Thursday, August 7, 2008

Designing the Research Seminar

One of my favorite courses to teach is a research seminar. Since Beth Hillman shared her California Legal History syllabus, I thought I’d share some tips for designing a successful research seminar.

For my first decade or so in teaching, I regularly offered research seminars on Civil Rights History and Civil Rights Law, and on Law and Social Change in Postwar America. (I would now say Post-World War II, rather than "Postwar," since the postwar years have been war years, but that’s another topic...). Law students with no previous experience doing historical research wrote award-winning papers for my seminars, and a number of students published their papers. Graduate students used the seminars to begin dissertation work.

Two things helped make these seminars successful: the structure of research and writing assignments, and the collaborative atmosphere in the seminar, with students providing feedback on each others’ work. All of this I borrowed from my own experience in graduate school. My model was David Montgomery’s labor history research seminar in the History Department at Yale. I modified his assignments a little to get them to work in my law school setting, but most of what I did was straight from Montgomery’s class. This structure should work with any subject area. What matters is having a class intensely focused on research, regular written feedback from the professor, and a collaborative atmosphere among the students.

Montgomery’s class, and most of my seminars, were year-long seminars. During the fall, the class would meet weekly for reading and discussion in the substantive area the course was focused on (e.g. civil rights history). Preliminary assignments were due in the fall. The spring semester was devoted to research and writing drafts. If the seminar lasts only one semester, the assignments must begin earlier, with topic selection a priority during the first two weeks, and first drafts circulated well before the end of classes, making for a difficult, but not impossible, schedule.

Here’s the basic outline for the writing assignments:

Fall semester

1. Paper topic essay

A few weeks into the semester, students turned in 2-3 page paper topic essays. These were discussions of topic ideas. They could be informally written, but the student should have explored the topic idea enough to write about what the paper would entail and what sort of research would be required. I encouraged them to suggest alternative topics if they were undecided. Then I would then give the students written feedback, and meet with each student to refine their topic.

I think of helping students with topic selection as one of the most important things we do in shepherding students toward successful papers. Doing this early in the course helped ensure that students didn’t waste time on unworkable topics. Often proposed topics needed to be narrowed down. A guiding principal was the available research materials, so students began thinking about available primary sources that they would have access to during the course. (For example, at the University of Iowa, one student wrote about McCarthyism at the university, using U of I archives. Another student wrote about a woman who I think of as the Rosa Parks of Des Moines, sitting in at a segregated lunch counter in the 1940s, relying in part on an oral history interview she conducted. Availability of sources nearby that the students could access ensured that students could to serious, original research. You don’t have to be near the National Archives for students to be able to do original historical research.)

Once we were through with paper topic meetings, everyone in the class had a topic that they would be able to complete the research on during the academic year.

2. Research Prospectus and Annotated Bibliography

This assignment is a 3-5 page expansion of the paper topic and a discussion of how the proposed research will be accomplished, along with an annotated list of relevant primary and secondary sources. In a two-semester seminar, this would be due at the end of the fall semester. (In a one-semester seminar, a revised paper topic essay can be a substitute.)

These assignments were distributed to everyone in the course. In Montgomery’s seminar, we convened for a long session with dinner at his home, and the entire class discussed each person’s topic, identifying potential problem areas and offering research suggestions. Especially during my single-parent days, the dinner-at-the-prof's-home wasn’t really an option, but a good, robust discussion can happen over a very long lunch or an in-class meeting over dinner.

I would follow up with written comments on the assignments. Often the class discussions gave me ideas that I incorporated into my feedback. After this assignment, students should be very well focused and (hopefully) inspired to embark on a major research project through the rest of the academic year.

Spring Semester

3. Workshopping first drafts

During the beginning of the semester, nothing was scheduled and the students focused on research and writing, meeting with me individually when they needed to. Around the middle of the semester, we held several long sessions during which two or three students would present their first drafts. The drafts would be due a week in advance, and everyone in the class was required to read and comment.

Students took the first-draft deadline seriously because they knew their peers would receive their papers. For these meetings, sometimes I required students to provide written comments or to sign up to be discussion leaders (something I also did during the fall to ensure student engagement).

I also provided extensive written feedback on drafts. After this assignment, students should have a good sense of what they needed to accomplish by the end of the semester to turn in a successful paper.

4. Final papers

Final papers were due at the end of the semester usually before final exams.

Other tips:

Involving the library
. Even though more research databases are accessible on-line, it’s helpful to have a session with a librarian in the library. The best time for this is usually after the paper topic essay, and well before the prospectus and bibliography. It worked especially well when I could provide a reference librarian with a list of student paper topics in advance. Law students will need to use non-law research materials, and all students benefit from talking with reference librarians. The best way to make this happen is to take them to the library.
Deadlines and penalties. These assignments work only if students turn them in in a timely way. Usually firm deadlines with clear penalties announced well in advance do the trick. I would of course accommodate illness and other calamities, but otherwise students were expected to turn things in on time.
Follow-ups. If the final papers are good enough, consider helping students organize a panel or submit paper proposals for a conference. The Law and Society Association is especially welcoming of student work.
What fits at your law school?
It takes more than good course design to put together a successful research seminar in a law school. Students need to get enough academic credit so that the credit they earn relates to the amount of time and effort they need to put into the course (e.g. if they get only 2 credits because the class meets only 2 hours a week for one semester, it is unlikely to work).
It also helps if there is a mix of law and graduate students. The students work together, and learn things from each other. It is easy for students to take classes outside their academic unit in some institutions, and difficult in others, with much variation across universities.
At some schools, students tend to get their intensive writing experience, and satisfy law school writing requirements, in student programs (law reviews, etc.), so that most students tend not to take writing seminars.
Serious research seminars work better in some law school settings than others, and it strikes me as best to offer the sort of course that works well at your institution. For various reasons, after moving from one law school to another, I found that the reading and discussion seminar, rather than the research seminar, was a better fit. But there is a special joy, I think, in working with a student who is afraid of a big writing project, breaking it down for the student and providing the feedback to make it work, and them someday getting in the mail that reprint of a piece you first saw as a unformed topic a long time before.