Ditching the Research Paper: A Teaching Essay

30 Oct 2023 9:50 AM | Autumn Lorimer Linford (Administrator)

By Caitlin Cieslik-Miskimen

When I took media history as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, three components determined my grade: a midterm (blue book), final (also a blue book) and 10-page research paper. It was a lot of writing – my hand still cramps when I think of those blue book exams – and followed a rigid structure. As a teaching assistant, the courses I taught followed a similar set up. It was only natural that, when it was time for me to start prepping my first classes as an assistant professor, I found myself following the class grading structure that was familiar.  

But as the semester unfolded, I realized that this structure was not working. The exams weren’t the problem – it was the research paper. Students weren’t excited about the paper because they were intimidated by the structure, by the topic and by how much of their grade depended on one assignment. They spent their time trying to write less about what interested them and more about what they thought the instructor wanted to read. It wasn’t that the students couldn’t do the work of historical research, it was that they weren’t inspired to. In defaulting to what I knew – and what made me comfortable – I had neglected to create an environment for students to take (calculated) risks and get their hands dirty doing history.  

My challenge was to create an assignment that was structured enough to give students the confidence to analyze historical primary sources, but also provided students with enough flexibility to pursue a topic of interest to them and present their findings in a format that was a better match for their skillset. On the hunt for a research paper alternative, I attended an active learning symposium hosted by the University of Idaho’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. As I listened to case studies from my colleagues, I realized there were a wide variety of assignment strategies I could employ in my classes that would allow me to achieve my learning objectives without using the traditional research paper. I settled Ignite-style presentations – short, five-minute, TED-talk-like presentations about a topic students would select themselves and deliver with only a slide deck and sparse notes.  

For my class, these presentations proved ideal. Students would use the same skills as writing a traditional research paper, but the end result was different. Synthesizing their secondary research findings and primary source analysis into a five-minute presentation required them to master a topic and explain complicated and complex material quickly. Creating a slide deck to accompany their presentations added a visual requirement that enhanced their written work (it also made the presentations more entertaining and engaging). This flexibility in format was especially appealing to the wide variety of majors in my course, several who had last written a formal essay in high school. 

As an educator, I find it important to think critically about how my assignments are serving my students – an extension of the student-centered care that Bailey Dick discussed in her recent (and excellent) Intelligencer column. What worked for me may not work for my students, and what works for my students now may not work in several years. Re-thinking this assignment forced me to articulate the learning outcomes for my class and really think through exactly what I wanted students to get out of these assignments. I realized that I needed to better understand the students’ apprehensions and fears, and their interests and strengths.  

I have yet to inspire a student to look through microfilm rolls (some things about historical research remain too intimidating). But I have seen student enthusiasm for this project increase and with it the quality of the work being done. Students have engaged with the big questions facing media history – whose history is preserved and what does that mean for our understanding of history – without too much nudging from me. They’ve used this project to explore questions about diversity, media narratives and institutional power structures.They’ve taken this as a chance to research topics we don’t get to cover in detail in my class (or ones mentioned in passing in other courses). And at the end of every semester, I get to listen to 30 presentations that showcase the breadth of media history. By stepping out of my comfort zone, I allowed my students to step into theirs.  

 Caitlin Cieslik-Miskimen is an Assistant Professor at the University of Idaho and the recent winner of AEJMC's Jinx C. Broussard Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Media History. 

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