Blog Post

Troubleshooting an assignment that almost worked

I’ve recently finished teaching a class on The Digital Text, which was my very first time as sole instructor. I plan to reflect on a few elements of that experience here, where I think my peers may find it useful (and where your advice will certainly be useful to me!), beginning with an essay prompt assignment which almost worked.

The course as a whole was meant to encompass (in a six-week summer term!) not only digital research methods applied to literary texts, but also literary texts which are themselves inherently digital. We began with some media studies readings, several digital editions of Frankenstein, and some digital research tools. In the first assignment, I wanted to draw these threads together by having students undertake some kind of digital research themselves, and reflect on the process.

Past iterations of this course had students carry out literary analyses supported by Voyant or TAPoR; having TA’d for those iterations, however, I felt like these assignments asked for too much at once: the literary analysis would overwhelm the students’ ability to be precise about the tools they used, and the complexity of the tool would overwhelm their ability to reflect on it. Especially since I was teaching an accelerated summer session with no tutorials (which limited the feasibility of troubleshooting the tools for individual students), I didn’t want to dig too deeply into the idiosyncrasies of one tool; the general skill of orienting oneself digitally seemed more important, to me, than intimacy with the features of, say, Voyant.

So, with the goal of posing a tool-agnostic digital research question which would draw out some reflection on digitiality, this is the assignment description which I provided to students:

Short Assignment 1: Conducting Digital Literary Research (500 words)

Is the Project Gutenberg edition of Frankenstein contained in file “84” based on the 1818 edition, or the 1831 edition? This digital edition can be accessed at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/84/84-h/84-h.htm . *

In 500 words (+/- 25), explain how you determined your answer. Although you must make a clear identification supported by evidence, this assignment is more like a research log than a persuasive essay. Describe in detail the steps you carried out, what you expected them to tell you, and what conclusions you draw from them. If parts of your approach do not work, discuss why, and how you adjusted course. Include an assessment of your overall confidence in your answer.

As part of your response, include a “figure” — this may be a screenshot, a table, or any other visual presentation of information which clarifies your explanation. Provide a caption labelling the figure as “Figure 1” and describing its contents. (Your figure description should be included in the word count.)

You may undertake to answer this question by any research methods you like. If you consult with someone else about your research methods, you must indicate in your essay who you discussed them with, at what stage in the process, and why.

This assignment should have a “Works Referenced” section listing resources that you consulted while preparing your response, including “less serious” resources like Wikipedia. Follow MLA guidelines for citations; when citing material for which MLA does not have specific guidelines, follow the rough template of “Author. Title. Publication venue, publication date. URL.” When unsure how to cite something, simply make your best guess. Formatting is much less important than record-keeping for this assignment.

Format your assignment as a double-spaced serif font (like Times New Roman), and submit it in hard copy at the beginning of class July 16. Assignments not received by 6:10pm will be considered late.

Assignment requirements:

30% - Clear, thorough explanation of research methods undertaken
20% - Insightful reflection on research rationale and confidence
15% - Appropriate research method
10% - Correct identification of the source edition
10% - One well-chosen figure, with concise and accurate figure description
10% - Polished writing, free of grammatical and spelling errors
5% - Works Referenced list is present

* Note: it is important that you examine the edition identified as number “84.” Project Gutenberg has added copies of the 1818 and 1831 texts which are clearly identified by their publication date, but this assignment asks specifically about the first copy to have been uploaded.

My students, I think it is fair to say, panicked. I noticed three sources of difficulty: 1, uncertainty about what to do; 2, uncertainty about whether their answer was correct; 3, fear about the word count.

I used PollEverywhere in this class to get group feedback, since the class was a bit large, and their responses confirmed those categories:

The difficulty with word count is, I think, the easiest to address. When I introduced the assignment, the students were universally convinced that there was no way they could write 500 words in response to the prompt; I encouraged them to give it a try, and then to contact me and I’d suggest areas to expand. Once they began writing, they equally universally informed me that they could never fit everything they had to say into 500 words. The essays themselves showed distinct signs that students didn’t have space to properly explore the reflective thinking which was, to me, one of the most important parts of the essay.

Change #1: Substantially increase the word count of the assignment.

Similarly, I think the students’ fear that they were ‘doing it wrong’ is something that I know how to address. Part of their fear, I think, came from them not really taking seriously the sentence in the assignment description that says “You may undertake to answer this question by any research methods you like.” And part of it, I think, came from the fact that, at the time the assignment was introduced, we’d only spent lecture time on one digital tool (Juxta). We’d discussed and compared several editions of Frankenstein, but not, it seems, in a way that primed students to consider those editions useful to this research question. As a result, when I first presented the assignment, I think it felt like a trick question: like I said “use anything” but secretly I wanted them to use Juxta.

Change #2: Add a full paragraph emphasizing to students that there is no “right” research method and expanding on the assignment rationale here. Also emphasize this verbally in class whenever the assignment is discussed.

Change #3: Alter the pacing of the class such that students are introduced to at least three viable research methods before the assignment is discussed.

Finally, the students were distressed by being uncertain as to whether they had reached the right answer. This, I think, is essentially by design: the whole point of posing a question of fact was to challenge them to evaluate at what point they consider an answer to be “known” and why they trust their methods. When students told me they were worried they didn’t have the right answer, I suggested that they could try confirming their answer through a second method. In the end, I noticed that many of the students who were most worried about the correctness of their answers were also the students who had done the shallowest research. So, I think their uncertainty was appropriate, and I don’t think a change in the assignment is necessary here.

But, I still feel like some kind of additional modification is called for. I still really like the idea of posing to students exactly the kind of question that I need to answer all the time when working with digital texts (“where did this come from??”), and challenging them to make their own way through the uncertainties of the research process. Nonetheless, it does seem like something is missing to help them get from there to the level of self-reflection that will make the assignment useful to them. (In the informal course-feedback survey I administered, students ranked this one as by far the least useful.)

Should I add some more specific questions, to guide their reflection? Should I ask them to identify the edition two different ways, and compare the methods? Or do I need to rethink something else here?

I’ll be mulling this over for a while, I think — I’m not actually scheduled to teach this class again right now, though I expect I will eventually — but while I mull, I would value any input!

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