The Joy of Teaching the Research Paper, Part 4

Granting Extensions

There will always be at least one student who asks for an extension. He or she will explain: I couldn’t figure out MS Word; I had to visit dad in jail; my car broke down; grandma caught the AIDS; someone lit my house on fire; my girlfriend, boyfriend, internet spouse, polyamorous partnership cell is pregnant; an Uber driver held me up; an Uber driver stole my hard drive while I was high; I got deported; my pants didn’t come back from the cleaners; I’m getting sent to a military academy in India; the deadline triggered my epilepsy; I’m dropping out; an Uber driver told me to drop out; there were locusts, columns of fire; I think you’re profiling me; Deuteronomy 18:10; this assignment is stupid.

Agree with everything. Grant the extension without argument. If he or she does the work, great, reduce the end-grade on the assignment and then maybe learning can continue. If the student still hasn’t done the work, he or she will explain: my cat got gastritis; I’m an indigo child; COVID; the assignment gave me gastritis; I’m leaving to become an Alaskan fishing boat hand, catalogue model, dog walker, Sufi mystic, fire watcher; I decided to live the novel; I won’t need these skills driving for Uber; you are so unfair; Isaiah 41:10; this assignment is stupid.

Agree with everything. Grant a second extension without argument. If he or she does the work, great, reduce the end-grade on the assignment again and then maybe learning can continue. If the student still hasn’t done the work, he or she will either never return to class or will buy a paper online. If he or she never returns to class, wish your student well on his / her new career as a munitions tester in Laos.

If he or she buys a paper online, read it carefully. Your research assignment will have been generated through intensive one-on-one work with each student (see Part 2: Night of the Living Assignment). Because you have avoided clichéd research paper topics (gun control, abortion controversy, pollution, beauty standards, Trump existing in a three-dimensional time-space continuum, homelessness, etc.) and you guided the students toward subjects specific to their lives, it will be very hard for them to buy papers that are on point.

In the end, desperate, they will turn in anything: Gas Grilling Techniques; The Mousetrap Scene in Hamlet; Gun Control is Good; Some People Say Abortion is Wrong; Cars Pollute Cities; Barbie Reinforces Negative Beauty Myths; Trump Is Stupid Or Is He, There is a Lot of Homelessness in the World. You will look at these (often horribly written) papers that reflect none of what you’ve covered in class and sigh.

He or she will attempt to explain and will fail. Then: “I really, really don’t want to be expelled.” Agree with this. Grant another extension without argument. Tell the student you will keep the fake paper on file and offer opportunity for the student to write a real one. 90% of the time, you will never see them again. The 10% of students who actually make the attempt are the students you really want to teach. Meet with them two or three times individually. Have them revise their work. Give them fair, reduced grades, but see this for what it is: growth.

The Joy of Teaching the Research Paper, Part 3

A Fateful and Lonesome Journey to the Dark Heart of the American Library

After working with the students on developing personally relevant topics, you’ll have helped them sharpen those topics into specific areas of research. Then, on a cold day sometime in early October, you’ll all shuffle over to the campus library.

You will have written, “WE ARE IN THE LIBRARY TODAY” in enormous block letters on the board, but the two students who come late won’t read it, initiating a chain reaction involving the department secretary looking up the outdated copy of your syllabus on file in the office; a feverish exegesis of your original assignment sequence that has already been amended six times in class; and a multitude of calls to you which will go unanswered because your phone is off.

Meanwhile, the librarian’s assistant will be taking your students through an online guided tour of available resources for undergraduate research papers as slowly as humanly possible. Three students will have opened Facebook on the library terminals. One will be playing a bowling app on her iPad. It is important, at this point, to resist sudden irrational sadness.

The walking tour will then ensue. It will consist of the reference section, some of the book stacks, and the periodical room in the basement. The students will peer at the 1970s sci-fi microfilm readers. They’ll show a slight tourist curiosity toward the untouched literary journals laid out in immaculate columns on the shelves. Someone at the back of the group will whisper, “This is so intimidating.”

Class will be nearly over at that point. Everyone will shuffle back to the front desk. You will elaborately thank the librarian’s assistant who will smile and wave at the class as if he’d just demonstrated how to teach algebra to grizzly bears. Then the two late students will arrive with contemptuous expressions, but everyone will ignore them.

You’ll take a moment to talk about the value of working with physical books and the weird serendipity that comes from personally browsing the stacks. You’ll explain how it can sometimes result in discovering the perfect text, or an author of whom you were not previously aware, or a useful book that had been misshelved or miscatalogued. You’ll describe this experience as wonderful and mysterious—because it is, but maybe only to you.

Your students will be checking their watches, getting combos on Pro Bowler, and will often seem to be staring through your physical form at the gulf of infinity. But the librarian’s assistant will be listening intently as you describe this esoteric process. You are, he’ll decide, somewhat smarter than you look.

You’ll finish by talking about what the students should be doing before the next class meeting. A few of them will make sure you notice that they’re writing it all down. Everyone will be extremely tired. Of the 15 who shuffled in, you will count 11 shuffling out.

What happened to the other 4? Don’t ask.