Creating a Research Community

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Natalia Cecire, English

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2009

Teaching research skills to non-majors presents a conundrum. As Gerald Graff has argued, students are most engaged by writing and research when they see themselves as participating in a wider debate. At the same time, however, such debates are often inherently disciplinary; meaningful research questions and methodologies are in part determined by the object of research. Thus the question arises: How can we bring inexperienced researchers into real scholarly debate before they have the background and skills to enter full-bore into the world of professional scholarship?

In my 1B class, I decided to try to create an introductory version of a scholarly community, one in which students could fully participate without needing a crash course in literary theory. I introduced the course with a communal research project on Mark Twain that consisted of two stages: first, formulating research questions; and second, reporting results. The project was designed to produce a scholarly community that would provide an intellectual context for research findings. Yet because the community was composed of students, all with similar experiences with nineteenth-century literature, the debates occurred in terms that were meaningful to the students at their particular stage of exposure to literary criticism, rather than in the remoter terms of my discipline.

To begin the project, I gave students a chapter from Mark Twain’s Autobiography, taken from the Bancroft Library’s Mark Twain archive. The chapter narrated Twain’s infamous speech at a birthday dinner given for John Greenleaf Whittier, which Twain had intended to be humorous, but which many audience members saw as insulting. The class brainstormed questions about the reading, ranging from the factual (“Who is Ralph Waldo Emerson?”) to the complex (“How was the speech represented in the press at the time?”), all with the ultimate aim of understanding Twain’s humor. Using a table that I had prepared for them, the students then selected what they felt were the ten most important questions on the list and made specific plans for finding out the answers.

The second component of the project was the reporting of results. I wanted to produce the sense that the students’ individual labors were occurring as part of a simultaneous communal history. I therefore asked students to report their findings on a class research blog, which produced — to borrow Benedict Anderson’s phrase — an “imagined community.” Students drew on their extensive internet skills (one found a YouTube video of the Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin), but also gained a certain prestige among their peers for using more obscure sources (like the student who read microfilmed newspapers from the 1870s). Engaged in many different aspects of a common project, the students broke “news” about Twain’s speech, sometimes in sensationalistic ways: “Was Mark Twain a Liar?” read the title of one blog post. (The answer: yes.) The students responded to one another, recommended resources, and drew conclusions, all intelligible in the research context that they themselves had created.

There were two ways in which I was able to assess the effectiveness of my experiment in creating a research community. First, there were the results of the introductory project itself, manifested on the blog. There I think the evidence was unambiguous: the students seemed to feed on one another’s excitement as they unearthed lies, exaggerations, insults, contradictions, and misrememberings. Students did make forays into literary criticism — one waxed enthusiastic about “this incredible article by Henry Nash Smith” — but they attended primarily to the archive. Thus the project remained both manageable and relevant to the research community. The second test of the project’s efficacy was the students’ ability to develop their own independent research projects. Ultimately these results were slightly more mixed, but most of the students came up with strong research questions and succeeded in refining them appropriately as they learned more. Students were required to post to the blog for the entirety of the term; that they continued to use it primarily to give updates on their individual research projects and recommend sources to one another attests, I think, to the strength of the research community that they formed.