I have just marked 70 paper proposals that my second-year Victorian Literature students have submitted and since the feedback I need to offer might be useful beyond my class, I’m offering it here as a sort of open tutorial.

            In our English Studies BA we start using secondary sources in the first year, but we teach students formally to use them in their papers in the second year, usually in ‘Romantic British Literature’ and ‘Victorian Literature’ (I mean for the Literature section, to be perfectly honest I don’t know what my Language and Linguistics peers do). In my case, since 2009 I have been asking students to submit a proposal before they write a short paper on Dickens’s Great Expectations (1500 words, minimum three valid academic secondary sources cited). The proposal consists of a title, an abstract (100 words), keywords (five or six), a bibliography with three academic items, three passages from the novel properly identified (maximum 75 words) and three also properly identified passages from the secondary sources (same word-count). I provide a template, available from our Moodle classroom and a document about how to write abstracts (which I describe in class), and offer a tutorial about how to find bibliography using the library catalogue, MLA and Google Scholars.

            I’d like to use the post today to explain why each part of the proposal is important and why I insist so much that the template needs to be used without altering any of its parts. This exercise is, as I view it, a necessary and useful introduction to academic practice, and preparation for the BA dissertation that students need to submit in the fourth year. I forgot to mention that I offer a list of more than 20 topics, from which students need to choose one in advance, with a maximum of 3 students per topic. Long gone are the days when I was willing to mark dozens of identical exercises. Students can also propose their own topics.

            I need to explain next the task of editing. In Spanish we tend to confuse publishing with editing, as we call ‘editors’ the persons that are called ‘publishers’ in English possibly because in most cases our publishers are also editors. In English, an ‘editor’ is the person who takes care of a writer’s text, either for their own publishing company or as employees in someone else’s publishing house. Thus, each of my books has been accepted by a commissioning editor from a publishing house, and this person has hired a copy editor to make sure that my text is ready for publication (the book designers also contribute to that). All authors must proofread their texts, that is to say, collaborate in their editing process with the copy editor. If all goes well, the published text will have no errors, such as typos, or changes in font and size, or different page margins, or missing page numbers, etc., etc. If editing is sloppy, the text will cause a very poor impression and readers will complain.

            The function of the paper proposal template, then, is to show students which editing style I prefer as their editor. Each publishing house follows a particular style for its books and periodical publications, which writers need to obey if they want to be published (if my publisher tells me that I must present my manuscript in a particular way, I must do it, or they will not publish the book). The paper proposal requires, in short, that students obey my rules as editor, as if they were in the process of writing a book that I will publish. Actually, I am doing exactly that with my MA students: I’m editing their exercises to be published in an e-book, so I have prepared a template which they are following. This greatly simplifies my task as editor, in comparison to each student writing their articles as they wish.

            The template is based on international academic conventions, not just my preferences. Titles must appear centered and in bold type. The font most often used for academic work is Times New Roman size 12 (with size 11 for long quotations and notes). The abstract is usually single-spaced, indented 1 cm at the sides, and presented in Times New Roman size 11. The keywords must be placed right below, in the same font and type size, and must include (I think) the name of the author, the title of the text, the name of the characters discussed (if any) and then the rest of key concepts. The bibliography can be edited following different styles, but if I require that students use a particular style that must be followed, no matter what other teachers indicate. In any case, I use MLA, which is the most frequently used style, together with Chicago. I wish there was a unified single style but since we lack one, we just need to follow instructions provided by our editors.

            The main difficulty of writing the abstract for the proposal is that at this point the paper does not exist. This is, anyway, what happens when we propose papers for conferences in real academic life, or chapters for collective books, or even book proposals. In any case, the abstract is NOT an announcement of intentions about the topic, or a description of the methods to be used, but a presentation of the main idea, or THESIS, to be developed and defended. Often, the ‘thesis statement’ (the sentence where the thesis can be found in the abstract) is missing, a problem we find in student’s proposals from the second year to the MA dissertation. It’s not easy for students to have a thesis to defend, but that is the whole point of doing academic work on Literature. Incidentally, I have found myself often correcting students’ misuse of the verb ‘argue’, which does not mean ‘deal with’ or ‘discuss’. This is important because the phrase ‘I argue that’ is usually the beginning of the sentence where the thesis statement is found in the abstract. You don’t ‘argue Miss Havisham’s relationship with his adoptive daughter Estella’, but you may ‘argue that Miss Havisham’s relationship with his adoptive daughter Estella shows that psychological abuse in childhood leaves deep traces for life.’

            The selection of passages from the primary source (=the novel) and the secondary sources (=the bibliography) depends to a great extend on the thesis: the clearer the thesis is, the easier is it to locate relevant passages in the text analyzed and in the bibliography. The main problem, however, is always finding the bibliography. The MLA database contains right now 552 sources discussing Great Expectations, of which 317 are post-1995, as I require. It might seem, then, that finding 3 adequate secondary sources is not particularly difficult. Accessing this database from the UAB’s library catalogue is quite easy: the main menu has a link leading to the whole list of databases and students just need to locate MLA and click their way into it. As I explained in class, a search combining Great Expectations with the keywords usually works. Besides, students can often download complete articles from MLA or check where interesting resources can be accessed online through our universities’ catalogue. Besides MLA, online resources such as Google Scholars and Google Books can be useful, too. Allow me to explain that I’ve made it a rule to ask students for three post-1995 sources because otherwise their bibliographies would be outdated, but I also accept pre-1995 sources if they contribute something of relevance. They can only be used, however, as an extra, apart from the post-1995 sources.

            From what I see in many of the paper proposals I have marked, however, students have not used the catalogue or the MLA database but plain Google (not even Google Scholars). This type of quick search leads to dissertations and to articles from journals which are not remotely connected with Dickens or the Victorian Age, the kind in which peer reviewing is not observed and the command of English is not always of the highest quality. The bibliography I ask for can only contain valid academic sources: monographs, chapters in collective volumes, or articles in journals. Students are not allowed to use BA or MA dissertations, not because I have anything against this type of academic text, but because they need to focus on peer reviewed academic publications, as we do professionally. Likewise, I am asking many students to replace articles from low-quality online journals, particularly if I see any language errors in the passages quoted. The best paper proposals are, no doubt, those by students who have learned to use the catalogue, the databases, or Google Scholar to locate quality academic work.

            A problem we have collectively is that we don’t teach how academic life works, what we publish and how, and why students should familiarize themselves with the secondary sources. We assume that they already know, but this is far from being the case. I have made a point of explaining this in class, but with so many students and irregular attendance I never know if everyone gets the information. As a writer of monographs and editor of collective volumes, I worry besides that most bibliographies in the proposal consist of articles simply because they are easier to find. If I had more time, I would teach a couple more tutorials about where to find books and chapters online within our library digital services, but I find that I cannot do everything. There is a substantial part of learning and academic skills training that students need to practice alone, though it would be certainly great to give practical seminars about bibliography. As things are now I need to describe literary works, their sociohistorical context, and teach academic practice all at once, and I simply do not have enough classroom time.

            To recap, the problem in the less promising proposals is mainly connected with the number, the quality, and the presentation of the secondary sources. The titles, the abstracts, the keywords, the passages from the novel and the passages from the bibliography are more or less acceptable. Aspects to improve on are: a) the presentation of the bibliography (students need to follow the template, as if I were really an editor and their paper is work that I am going to publish); b) the bibliographical search. This requires that students practice finding quality bibliography through the catalogue and the databases, for which, of course, it always help to read as much academic work as possible. It also requires understanding that there is a hierarchy in which dissertations occupy a much lower place than monographs, chapters in collective volumes and articles in journals. And that journals with generic titles easily found online are not always the best possible option.

            I honestly don’t know what more I can say. If students tell me which difficulties they have come across, I might provide better feedback. I hope that this post and my notes in the marked paper proposals help.