Elisabeth Miller (English 201)
I hate to admit it, but I came to dread student presentations in my composition courses. Students, though, were doing what I asked of them: sharing their capstone research projects, talking for 8-10 minutes, clicking through clear PowerPoint slides. Under these conditions, though, of reporting already completed research, for the sake of sharing, even the richest research topics flattened and dulled.
In contrast, I wanted students to learn to concisely share the highlights of the findings and challenges in their work, to engage in a real discussion about their successes and stumbling blocks—and to get feedback from peers (and even to hear about other peers’ work) while they were still in the middle of their projects and could make substantive changes.
Based on these new goals, I began assigning “Works in Progress Presentations.” Here’s an example assignment sheet that I gave out to English 201: Intermediate Writing students. Students presented on their in-progress research about 3 weeks before the final due date for a several-week ethnographic research and writing project:
Works in Progress Presentations: Assignment Sheet
You will be presenting your in-progress ethnographic research projects in class. For 3-5 minutes (no more—I’m timing you and will cut you off at 5 minutes), explain the following:
- your research site and what’s interesting about it
- your positionality in relation to that site and how it might affect your research and writing
- what claim you’re making about that site and what key evidence you’re using to support that claim
- especially useful secondary sources you’ve found (or what you wish you could find)
- and—this is most important!—a couple of questions that you’d like to discuss or get advice about from the group
Example questions might include “Does my main claim make sense to you? What evidence would you need to believe me?” “I’ve gotten stuck finding secondary research about x; does anyone have any ideas on where else to look—or what other secondary research might help to support my ethnography?” “I’m having a hard time organizing my primary data and secondary research into a coherent whole. Does anyone have any organizational tips for this project?”
As your fellow students present, jot down notes on their research, the questions they have, and the ideas and questions you have for them. After 3 or 4 students present, we’ll have a brief, 5 – 10-minute Q&A session.
You will be graded on the clarity of your explanation of your project, thoughtfulness of your explanation and questions, and thoughtfulness of responses to your fellow classmates. Try to avoid too many “ahs” and “uhms,” maintain eye contact with the group, and just talk to us like you’re having a conversation. But since this is not a formal speaking course, you will not be graded on your delivery style.
This exercise is designed to 1) provide you with useful feedback as you’re in the middle of your research and writing, 2) give you practice clearly, concisely describing your work—a useful skill in college, graduate school, and future careers, and 3) offer you a chance to share your interesting work and to be inspired by the work of others as we all share challenges and ideas.
I’ve consistently been impressed with the way students have risen to the challenge of concisely explaining and asking generative questions about their in-progress work. What’s more, unlike my previous experiences with slow, repetitious presentation class sessions, I’ve found these days to be some of the liveliest of all semester. Even some of my usually quiet classrooms have sprung into rich discussions as students pose thoughtful questions to one another, suggest research strategies, help one another refine central claims, and share drafting strategies.