Monday, January 27, 2014

Slavery research & undergraduate classrooms

In the military, senior leaders use a telling phrase about young soldiers.  "They don't know what right looks like."  The job of senior leaders is to fix that problem.  This is a post about undergraduates, research, and how to show them what"right" looks like.

What does it take to teach undergraduates good research skills?  Certainly, courses in historical research or historiography offer a distinct advantage in this regard: the content is the research process.  

But what if a course is content driven?  How does conducting an entirely new, primary source-driven research project connect to the rest of the class experience?   

Recently, students in my course Slavery in the Atlantic World undertook projects engaging primary source data to create 15-20 page research papers.  Certainly, this is standard undergraduate fare, especially in my teaching environment (4-year Liberal Arts College).  Several of these papers were later presented at undergraduate conferences, and one student won a graduate school scholarship on the strength of their paper.  These were, of course, very exciting results.

It is my suggestion here, though, that instructors should deeply consider the relationship that should exist between out of class research and in class learning.  There are, broadly speaking, 3 approaches to large research projects and the classroom: 

Isolation: In this case, the classroom and the research rarely meet.  Syllabi, office hours, and occasional in-class reference direct the flow of work towards individuals who inform their research with class learning.  This has certain advantages: students learn what the autonomy of real-life research looks like, each student is free to rise and fall on their own merit, and class time is not lost.  This last is especially important.  As with so many topics, 16 week semesters often feel too short to cover anything adequately.  Loosing class time to explaining research equates to lost subject matter, so keeping the research in isolation protects certain topics for coverage.  But there are also disadvantages: students often feel lost because they have never been given such work before, they tend to compartmentalize class learning and their own research, and too often very capable students think they are doing things right when they are actually doing it very wrong.  

For example, one particularly bright student in my course was majoring in another discipline.  There, she received Dean's List grades and glowing professorial praise.  But when her first draft came in for my history course, it was a disaster as historical research.  The draft probably would have been perfectly adequate work in another discipline, but historical research requires tools that not all bright people have in their tool box.  This isn't a capability issue, but a training issue.  Taking an isolated approach with a group of History Majors after their "Intro to Historical Research" class would probably work very well.  But in mixed major settings, it may cause more frustration than fulfillment.  

Split-time: In this model, the professor takes certain portions of the semester/trimester to focus on "how to do the research project."  Research librarians speak to the class, and time is spent introducing students to the tools available for their work.  This is especially important for tools like the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.  It is also useful in educating students about the limits of historical sources, like the WPA Slave Narratives.  Compared to the Isolation approach, there are more advantages: students don't report feeling lost in the research process, and it fosters a sense of research as collaborative process between the archivists, research librarians, and researchers who allow research to be done.  This approach is also helpful for 1st & 2nd year professors, who are often preparing lectures just days (hours??? minutes???) before they give them.  In that time in your career, scheduling a few days of split-time give you breathing room to keep ahead of your students.  But there are certain disadvantages: The process is again separated from classroom learning, as something disconnected from the subject matter.  Precious content is still lost because class time is spent going through the rubric, touring the library, or visiting research archives/websites.

The research-based classroom: A final approach integrates students' ongoing research with class content.  Here, lectures/discussion periods and research education merge.  For instance, a lecture early in the semester on the origins of the slave trade uses the Trans-Atlantic Slave database to show (in real time) the evidence that sustains a historical insight.  Students will be more likely to remember both the point of the lecture, and the utility of the resource.  A later lecture on emancipation and memory engages the WPA Narratives, but compares memory with contradictory data.  Thus a lecture on content also becomes a lecture on historical thinking, and an introduction to sources and tools.  Another integration technique is to group students with similar interests to read one another's drafts (out of class).  Upon arriving in the class, ask students "what did you learn from Adam's/Erica's paper, and how did it sustain or challenge something we've learned in class."  This technique is both exciting and popular with students.  Knowing in advance what the paper topics are, you can use these especially effectively later in the semester.  Students' own papers become the subject of class discussions, and dovetail nicely with daily topics.  Each student is encouraged to expand on what they've found, and receive suggestions by professors and peers on what their findings might (or might not) mean.  The advantages here: students feel their projects clearly connect, and grow out of, classroom learning.  Students are validated as researchers early on, encouraging their likelihood to continue on in further research, and the in-class experience is not robbed of content time.  There are certainly disadvantages: the unpredictability of students' insights or early stage work can shape a class for better or worse.  On the whole, however, this later approaches seems worthy of the old college try.  

I've enjoyed progressing, in my own career from an isolated approach, to splitting time, and last year into a research-based classroom.  What other methods do you use to get research into students hands in and out of class? How do you show students "what right looks like?"


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