Dr. D’s Guide to Independent Study
This guide is designed to help you understand what an independent study is, decide whether it’s the right learning experience for you, and take effective steps to set one up. Please note that other departments may have other procedures or may offer no SDIS’s at all. Be sure to consult with your academic advisor about how an SDIS can fit with your plan of study. These guidelines and procedures mainly apply to students taking courses in the Literature and Language Department or the Gender Studies Program.
How an SDIS Works
SDIS stands for Student-Designed Independent Study and, indeed, these courses truly are independent. You are responsible for developing the course’s topics, themes, content and learning outcomes; performing research and analysis; and determining the assignments and your course calendar.
You’ll have no class meetings and no lectures. The professor’s role is mainly advisory and evaluative – and not at all teacherly. In fact, expect to meet very infrequently with your faculty director: perhaps once to set up the learning experience and once at midterm for feedback on your progress.
Who Is Eligible for an SDIS
Please note, the university, in general, and the Literature & Language Department, in particular, are not obligated to provide students with SDIS courses. Indeed, there are powerful pedagogical and economic reasons for preferring that students populate in-class versions of courses which must run. For these important reasons, SDIS courses are relatively rare.
Whether an SDIS can be granted depends on a number of differing factors: for example, whether there is an interested professor available in that discipline, whether the student has demonstrated appropriate preparedness, and whether there are university cancelations or error that leave majors in a graduation bind.
SDIS’s are extra work for professors. The work is made somewhat easier (and much more legitimate to our accrediting bodies) when the student’s topic lines up with a professor’s area of expertise. Professors are not always available, on contract, or interested in directing independent work, however, so you may have to ask more than one professor — or ask for advisor or chair assistance.
You must also have earned a record of doing well in your upper-level major courses here at Metropolitan State University. Understandably, your program cannot just throw you into an upper-level college course all by yourself during your early semesters here! Be sure to exercise a degree of self-selection, as well. Some of us NEED the structure of regularly meeting courses and appreciate the opportunity to earn points on a lot of different assignments, rather than one or two big papers. Due to the nature of the independent work in English, students who read and write particularly well, and who can independently manage their schedules, do better in independent work in our discipline.
Why You Might Want an SDIS
Faced with the prospect of developing your own course and all its assignments and learning goals, added to the greater amount of required scholarly reading, with no help from the professor, you may be wondering why anyone would ever develop an SDIS! Here are the most common reasons:
- You have a one- or two-credit shortfall for graduation. SDIS’s for one, two, or three credits are faster and cheaper than taking and paying for an entire 4-credit course.
- Pure love! You have a lot of credits to play with and you want to go deep into the novels of Jane Austen or Toni Morrison or F. Scott Fitzgerald.
- You want to address a lack in the curriculum. The Literature & Language Department isn’t offering Latino/a Lit, or Sci Fi, or Detective Fiction. Sob!
- You’re planning travel, have a huge medical situation facing you, or have a work commitment that is going to eat up a huge part of the semester. Independent study gives you the flexibility to continue earning credits toward your degree as you plan to complete your work on your own schedule.
- Because it’s summer and the department just doesn’t offer that much during the summer semester.
- You’re headed to graduate school and the admissions materials (including the 12-page writing sample) is due in November but you won’t be taking the Capstone until spring! You want the chance to develop a topic and produce a scholarly paper so your application shines.
How to Prepare Your SDIS Pitch and Application
These steps improve your chances of finding a faculty director for your SDIS.
- Determine how many credits your SDIS will be.
- Figure out what your topic is going to be. The most successful topics tend to be carefully limited in scope and identify an issue or problem or question that the course will investigate.
Poor Example: I want to compare the works of Angelou and Woolf. This example is too huge (that’s a lot of novels!!) and too vague (compare?? compare what?).
Stronger Example: I plan to investigate claims about ways of knowing, specifically claims about women’s ways of knowing thematized as journeying, in Angelou’s and Woolf’s autobiographies. This example is stronger because it’s specific and it’s already starting to think about the subject in terms of developing an argument about intellectual journeys as a metaphor for women’s epistemologies in two specific texts.
- Develop your list of primary sources (i.e., works of literature). Figure about 2 novels (several plays, three or four short story cycles, a poetry collection) per credit, or 7-8 novels for a 4-credit class.
- Develop your list of secondary sources. In an in-class situation, your professor would discuss scholarly terminology and analysis for 3 hours and 20 minutes each week. You need to replace that scholarly content with other scholarly material: journal articles or scholarly books. Figure at least 4 articles or chapters per credit (i.e. about 15-16 articles per 4-credit course – or one article a week for 15 weeks, in other words).
Please note that Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, SparkNotes, etc., do not count as scholarly sources. This is mainly because they tend to be wholistic and encyclopedic: they do not, therefore, model the scholarly process of ORIGINAL analysis. They merely repeat generalized overviews of literary works.
Instead, check out Metro Library’s subscriptions to databases such as JSTOR and ProjectMuse. You can access these databases from off-campus, too, by going through the library website. These are searchable databases that list many great scholarly articles.
- Figure out your learning goals or course outcomes. What’s your goal in developing this subject material? What do you hope to learn? What Englishy skills do you want to focus on? To really make your SDIS proposal convincing, make sure to develop learning outcomes appropriate for a 300-level course (or 500-level). At the 300-level, words focusing on writing, critical analysis, original interpretations, and application of theoretical lenses are appropriate. At the 500-level for graduate courses, words such as advanced, expert, scholarly, etc., are appropriate. Do you want the SDIS graded with the usual letter grades – or do you prefer C/NC (credit/no credit or pass/fail, in other words).
- Develop your course assignments and schedule of submissions. Once you know what your learning goals are, you’re in good shape to figure out which kind of assignments support that learning. For literature classes, our goals almost always revolve around the literary analysis paper. Most faculty directors of independent studies like to see reading journals or annotated bibliographies, as well. Figure a minimum of 5 pages of formal writing per credit, with additional informal writing, homework, and/or research. Depending on your learning goals, you might wish to write three 5-page papers and a reading journal for a 4-credit course – or one long paper of 15-20 pages.
- Meet with your faculty director to complete the SDIS form. Armed with your draft of the above information, you are in a good position to convince a faculty member that you are ready for an SDIS, that you’ve planned a clear learning experience for yourself, and that you’ve located secondary research materials proving your topic is viable. Your course won’t be official unless the SDIS form is complete and lists a faculty director. Your faculty director then sends the form to be signed by the department chair, then it’s signed by the dean, and then it goes to the registrar for creation. After a week or two, it magically appears on your list of courses on eServices, and then you have to pay full tuition for it.
Examples of SDIS’s from Past Years
Below are some examples of 300-level and 500-level SDIS’s that have run for literature or humanities classes in recent years. It’s worth noting that most titles list the author (or type of literature) matched with an issue or theme to be pursued.
- LIT 360i: P.G. Wodehouse: Comedy and the Moderns (4 credits)
- LIT 360i: (Super)Human: Power and Agency in Science Fiction (4 credits)
- LIT 560i: Advanced Theories and Applications in Latina Feminist Literature (4 credits)
- LIT 360i: Banned in America: How Kesey Made the U.S. Cuckoo (2 credits)
- LIT 360i: Women’s Epistemologies: Ways of Knowing and the Intellectual Journey in the Autobiographical Works of Woolf and Angelou (1 credit)
- LIT 360i: The Black Female Bildungsroman (4 credits)
- LIT 360i: Male African-American Authors and Constructions of Masculinity (4 credits)
- HUM 560i: Water Imagery in Postmodern Art (4 credits)
- LIT 360i: Jane Austen: Sense and Morality (4 credits)
- LIT 360i: Life in Motion: Mobility as Resistance in Beat Literature (4 credits)
- LIT 360i: Heroic Tropes in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series.
Enjoy Your Course!
The solitary pleasures of reading and writing make independent study a natural fit for the English major. If you believe that independent study will enrich your education and that you’re well-prepared to succeed by yourself, the SDIS might make sense for you. Contact the chair of the Literature & Language Department if you have further questions about the SDIS. It’s great to know that you have the option for this alternative learning modality should the need or inclination arise!
[Document last edited: November 2018 by Tammy Durant]