MGSC Senior Capstone 2013

This evening was the first installment of student presentations for the English department’s Senior Capstone course.  This course is a rigorous scholarly experience requiring students to produce a 20-page research paper as well as a presentation that they give for an audience of peers and faculty members.  The presentation requirement is intended to replicate the experience of a professional conference.  This year there are 16 seniors in the Capstone class and the first 5  presented their research tonight.  All of them were polished, well-rehearsed, professional, and insightful. They, their advisors, and Dr. Nancy Bunker, who teaches the Capstone class, have a lot to be proud of!

You’re never too old for a field trip!

Today my History of Print class visited Craig Burkhalter’s studio at the Contemporary Arts Exchange to see demonstrations of paper-making and letterpress printing.  Check out the photos!

Research paper time-lapse

A friend of mine just posted this video on Facebook; I think it’s potentially a valuable little teaching tool:


I’ve noticed that students often seem skeptical about writing papers in any order other than beginning-to-end.  As a consequence they get “stuck” at the end of the first paragraph when they feel like they don’t know their thesis.  Or they write on through in an unfocused, impressionistic way and arrive at a really smart thesis 2 sentences before the end of the paper.  This video suggests a more successful strategy: although the overall development is linear, we can see the entire paper expanding from within all the way through.  In fact, 3 full pages are completed before the author fills in the introduction!

Students are also much too quick to delete content that they’re having problems with.  In conferences with students, if I point out a problem with a specific section, the student will often respond “So should I just take that out?” That question is harder to answer: sometimes, opening a new Word document and re-drafting “from scratch” (but actually with your previous work in your consciousness, just not in front of your eyes) is beneficial.  But I often suspect that students would rather “just take it out” than deal with the more challenging intellectual work of untangling their ideas and making precise choices.  So I was pleased to see that in this video, the overall direction is of growth.  We don’t see whole pages or even whole paragraphs going out the window.

The “About” information for the video reveals that the writer(s) produced 463 “intermediate versions” of the paper before presenting it.  Four hundred sixty-three! Leaving aside questions about what constitutes a “version” (because in the context of the writing process, the writer’s definition is the appropriate one), remind me to ask my composition classes how many drafts they usually write before turning in an essay.  How much would their writing improve if that number crept up toward 463?

What should children read?

This op-ed by Sara Mosle makes a well-reasoned argument for exposing K-12 students to more, better nonfiction writing.  I particularly like her acknowledgment of the value of models and her recognition that students need an explicit bridge from the personal, impressionistic, or purely informational writing they do in H.S. to the more formal but also more analytical/argumentative style that college demands.  I hope this conversation doesn’t become oversimplified into a “fiction vs. nonfiction” debate (too late, probably).  Surely the bottom line is revealed in Mosle’s opening anecdote about Malcolm Gladwell: the key is simply to read more.

Why study abroad?

Since I am teaching 2 English classes in Paris next summer for the UGA System European Council study-abroad program, I was particularly interested in this commentary about study abroad in the Chronicle. Study abroad is a major commitment for students and we–faculty members–owe it to them as well as to ourselves to consider seriously whether such programs actually do what we say they do. Beyond my own experience in France as a graduate student in 2003, I have no evidence for the value of study abroad.  I have not (yet) had the opportunity to study the results of such programs and see if they are worth the considerable investment of time and money that they require. So my sense that study abroad is worthwhile is purely anecdotal and visceral, but nevertheless strong.

Foreign language study via immersion in the target language and culture is an easy sell. I can still tick off a half-dozen words that I learned via daily interactions and quotidian tasks in France that I might never have stumbled across in a university class Stateside. But what about going abroad to study math, philosophy, sociology. . . English? The burden is on the professor to make those classes both rigorous and relevant, to make the cultural connections explicit for students.  On the flip side, students must take study-abroad coursework seriously, must be willing to embrace new experiences and even be a little uncomfortable sometimes. Before I went to France I decided that as long as I wasn’t hungry, lost, or frightened, I was having a good time.  Learning on a study-abroad course should only stop when one is asleep. The challenge for educators, as the piece reflects, is not realizing the value of study abroad but defining and quantifying it.

Most interesting to me from the Chronicle piece was the mention that participation in study abroad is heavily white and female. Good information to take into my recruitment efforts so that I can try to make sure we buck the trend and bring a diverse group to the 2013 program. Every student will come into study abroad with different needs and goals but every student should come nevertheless.