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The Humpty Dumpty term paper exercise: helping your students recognize shortcomings in their narratives

When I discuss a term paper assignment with my students, I explain that readers need to understand  a paper’ s purpose and the logic of its organizational structure. To prepare them for writing a rough draft, I ask them to write a detailed outline, with section headings, introductory paragraphs, and prospective topic sentences. Despite this request, when I read their drafts, I still find that I have a hard time understanding how they got from their opening problem statement, through their literature review, and eventually to the conclusion. Gaps in reasoning along the way bring me up short, as I search for the links between sections and paragraphs.

Humpty Dumpty as puss in boots
Humpty Dumpty before the fall

Students are surprised when I tell them that their term papers lack a strong narrative. They often don’t understand the marginal comments I’ve made in which I flagged narrative gaps and suggested remedies. In trying to explain what I mean, sometimes I resort to dramatic metaphors to drive home my point. For example, in asking for more explanatory sentences, I told them that they were writing as if every additional word they committed to the paper was tearing off a little piece of their soul. Why hold back, I asked them? But they didn’t get it.

So, I came up with what I call the “Humpty Dumpty” exercise to create a compelling physical demonstration of my critique. It involves physically manipulating bits of paper, accompanied by the visceral experience of being misunderstood by a peer. It is designed to get their attention in a way that my written comments do not.

The assignment begins with requesting a rough draft of the paper, after I’ve already made comments on the outlines used to create the draft. Next, I print out two copies of each paper and then cut them into paragraphs, keeping the headings and subheadings together with the paragraphs that immediately follow the headings. The dissected papers are placed into envelopes or folders. (In a big class, you can ask the students to do this on one another’s papers.)

I then pair the students up with someone else and each receives the folder with the paired student’s  paragraphs. Students also receive dispensers of transparent  tape. I ask the students to take the scrambled pile of paragraphs and sort them into the order in which they should be placed, following the logic they discern from reading the bits and pieces. When they are confident of the proper order, they are asked to tape the paper back together. Doing this requires a sizable amount of workspace on a desk or table.

After a few minutes, it becomes clear that the task is much more difficult than they had imagined. Poor organization, missing transitional sentences, mangled topic sentences, and so forth make some papers impossible to reassemble. Laid out on the desk in isolation from one another, a paper’s paragraphs often look like an arbitrary collection of words and sentences. However, some students have worked from strong outlines and have provided enough clues to allow a passable reconstruction of the original.

For students who finish early in assembling the other student’s paper, I then have them work on their own paper. Or, if they discover they can’t figure out how to organize the other student’s paper, then I suggest they at least try it on their own paper. For poorly organized papers, that can be a challenge!

The final step in the paired work requires students to work with their colleague to explain why they had trouble figuring out how to order the paragraphs. What did they try to use as cues to determine the order? What signposts were missing? What could the author have done to signal what was coming next and how it related to what it come before it? It’s at this point that I see the light bulbs come on. Students discover that they had taken a lot for granted and in leaving things out, or not fully explaining them, had left their readers in the dark. I ask them to work together with their partner to edit the draft, on their laptops, while the disappointment of being misunderstood is fresh in their minds and they can immediately test the interpretability of the rewritten text.

After the exercise is completed, I take a few minutes to emphasize the main takeaways. First, many of the problems arise because the students worked from an incomplete outline in drafting their papers. An outline should externalize the logic of the paper’s organization, whereas many of them simply used bullet points or listed ideas they wanted to cover, without writing out a summary of the argument itself.  Second, I explain that the structure of the paper should give readers guideposts to the major arguments in the papers so that readers can anticipate, early on, where the paper is going. Students are often surprised at their peers’ confusion, and hearing their peers explain the source of that confusion often opens their eyes to why the left out or incomplete material undermines their paper’ s coherence. Third, this exercise gives me another chance to repeat what I’d initially told them when I urged them to write full outlines: your readers can never know what’s in your head until you put it on paper for them to read.

I believe that by adding movement and emotion to the process of improving rough drafts, students gain insights into writing that are much more likely to endure than if I had just written marginal comments on their drafts. Struggling with their peers to create better narrative structures adds a social dimension to the feedback that also enhances the likelihood of the lessons being retained.