Introduction for Paper-Preparation Exercise

I developed this assignment—effectively a smaller version of the journal assignment above—to help my students prepare for the first of their three 5-page papers for CPLT 202 (the second semester of a year-long comparative literature survey). The objective of this assignment was to encourage my students to start thinking about a paper before they felt ready to begin. I gave them this assignment two weeks before the paper was due. The assignment was intended to occupy the first of these two weeks.

Here, too, the assumption behind the assignment is that brief but regular sessions of generative work can establish a space in the imagination for the paper, and they can increase the chances for insights and more complex thinking. The obvious and largest advantage is that these sessions encourage students to work on a paper over an extended period of time, even if it is only in quite short bursts.

As will be clear from the exercise sheet, I collected copies of what my students produced. This gave me a good sense of what my students were thinking about. It also gave me a chance to offer feedback well before a paper’s due date.

My students—mostly first- and second-years—made good use of this exercise. Several of them also told me they were grateful to have a structured but not heavy assignment to help them work their ways into the paper. Their papers wrestled with complex issues and generally, to my mind, included sharp theses and a solid grasp of the texts.

Preparation Exercise for Paper #1

This exercise is intended to help you start writing your paper before you feel ready to start, and even before you have completed the reading. The principle behind the exercise is that it is better to do a little work every day than to do it all in one sitting.

Requirements: Every day for one week, you will spend roughly ten to fifteen minutes working on your first paper. Over this first week, you will be generating first ideas, questions, connections, starting points.

What the daily sessions should look like: When you sit down to work, pull out a piece of paper and a pen. Probably, you’ll need no more than one sheet each day. Keep them in a folder.

Day 1: picking your topic: (about 10 mins.)

1. Read over the topics and select the topic you will write about.

2. Without writing (yet), do five minutes of thinking to yourself:

  • How would I paraphrase the topic? Do I understand the key terms of the topic?
  • Why would my topic matter in the Enlightenment?
  • Which book(s) might I write about?
  • What issues did Cantor raise concerning my topic?

3. Without hurrying at all, take 3 minutes to jot down the ideas you had when you were thinking to yourself. Jot down your notes any way you like: sentences, diagrams, notes, pictures, etc.


Days 2-5: generating first ideas: (ca. 10 mins.)

1. Take a minute simply to collect yourself and relax.

2. Without writing, take about five minutes to think to yourself:

  • What questions does my topic raise about the work(s)? How might I start to answer these questions?
  • What episodes seem important? Why? How do these episodes relate to each other?
  • What questions do these episodes raise? How might I answer them?
  • What (in reference to the topic) puzzles or interests me in the work(s)?
  • What parts of the book(s) do I need to re-read to make sure I understand them?

3. Without hurrying, take about 3-4 minutes to jot down the ideas you had while thinking. Again, take notes in any form that helps you.


Day 6: starting to focus your thinking: (ca. 15-20 mins.)

1. Take a minute simply to collect yourself and relax.

2. Take 5 minutes to read over your notes from the prior 5 days. Mark or highlight the key ideas, questions.

3. Again, without writing, take five minutes to think to yourself:

  • How can I synthesize a selection of my initial questions into one central question?
  • Is my question discussible? Does it call for interpretation (not just fact of the text)?

4. Once again, without hurrying, take 5-10 minutes to write out (in sentence form this time) your first version of your central question.


Day 7: revising your question / starting to formulate your thesis: (ca. 15-20 mins.)

1. Take a minute simply to collect yourself and relax.

2. Take 5 minutes to revise (in writing) your question: again, does it call for interpretation?

3. Without writing, take 5 minutes to think to yourself:

  • How would I respond to my question?
  • How might I support my response?
  • How would I state my response in a sentence? (This is your first draft thesis).

4. Take 5-10 minutes to outline your response and write out (in sentence form) your draft thesis.


As you do this exercise, you’ll probably feel the need to re-read and explore certain parts of the texts to answer the questions that come up and to collect notes and material. Likewise, feel free to use your journal entries to explore questions concerning your paper.


Turn in: Next Friday (2/6/04), turn in Xeroxes of one page of your notes for each the seven days of this exercise (total of seven pages).