Lessons from the Great Recession (the Class)

Guest post by Nicholas Carnes, Assistant Professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy and 2011-2012 CIT-TWP Research with Writing Faculty Fellow.

This post is part of a series by the CIT-TWP Fellows discussing how they implemented changes in their course after participating in the year-long program.  The Research with Writing Fellows was a joint effort between the Center for Instructional Technology and the Thompson Writing program and was led by faculty member Jennifer Ahern-Dodson.

For many college students, writing a research paper is an awful experience. I heard the complaint all the time in college and graduate school, and I still hear remarkably similar stories from students, friends, and colleagues across the country. On the first day of class, the professor says something ambiguous about a long paper that will be due on the last day of class. About a month later, the professor reminds the students that they need to submit  two-page research proposals—whatever those are—and the students write them the night before they’re due (because, hey, it’s only two pages!). The last week of the semester, everyone hops on the internet, cranks something out, and hopes for a B. The process ends with the professor simmering over a stack of lousy papers, griping about how the students just don’t get it. The experience is not, in any sense, higher education.

For too many students, the words research paper or term paper are synonymous with boredom, uncertainty, anxiety, frustration, and—ultimately—resentment. Resentment not just of the assignment or the class or the professor, but often of the larger endeavor of scholarly research. Research papers are the closest and most personal experiences most students have with the academic research process—they are usually the first (and sometimes the last) opportunity a student will have to do authentic scholarly research. When those experiences are unsatisfactory, students miss out on the chance to grow as thinkers and as writers and, too often, a few more skeptics of the academy are born.

As I started my first year of teaching at Duke, I wondered whether I could do better. What if they weren’t just tacked on to the end of my classes? What if I guided my students through the various stages of the research processes that I really use? What if instead of working a research paper into a course, I built the course around it?

This spring, with the help of a fellowship sponsored by the Thompson Writing Program and the Center for Information Technology, I decided to find out. I had the opportunity to design a new course for a dozen advanced undergraduates and master’s students (and, in the end, one PhD student) in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke. The primary goal of the course—titled “The Great Recession: Hard Times and American Politics”—was to help students understand the political response to the recent economic crisis. But I also wanted to see whether a course organized around a research paper would really work.

The Plan

“The Great Recession” had no tests or quizzes. Instead, I asked each student to select a social group he or she cared about (from single moms and Hispanics to philanthropists and ex-convicts) and write an original research paper on what happened to that group during the Recession, what policy makers did in response, and why policymakers did or didn’t take that group’s needs seriously.

I didn’t just assign the paper and then hope that my students would somehow know how to divide up the work into different steps, would know how to solicit feedback and revise, and would know better than to wait until the last minute. I didn’t assume that my students were already great at writing research papers or that they would figure it out on their own. I used “The Great Recession” to teach them those skills.

  • Most of us who do research for a living know that we have to choose topics that we really care about in order to sustain long-term work. The first week of classes, I asked my students to write one-page reflection papers describing their own backgrounds, explaining why they were interested in the Recession, and proposing a social group to study. Many chose groups that mattered to them on a deeply personal level.
  • Most of us who do research know that we have to work on large projects in small stages. Rather than have one deadline at the end of the term, I had several throughout the semester.  During the first month the students wrote a short essay that would later become the first third of their final research paper, during the second month they wrote a second short essay, and during the third month they combined the first two essays and added some new content. By the end of March (around the time many students in other courses were starting their research papers), my students had complete drafts on their hands—with time left over to revise!
  • Most of us who do research solicit feedback on our early drafts. To model this skill, I had students bring first drafts of their short essays and their final papers to class a few weeks in advance of the deadline. We spent some class time doing peer reviews, and afterward I took the papers home and offered additional comments and a “grade in progress.”
  • Most of us who do research try to improve our writing skills. When I returned first drafts, I spent a little time in class—usually no more than 20 minutes—highlighting some of the most common writing problems I saw or giving advice about how to revise manuscripts and incorporate feedback.

The Problems

I was initially worried about several potential problems: that the students would be uncomfortable with an unfamiliar course format, that reading and content knowledge would suffer without tests or quizzes, that my students might still choose to spend their time on other things and produce lousy writing. To my surprise, these problems never really surfaced this Spring.

1. My students liked the format of the course. Although their official evaluations aren’t available yet, their responses to the midterm and end-of-semester course surveys I administered suggest that most of them felt that their writing improved and that the assignment was engaging and nicely complemented our readings and discussions. Their attitudes were positive throughout the semester; in general, this was a happy class.

2. My students kept up with the readings, and read efficiently. Our in-class discussions were lively, and many students reported that it was easier to “see the big picture” because they were reading each article with an eye to answering a question they cared about, rather than skimming for points that might be on an exam some day.

3. Many of my students made great strides in their writing and produced truly outstanding research papers. They turned in good rough drafts (even though those drafts were only graded on completion), and they made substantial improvements in response to the feedback they received. By the end of term, many students had nearly-publishable papers. Almost all of my students have agreed to continue working on their papers this summer – after grades are in and many students have graduated – in the hopes that we can publish their collection of essays as an edited volume.

There were a few challenges that I hadn’t anticipated, however:

1. First, responding to student writing was extremely time-consuming. I gave each student feedback on a rough draft and a final draft of two eight-page short essays and one 25-page final paper. In other words, I graded six papers—around 82 pages—per student, for a grand total of about 1,000 pages of grading over the course of the semester.

Initially, I made the mistake of trying to give detailed feedback on every sentence every student wrote, which was both a bad idea in its own rite—research shows that more isn’t necessarily better—and an impossibly time-consuming task. Over the course of the semester, I had to develop better, more efficient ways to respond to student writing. Instead of starting from scratch, I collected the papers students had peer reviewed and simply added my comments (which avoided repeating suggestions students had already made to one another). I also eventually started simply underlining passages that were unclear without suggesting corrections. This saved time and gave students a valuable writing challenge: they knew that there was something wrong with a sentence, but it was up to them to figure out what it was and how to fix it.

2. Second, a few students struggled, either to keep up with deadlines, to incorporate feedback, or to improve their writing. The course was especially challenging for one undergraduate student who hadn’t written many long papers or revised many papers in response to feedback.

As the semester progressed, I started asking for input from the Duke Writing Studio—and I plan to continue doing so—on how to work with students who don’t have much writing experience. With a little extra effort, that student eventually produced a great paper. Even a student who has never done a research project should be able to succeed in my course.

The Bottom Line

Overall, the assignment worked. My goals were to creatively engage students with the course material, to give students opportunities to sharpen their writing skills and expand their professional portfolios, and to help students make connections between the course material and their own experiences. I think the course did just that.

The over-arching lesson of the Great Recession (the course, that is) is that research papers don’t have to be awful experiences. For most faculty, the research process is a joy—we got into this line of work because we like thinking and reading and synthesizing and criticizing and then telling other people what we did. But we weren’t born knowing how to do those things, and most of us didn’t figure out how to do them on our own. Our teachers and advisors patiently explained how the research process works and supervised our early attempts. When we simply tack research papers onto the end of courses without much guidance, we do the opposite. We say to students, “Figure it out on your own!” If we’re willing to sacrifice some time—some of our own time, and some of the class time that we might have spent on lectures or tests or quizzes—research papers can give our students a stronger understanding of how and why we really  do research. And, hopefully, why we like it so much, too.