bored when sitting in the same seat for long periods of time, and I assume my students do, too. And while it’s common for students to be given a break, I want to do something deliberate with this break. In an effort to avoid over-efforting, I will be inviting my students to join me during the break to do a little yoga. We won’t be pulling out mats and blocks and doing a full practice,^ but we will spend some time in class getting out of our books, away from our thoughts, and focusing on our breathing and some simple movements. I hope this will help us to clear our minds, as well as stave off the physical discomfort that comes from sitting in a classroom for extended periods.
I’ve written before about “teaching less,” and want to make sure I don’t view this class as an excuse to cram too much work into a the course calendar. Yes, there are always more readings to include, more drafts to write, more exercises to engage. But at some point, “more” becomes “too much,” and students burn out. And we don’t serve our students well if we don’t keep from from over-working themselves.
Ideally, this course will do more than merely serve the program’s need for a thesis workshop. I hope to use this course to help students develop skills and habits that will serve them well in the rest of their academic careers. And if they get something of value – however they may define it – for their lives outside of their studies, all the better.
*I have a great deal of sympathy for students who are nervous about making changes to a research project, especially the further along (and more invested) one becomes. Hopefully, by working through these various changes at the proposal stage, students will not only develop stronger thesis projects, but also become more willing to accept and better equipped to address the inevitable issues that will arise when writing the thesis.
**I will also be sharing with the students my current research, explicitly walking them through how I am building my work off of the work of others. I think that, too often, “creativity” is confused with “uniqueness.”
***One of my professional pet peeves is people giving terrible conference papers. No matter how interesting the material, if the presenter reads too fast, too slow, has no sense of pacing of proper emphasis, never engages the audience, etc., then the presentation fails. Similarly, trying to include too much, or getting bogged down by interesting but unnecessary minutiae, getting off on tangents, etc., can make the work difficult to follow. Presenting a conference paper is not – as many sometimes think – merely reading a short version of an article out loud. It’s unfortunate (even if necessary) that all of the review that goes into a conference paper happens months before the paper is delivered.
^I am in no way, shape, or form a yoga instructor, and consider myself to be little more than an interested novice.