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I am enrolled in an on-line graduate course (US public university). I do not live near the campus, so I cannot attend office hours (which aren't even offered).

For 3 months, I've been working on a research paper for the course. At regular deadlines, I've submitted my progress electronically, however, the instructor's feedback was sparse in each case:

  • No feedback on whether my chosen topic was okay.
  • No replies to my public posts/E-mails about some concerns I had in approaching the topic.
  • Only minimal markings, e.g. pointed out a few grammar/MLA mistakes, no comments focused on my ideas, organization, etc.

I do not even know if the instructor read my work. The project is worth a significant portion of the course grade, but the instructor has given such little input and I have no idea if the paper is good or terrible. What can I do?

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I see three likely paths for you to take, depending on the quality of the program that you are enrolled in.

  1. If you haven't already done so, explicitly ask the professor for more concrete feedback on your work. You might simply be having a communications problem, where the professor assumes "no news is good news."
  2. If the professor doesn't not respond constructively, escalate to somebody higher up, like a dean. Approach delicately, as a student concerned and asking for help, rather than making demands.
  3. If you don't get a satisfactory response from the dean, then it may be that the online program you are enrolled in is crap, and you should not bother investing your time and money in it. Some online programs are quite serious and good, while others are essentially just for-profit scams, and yours might well be one of them.
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First of all, I must say that I find it possible that your instructor simply doesn't care enough. The reason for that (or the other way around) might be that the online course isn't serious enough and that the instructor will just give you some passing grade if you hand in virtually anything. While this might not be true for US universities, in Europe online courses and degrees are considered pretty unprofessional, at least in my experience.

Now to your question what you can do in your situation. Based on the information you provided, I would try to publish your paper somewhere (if not in a journal, then on a conference). The peer-review will give you most certainly feedback on your paper. Furthermore, you attend a graduate course in pursuit of a graduate degree, so publishing will become a requirement for your in the near future. Finally, the peer-review will indicate quality to your instructor and give you some certainty that your work will be higher graded.

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    I can't regard the second paragraph as useful advice. Papers written as coursework are generally not of publishable quality. "Research paper" in this context often refers to a work that collects and summarizes results from published sources without adding new results of its own. That's fine as a learning experience for a class, but it's not something you could publish. If you submit it to a journal, I wouldn't be surprised if the peer-review "feedback" was a quick rejection with a vague explanation like "no original results" or "not appropriate for this journal". – Nate Eldredge Nov 12 '14 at 15:18
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    That doesn't mean the paper is not good as coursework, just that evaluating it as such is not the purpose of academic peer review; submitting it for this purpose would likely just waste everyone's time. Moreover, who says the OP will soon have publishing as a requirement? Many people study for, e.g., master's degrees with no intention of proceeding further, and they would not need to publish. Indeed, online courses are more likely to be part of a master's program than a doctorate. – Nate Eldredge Nov 12 '14 at 15:20
  • @NateEldredge I agree with your point of view, the question is vaguely stated. I indeed assumed that the OP is pursuing a PhD. However, at least at my university, many doctorate graduate courses implicitly require that the results are published somewhere (often any international IEEE conference is sufficient). So when talking about a research paper in context of graduate courses, I somewhat naturally assume just that, a potentially publishable paper. – user3209815 Nov 12 '14 at 15:35
  • The paper is as Nate describes, summarizing many other works. My only contribution is the manner in which I bring all of the various ideas together...I doubt it is publishable. – Village Nov 12 '14 at 22:23
  • I also find it possible that the instructor does not care, but see that as no guarantee of a passing grade. – Village Nov 12 '14 at 22:25

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