Stepping stone writing tasks
Writing academic papers is an incredibly involved procedure which brings together many different skills. Often students achieve better results and more confidence about their work when the writing is scaffolded through a series of interconnected steps.
1) Sorting phenomena
I begin with clusters or mind maps or lists: The precise form is not really important, students can choose what works best for them. The point is that they first brainstorm – on paper – the broad subject they are supposed to work on, for example a novel, a film, a poem, etc.
The initial task is to collect themes (content level) and narrative devices (formal level), or to view the material through the lens of a specific framework of critical theory as established in class.
2) Collecting textual evidence
The second step is to zoom in and pick out one of the collected aspects that is of particular interest to the student. To develop this interest, I give out the task to write a paragraph or two, in academic register, on the chosen aspect: Students are not asked to write complete analyses and interpretations, but to spell out their interest and thus linearise their thinking.
I also ask them to provide, in their paragraph, a couple of conrete passages which exemplify the topical aspect they chose. It is important to connect their interest to concrete textual evidence as early as possible, otherwise students easily seek security in vagueness and then have trouble narrowing down their ideas toward a thesis statement. 1
3) Achieving analytical precision
Students now usually have a good idea about what they want to write on, but they are insecure about next steps or think they should now start with writing their introduction and fill pages with a complete line of argument.
Instead, I encourage them to start in the middle of the paper without worrying about argumentative progression, yet. The task is to write two draft paragraphs, in academic register, on each of the passages they picked out as textual evidence: One paragraph of formal analysis and one of interpretation based on the analysis. 2
This task, in my experience, has the benefit that it frees students from self-imposed expectations, especially the idea that they should have the paper completely and well-formed in their heads before ‘simply’ writing it down. Because they are explicitly asked to write rough drafts, there is not much pressure to deliver perfectly crafted text. And also, engaging with their primary material is the most fun part of writing. Especially students with little writing experience see that they are well able to churn out a couple of pages of text doing one analysis after another – and suddenly writing doesn’t seem so hard anymore!
At this point I ask students to visit my office hours and discuss their results with me. In verbally explaining their written analyses, students almost automatically come up with additional argumentative connections which I point out to them as possible next steps in their writing. 3
4) Developing arguments
If students don’t already have constructed an argument inductively from their draft analyses, I now ask them to try out different ideas for hypothetical thesis statements (as strong, or even crass, as possible) and see whether their drafts would fit into a corresponding argument, which they are asked to sketch out in writing (at least in bullet points).
Again, this eclectic approach relieves students from committing to a strict thesis which they don’t yet know how to argue. Rather, they work with what they already have and become more and more sure of what their idea actually is. Usually, it is not very difficult for them to now decide on an argument, to refine their thesis statement, and start writing a complete draft.
5) Assembling the paper
Usually, even novice writers now understand the modular and often exploratory nature of academic work in the humanities and can adapt their thinking to it without fear. They gain a confidence boost just by seeing how much writing they have already gotten done and by having developed – step-by-step – a grip on what before had seemed to them like a huge task.
Of course, the process of finalising a paper poses further challenges: Finding appropriate secondary literature and using it appropriately, writing with cohesion and coherence, achieving conformance to specific citation styles and layout standards, checking language for correctness and register, etc.
But the biggest challenge for students is developing confidence in, first, their scholarly stance toward a topic and, second, writing as a means to communicate this stance. Once they realise that their central aim is scholarly communication, all the above challenges turn from isolated problems or intimidating standards of quality into supporting tasks which cater to this aim which in turn increases the motivation to ‘get it right’. 4
It depends on the individual student how much supervision is necessary in this last period, but once steps 1) to 4) have been completed, my experience is that students are able – and motivated – to finish a final draft of their paper without extensive help.
Issues of ‘pace’
The above five steps do not have a natural ‘distance’ between them. In my teaching practice, steps 1) and 2) are usually taken in the form of homework assignments in the context of a seminar (often very early on, and repeatedly for several different media).
But they can also be initial exercises in the supervision process of individual term papers when students don’t yet have a clear idea of their topic; with advanced students I abbreviate them into a guided discussion, where we go through the motions of brainstorming and zooming verbally.
Step 3) is a task for an extended period of time (usually one to three weeks) in which students work on their paper alone, review their primary material and engage with secondary literature. I feel that the personal consultation and my expert feedback at the end of step 3) is absolutely necessary before students go on to refine their argument structure and finalise their paper.
Step 4) works best as an exercise in class, where students are asked to share their argument structures: By comparing their own work to that of their peers, novice writers pick up the underlying logical principles of argumentation and learn to visualise the steps necessary to pull off a specific line of reasoning. I also select a couple of examples and point out how they could be developed rhetorically and what kind of secondary literature could be used as support. It is not so important to weed out weak theses or flawed argument structures: By emphasising the strong and solid ones, I give students positive examples enough to correct their own course if necessary (and if not, they will receive guiding in my individual paper supervision).
In step 5), finally, students are on their own for the couple of weeks it takes them to finalise their paper for submission, but I encourage them to ask me for help if they run into problems. This sounds simpler than it actually is: Coming to office hours and asking for help is a situation so rife with anxiety for many students that they avoid it until the last possible moment (or even to the point of flunking almost-finished papers). One of the most important benefits of the stepping stones approach is therefore that it establishes personal communication and a constructive working relationship early on and in a class setting: Students have enough time to get used to the (often unexpected) notion that their expression of ideas matters to me more than their shortcomings as writers and to learn how to deal with constructive feedback.
This step of zooming in can be repeated several times to develop a range of narrower topics. For comparative essays, this step can be repeated on the same phenomenon but with regard to a different primary source. ↩︎
They practice this kind of close reading from their first semester, so most students feel on firm ground with this task. ↩︎
Rather than providing overt guidance and assessment, I respond to students’ ideas as an interested colleague, respectfully bringing up possible counter-arguments to consider and suggesting further reading. ↩︎
As a teacher of students for whom English is their second language, I have made a conscious decision here: I don’t teach composition, I teach the communication of ideas. Formal language correctness becomes secondary as long as the communicative intent is not severely obstructed – and experience shows that, once students trust me to listen (instead of reflexively brandishing red ink), they also take more care with their language. (For research that supports this logic, see also John C. Bean. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. 2nd ed. Wiley, 2011. 66–86, esp. 77–83.) ↩︎