This semester in FREN 285 (Sex, Philosophy, and Politics: Revolutions in French Literature, 1721-1834), my students were fortunate to work with Graduate Research Consultant Emma Monroy on a semester-length research project related to course themes. As the semester comes to an end and I am starting to work through the final drafts of the research papers that resulted from these projects, I am struck by the degree to which working with a GRC and incorporating original undergraduate research has enriched the course, and thought I would share a few impressions about the experience.
Beginning about a month into the semester, Emma and I began working with students to develop their projects. During class, we both talked a bit about our own research and then guided the students through the process of choosing a topic and formulating a research question. During this phase, they met individually with Emma to move from their broad topic toward a specific area of inquiry, to locate sources at Davis Library and in digital archives, and to develop an argument based on their initial research. In choosing their topics, students were encouraged to bring their own interests to bear on course themes: for instance, a student preparing to go to medical school decided to investigate the influence of Enlightenment thought on the development of understandings of mental illness in 18th-century French medicine, while a journalism major chose to explore the ethical implications of the unchecked freedom of the press implemented during the tumultuous years of the French revolution. While I originally planned to require that students incorporate an object from the UNC collections into their research (a work from the Ackland Art Museum, or a manuscript from the Wilson Library), I ultimately decided to impose fewer restrictions on the objects studied for the project, in light of the extraordinarily diverse disciplinary interests and background of my students this semester. We did visit the Ackland for a guided tour of the wonderful “Genius and Grace” exhibit, which was closely aligned with the themes and period of the course; students were encouraged to incorporate works and ideas from the exhibition into their projects, and a few did so. Looking back on the process now that the projects are complete, I do think that integrating campus collections in a more systematic way could have been successful with sufficient preparation on my part to lay the groundwork; the next time I teach the course, I want to revisit the possibility.
With their topic chosen, the next step was to draft a short abstract and outline of their paper, which allowed me to give them feedback on scope and on the construction of their argument before they began to write. At this point, Emma came back to class to talk to them about how to structure a research paper and incorporate both primary and secondary sources, using a powerpoint she had prepared with guidelines for the writing process. A few weeks later, students submitted a full draft of their paper, on which both Emma and I gave them feedback (a critical step that, with 25 students writing long seminar papers, would have been difficult to implement without a GRC). After submitting the final versions of their written papers last week, students are now presenting their research in two additional forms: first, they are presenting their work in class this week in a colloquium format, with students grouped into panels based on common themes in order to facilitate discussion; and second, they are contributing an entry to a public class blog (https://fren285.web.unc.edu/), which allows them to synthesize their research findings and present them in a more widely accessible forum.
Throughout the process, students have consistently reported that undertaking the research project – and particularly working with a GRC – was a rewarding experience. Beyond familiarizing my students more deeply with 18th-century France, my goals in incorporating undergraduate research into the course were to bring them closer to a period (and, for many of them, a discipline) that initially feels quite removed from their everyday lives and concerns and to model the interdisciplinary value of humanistic inquiry. Based on their enthusiastic response and the high quality of the work they produced, I believe the project was successful.
Finally, while working with Emma has been a very valuable experience for me and for the students, and I wanted to ensure that it was professionally beneficial for her, as well. To that end, I asked Emma to teach a class on the Haitian Revolution, which is closely related to her own research on the Francophone Caribbean; throughout the semester, she also developed a series of pedagogical materials for the students on research and writing processes that will, I hope, serve her well in her own courses in the future. In short, working with a Graduate Research Consultant has immeasurably enhanced the course for all involved, giving students access to the individual support that makes such an extensive and rewarding project feasible.