Thursday, September 29, 2005

Start of a New Academic Year

Tomorrow I start teaching. This semester I'm giving a course on research methods to our law graduate students. I do this every year. In a way it's like teaching undergraduates since it is rather basic. Every master's student has to write a dissertation for their degree requirements. Most have never written anything extensive or overtly analytical before.

The trick is to get the students to think in terms of questions. If they do it this way, they avoid the pitfall of merely writing a descriptive essay on a topic. Asking questions focusses their minds on analytical ways of thinking. However, this simple idea is hard to convey. When I ask students to come up with research ideas in the form of questions, a significant number still provide me with topics and no question.

Part of the fault lies with the fact that most of the students are law students, and they've never been taught how to do research. When they are asked to think differently, fear sets in. A large part of my task is to allay fear. I do this by giving the students examples of my own research proposals so they can see what these things actually look like.

The final assignment for the course is to write a research proposal with an extensive literature review included. This too is problematic--literature review? Most have never heard of it. Again I have to explain how to go about it. But rather like asking questions, reading critically can be alien to many. So much of what they read, they accept without pause. It usually takes between three and four weeks to get the idea across.

Well, let's see how the new semester goes....