Like most of you, I’m suddenly plunged deep into the whirlpool of the semester (79 students and a whackload of committee work), so I don’t have much in the way of personal musings or cute cat stories (hard to have cute cat stories when you’re not home to observe the beasts). Instead, I’m doubling up by using work as blog fodder: here’s an assignment I’m working on for my graduate class on Chaucer. Comments are welcome (especially if they’re as warm as those on the last post! thanks! but I would also like to know if you see ways to improve this).
I haven’t decided whether they have to write this up formally, or just be prepared to talk about their findings; I’m leaning toward to the latter. Similarly to my last post, I’m aiming at inculcating a certain way of thinking, not insisting on formal details. I want my students to be able to question where essays come from, literally and figuratively; to apply this knowledge in discussing and writing about criticism; and, I hope, to apply this knowledge as they develop their own writing for publication.
I have selected a set of about 20 essays on a particular Canterbury Tale, with publication dates ranging from early in the twentieth century until 2005; each member of the class will choose an essay from this list. There are fewer than 20 students in the course, so nobody’s forced into a particular essay just because of when they got the sign-up sheet.
Once they’ve chosen their essay, I’m asking the students to do the following work on it:
1. The trajectory of scholarship, and where your essay fits into this:
Look up “[Tale]” in the MLA database. Read through the list of entries (156 at the end of August 2009). Look at titles: what do they suggest about researchers’ interests or approaches? Look at journals or other venues of publication: what journals publish work on the [Tale]? Look at dates of publication: are there periods when a lot of articles on the [Tale] appear?
2. The status of your essay’s journal:
In the MLA database, look up the journal in which your essay appears. Where is its “home” (country, university)? What is its current circulation? What is its acceptance rate? How long does it take from submission to publication?
The older your essay, the less relevant is information about the current incarnation of the journal, of course. See if you can find out anything about the standing of the journal around the time your essay was published. Don’t spend too much time on this: maybe half an hour surfing the web and another half hour in the library. Possible approaches: (a) Find a hard copy of the journal (or, if it’s on J-STOR, search front and back matter) from the decade your essay was published, and see if it ever publishes information about its circulation, time to publication, etc. (Check more than one volume, as sometimes journals publish this information once a year, or at a longer interval.) (b) See if your journal has a home page that gives information about its history.
Who edited your journal at the time your essay was published? What university did the editor work at? What is the editor’s scholarly area? (Do another MLA search.) How well-published is the editor?
What can you tell about your journal’s mission or interests? Is there a clear statement about what sorts of essays it publishes? Does it have a sub-title that suggests its aims, even if there is no mission statement?
If there’s no statement, consider the editorial board: who is on it at the time your essay was published? (This information will usually appear inside the cover, in the front matter.) What are the board’s universities and areas of specialty? Do they tend to share a particular type of approach?
3. Your essay’s individual history:
Are there any footnotes in which the author thanks various readers, teachers, or colleagues for help or inspiration? If so, who/what gets thanks, and why? (What? For example, a “what” might be an NEH seminar, or an institution that supported a research leave.) Are there notes that indicate earlier incarnations as a conference paper or lecture? Does the author cite her/his own previously published work?
4. Your author:
This will be easier to answer if you have a more recent essay. Do what you can with the earlier ones, without spending huge tracts of time.
What can you find out, through the MLA database, a general web search, or reference works such as the Dictionary of Literary Biography, about your author? How long an academic career has this person had, and where in that career does your essay fall? Is this essay part of a sustained interest in [Tale], or a divergence from the author’s usual scholarly pursuits? How many academic positions has your author held, and at what kind(s) of institutions? Where was s/he educated? Who was her/his dissertation advisor? (Sometimes people thank them in notes; sometimes it’s easy to figure out because there’s only one Chaucerian on the faculty of a particular university at the right date; sometimes you may be able to
guess make an informed speculation; sometimes you can find the information in Dissertation Abstracts International; sometimes you may not be able to find this out.)
5. The essay:
Read it. (Finally!)
What is its argument?
What does it assume about its audience and their abilities?
How is it organized (are there sub-heads? are they numbered?)?
How much “sign-posting” does it do? (Sign-posting = phrases like “In this section I shall argue,” “Now we turn to the problem of ____.”)
How often does it refer to and/or quote Chaucer?
How often does it refer to and/or quote other scholars?
To what extent is it informed by literary theory, and which theories?