One problem I have perceived in Shimer’s general approach to course design is that there is not much room for students to fully “digest” all the difficult texts that they’re working through. In part, this is due to the Iron Law of Curriculum Design — namely, that it is possible only to add to a curriculum, never to subtract, so that the reading burden will tend to grow over time. Papers provide one solution to this problem, but they necessarily only apply to a limited number of texts (usually two max), and the paper writing process itself would surely benefit from more digestion time for all the texts.
In the senior capstone class, the major writing comes in the form of “protokolls” (summary papers), which primarily summarize and respond to the previous day’s discussion. I am thinking that for my next upper-level class, I will partly adapt this model. Instead of summaries of the discussion, students will write brief summaries of a given day’s reading, with the goal being for the students to collaboratively generate a summary of all the course readings. The course would then be divided into two or three distinct units, and at the end of each unit, there would be no new reading except to review all the summaries for that unit, so that we could talk about how they fit together, etc.
I’m undecided on exactly how to implement the summary papers. My current thinking is that an initial draft of the summary will be due before class the day the reading is first discussed, and then they will be required to rewrite it in light of the class discussion and my comments. They will then present the summary in the following class to provide a review of the previous reading and hopefully create greater continuity. If there are still serious problems with the summary, a further rewrite could be generated and then distributed to the class (or stored in a Google Drive folder accessible to everyone).
Another issue I’ve been grappling with is how to change their habits in paper-writing to get them away from last-minute all-nighter type strategies. Currently the reading load militates against that, especially for working students (i.e., virtually all but the very most privileged students). In my current course, it has worked out pretty organically that the final text we read is both easier to read and very conducive to bringing together a lot of themes from the previous readings — so perhaps after the discussion of the final “unit,” we could discuss a text like that (no longer doing summaries as we go) and also build in a few writing steps (an outline or summary, an annotated collection of salient quotes, etc.) prior to the final deadline. Including peer review at some stage could be helpful, not just intrinsically but as a way of introducing “positive peer pressure” into the mix and making sure the students actually do the steps required.
There are many possible drawbacks. Above all, a lot hangs on making sure students provide summaries of passable quality — or even provide them at all. This doesn’t seem to be a problem with the capstone course, but then their entire writing grade depends on the “protokols,” whereas I am still including a traditional paper as well. I can think of punitive measures, but I don’t want to create that kind of atmosphere. Every other measure I can think of (such as letting others do a missed summary for extra credit or letting other students edit an inadequate summary) would seem to have hierarchy-generating effects that cut against the collaborative approach. I don’t know. Maybe you do.