A process-focused graduate seminar

 

Victoria Burns

Victoria Burns is a PhD student in the English Department of the University of Iowa. She was a member of the Spring 2017 Next Gen PhD pilot class, and as a summer 2017 Next Gen intern, she is working on several writing projects. Her research interests include twentieth-century American literature, trauma, and visual studies.

When I enrolled in Judith Pascoe’s Romanticism class last semester, I had little idea of what to expect. The course, titled Romantic Literatures: Alternative Scholarly Approaches (Next Gen PhD), proposed a process-oriented structure. We would spend the first half of the semester engaging in the familiar graduate-level reading assignments and discussions while also participating in workshops led by Stephanie Blalock and Nikki White, staff members in the Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio, and by Sarah Bond, Classics professor and mapping expert. In the second half of the semester, we were to focus on our independent research projects, which could take a wide variety of forms.

Rather than demanding a lengthy, polished paper characteristic of graduate seminars, Dr. Pascoe asked us to keep diligent notes about all of our literary and digital humanities research efforts, even if many of those notes would refer to eventual dead ends and failures. She would evaluate not only our final projects, but all of our work over the semester. This structure gave us the freedom to take ideas and run with them; to spend hours mastering new digital skills, even if we eventually chose not to incorporate the digital platforms into our final projects; to spend days and weeks researching topics of interest, even if our ultimate research areas diverged from our original focus.

At the semester’s end, I turned in an assortment of materials, including two (of four) attempts at an introduction to what I imagined would become a lengthy paper about Frankenstein and weather; an extensive bibliography of works ranging from weather-related documents from the 1750s to Mary Shelley’s letters to contemporary scholarly works; and a digital timeline using the Tiki-Toki platform. It was on the timeline that I merged much of my research—meteorological events, scientific discoveries, and moments from Mary Shelley’s life—in a visual manner. The tool’s visual nature also allowed me to fully appreciate the sheer extent of substantial scientific breakthroughs and remarkable meteorological events that occurred around the time Shelley penned the novel.

Because of the class’s format and the emphasis on process over product, I spent most of my time researching and reading, and I didn’t walk away with a polished piece of written scholarship. I can understand how people might see this as a limitation, especially those of us who need to submit a 15-page paper for qualifications. For me, though, this course was an opportunity to study Frankenstein in depth, even though I knew so many scholars had already studied it. The structure also kept me from feeling completely hopeless when I realized in early April that existing scholarship already covered essentially everything I found noteworthy about the novel’s dramatic weather scenes.

I don’t get the impression that process-oriented courses are intended to replace the conventional graduate seminars that require students to submit lengthy pieces of writing. However, I do believe that Dr. Pascoe’s Romanticism course and others like it can create valuable spaces in which students are encouraged to freely explore areas of interest without being overwhelmed by thoughts of a final final product. Furthermore, the writing assignments we completed in Dr. Pascoe’s course—ranging from three-minute thesis presentations to cover letters pitched at job opportunities outside of academe—allowed us to hone writing skills specific to shorter formats, formats often geared toward broad audiences.

Since I entered Iowa’s English PhD program expecting to pursue an alt-ac career path, I welcomed the opportunity to develop skills that I anticipate will be especially relevant for my future career. As the Next Generation PhD grant proposal notes, graduate programs often emphasize longer writing forms, including the dissertation and seminar papers, at the expense of shorter forms. I appreciated the chance to practice condensing and repurposing research findings to suit various formats and audiences, and I believe this practice will be useful for my future work.

As a grateful recipient of an NEH Next Generation PhD summer internship, I hope to use my summer funding to continue developing my writing skills, this time returning to the longer writing form typical of graduate work: the journal article. Though I initially considered finishing and polishing the paper I started in Dr. Pascoe’s class, I’ve instead chosen to focus my attention on a seminar-length paper I produced for another graduate course, one that better aligns with my interest in twentieth-century literature. That’s not to say that I am overlooking the skills I gained and the tools I discovered in the Romanticism course. I expect that I will regularly return to Joseph Williams’s Style (which was included in the class syllabus) as I heavily revise my seminar paper. Williams provides useful tools and exercises for producing stronger writing, and because he focuses on everything from sentence structure to overall organization, his lessons will be applicable to my writing in any form.

In my ideal scenario, I’ll walk away with a piece of scholarship of publishable quality by the end of the summer, but I hope to keep the Next Gen PhD’s process-oriented foundation in mind throughout my internship. Rather than concerning myself only with the pages I have to show at the summer’s conclusion, I hope to consciously cultivate new research and writing skills, acknowledging that these skills will be of value in a variety of future endeavors.

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