Undergraduate Research in POLI 130: Introduction to Comparative Politics

Written by Paula Mukherjee (Instructor) and Kevin Brondum (GRC), Department of Political Science

From Paula:

My “Introduction to Comparative Politics” class (POLI 130) is a course about democracy. I start off the course by looking at theories and typologies of regime type: democracies, dictatorships, and hybrid democracies and illiberal democracies that display characteristics of both democracies and dictatorships. I then move to an analysis of democratic transitions in the developing world. When, how, and why do dictatorships transition to democracies? We discuss how transitions are a time of great uncertainty and flux. Those in power may find themselves as outsiders in the new regime, while those previously blocked from power could end up as leaders of a new democracy.

I follow this theoretical discussion with two case studies. The first is a study of Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship and the installation of democracy in the early 80s. The second case study is of South Africa’s transition from apartheid to multiparty and multiethnic democracy in the early 90s. Along the way, I take a detailed look at the human rights abuses perpetrated by both regimes and the efforts at transitional justice taken up by the young democracies.

The class is currently in the fourth unit of the course, which focuses on democratic institutions. We’ve looked at how some democracies are designed to give the majority in society the right to make decisions for the rest of society (“majoritarian democracy”), while others are designed to encourage consensus and minority buy-in (“consensus democracy”). Here, I’ve used the case of the UK to illustrate how a classically majoritarian democracy has adopted several characteristics of consensus democracy in recent years.

Kevin Brondum, the GRC for this course, has been a great help for the research component of this course. Each of the students has selected a “partly-free” country from anywhere in the world that they will use for the whole research project. They must classify the regime as democratic or authoritarian and, identify current challenges to democracy (first paper), and design an appropriate democratic regime (second paper). The centerpiece of the project is a series of group presentations at the end of the semester. I have organized the students into groups by world region (Africa, Latin America, etc.) and their task will be to compare and contrast their cases and explain what lessons can be learned from their efforts at democratic design across the region. I’m excited to see the projects unfold!

From Kevin:

At this stage in the semester, students are completing and handing in their first papers. Paula and I shared the work of advising them as they wrote. The assignment for the first paper was to classify a country of the student’s choosing as authoritarian or democratic, majoritarian or consensual. Comparative Politics is concerned with domestic politics in all countries of the world, and students have chosen to write about countries on almost every continent. Of course, Paula and I aren’t experts on the politics of every country in every world region. Paula specializes in Subsaharan Africa, I specialize in Eurasia, and we have complementary background knowledge about different countries in the Americas. During the research process for this paper, Paula and I have shared the work of advising students on their research based on these specialties. If a student asked me for advice in writing a paper about Zambia or Chile, for example, I would help the student to the best of my ability but encourage her to talk to Paula as well.

To write this paper, the students have to identify problems preventing the establishment of a full, functioning liberal democracy in their chosen country. When they write about democracy, what students usually find most challenging is to assess whether the institutions that a country establishes on paper are actually working in practice. Many have difficulty understanding why legal provisions for elections, parties, and a system of checks and balances are not enough to guarantee a strong and lasting democracy. The most important task for Paula and me, therefore, has been to suggest sources that are more likely to show how open political participation, competition, and the recognition of civil liberties are failing in their countries despite constitutional guarantees. We usually start by referring them to reports by organizations whose goal is to assess democratic practices or observance of human rights, like Freedom House, Polity, or Human Rights Watch. However, to discourage them from simply regurgitating these organizations’ conclusions, we tell them to incorporate information from recent news, and require them to evaluate the quality of democracy in their country with reference to Arend Lijphart’s Patterns of Democracy and other theoretical readings from the syllabus.

Ultimately, as students start preparing their presentations in groups, our goal is to have them compare countries, synthesizing their knowledge with other students’ and applying the theories they have learned more broadly.

Autoethnography and Undergraduate Research

Written by Sarah Singer, GRC and graduate student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature

Here is the second installment of Sarah’s blogging about  Dr. Jane Danielewicz’s ENGL55H: Reading and Writing Women’s Lives course. For the first blog post, see here. Thanks to Sarah for providing these continuing reflections about the progress of the course and her experience with it.


The students read Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted to learn about the genre of autoethnography. This text served as a guide; it is one of many examples that they might use as a model as they write their own autoethnographies. Dr. Danielewicz reminded the class that autoethnography is a genre of autobiography that, as Francoise Lionnet argues, “opens up a space of resistance between the individual (auto-) and the collective (ethno-) where the writing  (graphy) of singularity cannot be foreclosed” (391). After students completed the opening writing exercise, Dr. Danielewicz asked them to break off into small group discussions to ensure that everyone would have a chance to share their ideas about Kaysen’s story. As usual, wearing my GRC hat, I walked around and listened to snippets of conversations.

One group focused on senses and visceral reactions. Based on close textual scrutiny, they thought they really knew that it felt like, looked like, and smelled like to have been in Kaysen’s place: a 1960s Boston hospital where many great artists and thinkers were diagnosed and treated for mental illness. These students were particularly struck by the sight of the hospital that Kaysen depicts – the patients on the left side of the halls, the nurses on the right – and the smells of patients in isolation, covered in their own excrement. I considered throwing myself into the conversation, as usual, but I was too impressed by the maturity that they brought to the discussion to say much of anything.

As the students considered the themes and perspectives that are presented in the memoir, they grappled with a variety of binaries: “crazy”/not “crazy,” ill/not ill, man/woman, nurse/patient, and more. A student pointed out that Kaysen is an unreliable narrator, and one group debated about which character in the memoir is the most “normal.” As a class, the students considered how Kaysen is “technically crazy,” yet simultaneously “somehow sane,” which makes her both an outsider and insider in her various communities – the hospital, Cambridge (MA), her parents’ home, her home with her husband, etc. I wanted to bring up the multivocality of the text, which is peppered with psychiatrists’ notes and other records and further complicates the insider/outsider deliberation. But I waited, knowing that this will be addressed next class.

Thus, the students used Kaysen’s story to think through binaries present in their own autoethnographies. As they peer-edited their working drafts near the end of class, the students seemed to take a step back. Kaysen prompts us to wonder if we, too, would be considered unreliable narrators and if outside readers would think our experiences were normal. She negotiates intellectual and physical border crossings that inform her identity and prose. One student, who was writing about her experience as an African American woman with happily married parents, chose not to think about outside audiences in this writing stage. She planned to think about her writerly authority in future drafts. Another student was writing about how growing up as an only child molded her perspective. She worried that some of Kaysen’s ill behaviors were too familiar. As a GRC, I think about encouraging the students to think about their audiences and be critical of their narrative arcs. As a researcher, I think about how an intersectional approach and early black feminist theory might be useful starting places for some students. As a writer, I think about the fun of playing with binaries and how they can help frame and balance a text. As a human, I think about how much I want to believe Kaysen’s version of her truth and that it will be hard for me to be critical of any of the student’s truths. But above all, I realize that I’m lucky that I get to play so many (opposing?) roles. ​

Works Cited:

Kaysen, Susanna. Girl, Interrupted. New York: Random H, 1993. eBooks file.

Lionnet, Francoise. “Autoethnography: The an-archaic style of dust tracks on a road.” Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology. Ed. Henry Louis Gates. New York: Meridian, 1990. 382-413. Print

World War I and Undergraduate Research

Written by John McGowan, Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature

My goals for my first year seminar on World War I (ENGL 54.002 The War to End All Wars? The First World War and the Modern World) are very simply stated–and rather daunting to achieve. I want my students to learn about the War (of course), with a special focus on how it was experienced and processed on the individual level. But I have two further goals: to introduce my students to research methods in the humanities and to give them the sense that they are participating in a wider conversation, not something that just happens in a classroom. I am trying to keep the introduction to research methods fairly simple. After all, my students are in their first semester in college. Basically, they are going to learn how to use the library: how to search for and find a book; how to distinguish between primary and secondary documents; how to begin to evaluate the reliability of various sources; and how to use electronic databases. This work will culminate in an annotated bibliography on a particular topic–and, finally, an in-class presentation on their research, which will also form the basis of a 12-15 page paper. My GRC, Katie Walker, will join me in helping students navigate these waters. To give them the sense of the wider conversation, my students will attend six of the events that are part of the campus-wide World War I Centenary Project. I hope they will get some idea of the way scholars, artists, and others continue to think about World War I and engage with its multiple legacies. I’ll return to this blog in December and let you know whether I think the course met these goals.

Life Writing, Gender, and Undergraduate Research

Written by Sarah Singer, GRC and graduate student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature

Although it is only the third week of the semester, students in Dr. Jane Danielewicz’s ENGL55H: Reading and Writing Women’s Lives are already drafting autobiographies. In this unit, students are debating if gender makes a difference in the writing and reading of autobiography and considering the ways in which cultural patterns of women’s lives are reflected by the autobiographical form. Students are researching autobiography by both reading autobiographies and corresponding theory texts by bell hooks, Adrienne Rich, Joan Scott, and others. As the Graduate Research Consultant, I function as an informal coordinator during this early part of the semester, floating in and out of small group discussions. Much to my surprise, I find that I listen more than I talk. This week, the students laughed at the absurdity of bad dates as they considered Susan Allen Toth’s “Going to the Movies.” At one point, I interjected in a group’s conversation and asked the students to take note of the form of the short autobiography. Each section is written using the same pattern to talk about a different man with whom the author goes to the movies, and in the last section the author discusses going to the movies by herself. I felt like this was an important element to consider because the students need to purposefully select forms and styles of organization in their own autobiographies. But I found that the group was steps ahead of me. They had already considered how the form of an autobiography can affect its meaning and were already experimenting with it in their own writing. I am humbled, knowing that they already see the evidence of their own experiences as truth and that they are working so hard to portray their truths accurately. I am excited to continue my work as a member of their writing and research community, especially as they finish their autobiographies and trouble the boundaries of life writing as they move into ethnography. ​

In the Field: Undergraduate Research in Marine Sciences

Written by GRC Amy Pflaumer, GRC and graduate student in the Department of Marine Sciences

I’ve had the privilege to serve as a Maymester Graduate Research Consultant for Marc Alperin’s MASC/ENTS 220 NC Estuaries: Environmental Processes and Problems for the past 2 years. This course is particularly well-suited to the GRC program due to its substantial off-campus field component. Following a few weeks of classroom instruction in Chapel Hill, the students spend a week at UNC’s Institute of Marine Sciences (IMS) in Morehead City. There, they have the unique opportunity to apply their newfound knowledge of estuary processes during a day-long sampling trip down the Neuse River Estuary, followed by sample analysis in the laboratory and preparation of a final presentation. As a graduate student based in Morehead City, I’m able to aid the students in working with the field and lab equipment necessary to collect and process water samples. Equally important, I have the opportunity to introduce students to my graduate research, as well as my experiences in the graduate program at the Institute of Marine Sciences.

I really enjoy serving as a GRC. The week the Maymester students spend at the coast flies by in a blur of activity. For that week, we spend all day every day together, so I have the chance to talk to the students 1-on-1 and really get to know them. It’s impressive to see the transformation students undergo over the course of a single week, from offering hesitant answers to Dr. Alperin’s questions on day 1 to confidently delivering a highly detailed presentation to the Neuse River Estuary experts at IMS on their final day. Students work hard, gain some great hands-on experience, soak up an almost unbelievable quantity of information, and have a great time; I’m happy to be a part of it as the GRC.

Undergraduate Research and the Mentoring Process

Written by Dr. Donna Bickford, Associate Director in the Office for Undergraduate Research

This is a timely moment to be thinking about mentoring. The Chronicle of Higher Education just published Beth McMurtrie’s piece on the importance of mentoring junior faculty. In June, Inside Higher Ed’s Colleen Flaherty wrote about the increasing insistence of funding agencies that the grants they fund include robust mentoring plans. And, UNC’s own Katie Walker notes the dearth of information for and attention to graduate and professional students who are mentoring undergraduates. At OUR, of course, we are particularly interested in encouraging effective and impactful mentoring of undergraduates by all the other members of our research community with whom they interact.

One of the sessions I attended at the recent Council on Undergraduate Education (CUR) conference was on Mentor Training, Engagement and Evaluation. My colleague in the URPD Division, Linda Blockus from the University of Missouri-Columbia, along with Jessica Brown from California State University at Monterey Bay, presented the workshop which focused on responding to this question: “Given all that we ask of our undergraduate research mentors, how do we best train, sustain, and provide feedback to mentors at all stages of their careers?”

Blockus and Brown detail a number of reasons for training mentors including:

  • Improving the undergraduate research experience for everyone
  • Increasing buy-in
  • Creating community
  • Sharing resources
  • Responding to changing student demographics

They also pointed out that, in addition to training faculty, postdoctoral scholars and graduate students in good practices for mentoring undergraduate researchers, we need to educate the undergraduates themselves about how to be good mentees.Mentees

Mentoring workshops and periodic roundtables focused on topics relevant to mentoring relationships can help educate mentors as well as provide support and guidance around the mentoring experience. These can also be used to for mentors to share effective strategies and to provide feedback to each other. Some of the topics Blockus and Brown discuss in the workshops and roundtables they facilitate include:

  • Planning a productive experience with your student(s)
  • Guiding students through the abstract writing process
  • Establishing expectations with Students: Hiring, Firing, Contracts, & more!
  • Maintaining effective communication
  • The (unspoken) role of the mentor in the fellowship application process
  • Conveying Ethical and Responsible Conduct of Research to Undergraduates
  • Maximizing your Time as a Mentor/Maximizing your Mentee’s Time
  • Addressing Diversity
  • Best practices in identifying undergraduate research projects
  • Introducing Reading the Primary Literature to students in your lab

Blockus and Brown also noted the need to educate P&T committees about the significance of mentoring undergraduate research. In addition to asking mentors and mentees to consider what success for an undergraduate researcher “looks like” to the student and to the mentor, they ask “What does success for a faculty member ‘look like’ to the P&T committee?”

Perhaps the most important point made in this session was the need to articulate and discuss expectations – both the expectations the mentor has of the mentee and the expectations the mentee has for the mentor. Both parties have assumptions about the experience and it’s important to make those assumptions visible and use them to open a conversation. Blockus shared a Goal Planning Worksheet her program uses with students in Missouri’s summer science research programs which asks students to identify their learning goals for the summer and to reflect on their expectations of the mentoring experience.

Some questions for mentors to consider about their expectations for their undergraduate researchers include:

  • What expectations do you have for undergraduate researchers you are mentoring?
  • How are expectations conveyed to students?
  • When are these expectations best conveyed? During hiring? During the first week? As feedback in a month’s time? As needed?
  • When do the expectations for students change? How are the new expectations conveyed?
  • When students fail to meet expectations, how do you handle that?
  • When a student is working with a ‘surrogate’ mentor (grad student, post doc, tech), how are expectations established, communicated, and monitored?
  • If things begin to go downhill, how will you handle that? What steps will you take?
  • What questions do you ask when agreeing to work with a student researcher?
  • What are your expectations for students becoming independent learners? How are these expectations conveyed to students?
  • If the student is working with you in a lab setting or on a research team, what are your expectations for attendance at and participation in lab/team meetings?

Finally, here are some additional mentoring resources you might find useful:

CUR has published a handbook on How to Mentor Undergraduate Researchers (scroll down for this 2010 volume).

The University of Wisconsin at Madison provides a number of online mentoring resources.

The HHMI-funded mentoring handbook, Entering Mentoring, is available at our website. Although it is geared to scientists, much of the material is relevant to mentoring in other disciplines. This handbook is used as the basis for a mentoring workshop offered periodically by OUR Liaison Dr. Jenny Hayden.

Nature’s Guide for Mentors is very extensive and includes a self-assessment mechanism for mentors.

What I Learned as GRC in an Astrophysics Course

Written by Erik Dennihy, GRC and graduate student in the Department of Physics and Astronomy

During the spring 2014 semester I took the opportunity to serve as the Graduate Research Consultant for a research-based undergraduate course, ASTR 502: Astrophysics II with Dr. Sheila Kannappan. Like many of the courses discussed on this blog, the class centered on giving students a hands-on experience in scientific research. Modern research methods such as programming, proper uses of statistics, and numerical simulation were covered early on in the course to serve as the tools the students would need to carve a project of their own. I was excited about the plan and had no doubt this would be a more stimulating teaching assignment than I had taken on in semesters past. Naturally, the skills and methods I did not plan on teaching ended up dominating my reflections on the course.

As the course wore on and the students found themselves confronting inescapably interesting intellectual pathways in the face of hard deadlines, an unforeseen (at least to me) series of lessons began taking place. The classroom was transformed from an open forum of scholarly pursuit into a civil war triage center (mild hyperbole of course). The students were getting the sort of crash course in time management that only comes with an individual research effort–a lesson that I naively assumed they had already learned given that they were all upper level undergraduates. Luckily, my lack of foresight on this topic was rectified by Dr. Kannappan when she directly confronted the idea of students scaling down their projects in class one day.

Until that time, I had not even considered the possibility that the students may not have been using their time most efficiently. The students were always working hard during class time and asked few questions which I took to be a sign of understanding and progression. But as I began to discuss with students their options for de-scoping without jeopardizing the goals of the projects, I realized that, for most of the topics, the barriers they had spent most of their time navigating around could have been easily traversed had they simply asked for help earlier. I knew the students well (some from previous courses) and had trouble with the idea that they would withhold a question that they knew I or Dr. Kannappan could answer. While reflecting on the course after the semester it finally dawned on me that the environment we had established in the classroom from the beginning was very different from a regular classroom. The students were expected to produce individual research results and although Dr. Kannnappan stressed the importance of limiting the scope of the projects as much as possible, I think the students still placed a certain importance on the individual aspect. After all, growing up as an aspiring scientist, the rock stars of the science world all stand alone in their greatness. Rarely do we learn early on about the great triumphs of a team of scientists.

In that sense, if I could change anything about the way I approached my role as a GRC it would be to pay closer attention to the types of questions students weren’t asking. The ideal scenario would then be to answer these questions without forcing the students to ask them, thereby allowing them to retain both their sense of individual accomplishment and project schedule. This can be better accomplished in a general sense by staying a few steps ahead of each student in his/her research project, and trying to identify trouble points and ambiguities. Of course this is perhaps already known to those with more wisdom in the art of mentoring, but for a young graduate student in his first GRC role it was an unanticipated but much appreciated takeaway.

Research and Performance in a Communications Studies Course

Written by Rebecca Nesvet, GRC and former graduate student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature

As the Graduate Research Consultant for the inaugural run of Prof. Joseph Megel’s Communications 566: Media in Performance (MiP), I got to watch our brilliant, original, and self-motivated students create the universe. Like any process of creation, theirs involved a great deal of preliminary research, and presented opportunities for further research. Although I have an MFA in Dramatic Writing and considerable experience creating and teaching live performance, the GRC experience taught me vital lessons about the relationship between scholarly research and artistic practice.

The course was offered by permission of the instructor, and Prof. Megel, together with his co-teacher Will Bosley, Beasley Lab Manager at the James M. Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence and OASIS, selectively admitted a group of students with special, tried talent and experience in performance, musical composition, design, directing, and technology. In each of four project-based units, four groups of students created a performance piece. The technology that they learned to support these pieces was frequently generated using Isadora, and included playback control and distribution, telephony, VOIP, HD Video, Digital Projection, LCD displays, Digital Audio technologies—often for the performance of original musical compositions—PhotoShop, theatrical lighting design, and live puppetry — in one case involving balloons.

At the start of each unit, Prof. Megel and, organized students into new groups, so that each student got to work with all others at least once. I researched and supplied texts for adaptation, indicative process articles for students to emulate, and videos of historically significant performances. I also had the opportunity to give a few talks about dramatic structure, process writing, and other relevant skills. Then, I worked with individual groups as their ‘dramaturg’: the theatre practitioner responsible for guiding performers’ and especially directors’ and playwrights’ exploration of the contexts of their pieces and fine-tuning of their structure. As such, I recommended reading and viewing materials, read scripts and gave formative feedback, and did the same, upon request, with process journals. 

I also liaised with the Renaissance Computing Institute (RenCI) on campus to obtain their Social Computing Room (SCR) at the Odum Institute’s space in Davis Library, as an experimental performance space. In this panoramic, immersive projection space, one student group created the term’s most innovative, magical, and even mystical performance. Trevor Phillips, Elliot Darrow, Kevin Spellman and Ben Elling devised a piece in which two performers seemed to “create the universe,” by seeming to throw, pinch, swipe, mow, and finger-paint unrecognizable galaxies onto the darkness upon the proverbial “waters” of the SCR. At the end, they turned, reminiscent of Leonardo’s Adam and God, to discover—and perhaps imagine or reveal—each other. The concluding piece of the course’s final, public showcase, this work was not only creative, it was reflexive. It seemed to incorporate ideas from the extremely talented collaborators’ individual previous work, for instance, by silently, partially echoing Darrow’s 2013 College Slam Unions Poetry Invitational (CUPSI)-winning performance poem (“I mean what else is our planet,” Darrow asked, “but the pinnacle of exterior design?”). However, dominatedNesvet SCRWipe (2) by no individual collaborator, the piece dramatized the process of collaborative creation that its creators had been studying and honing throughout the term.

From MiP, I learned that performance research is a cyclical process. The course exposes students to published, peer-reviewed research on live performance that incorporates various kinds of media, primarily, but not exclusively, digital. But students do not act only as critics: they channel their critical inquiry to inform creative performance. By critically analyzing their own performance processes, students are able to continue their experimentation in an informed manner. They learn not only about how to develop various sorts of mediated performance, but to incorporate published research, test its assumptions, collaborate with other artist-researchers, and, perhaps most importantly, reflect upon their own ways of working. As many of the students currently have professional work in the performance arts or are pursuing it, this course demonstrates why research need not exist outside practice. Instead, research skills generate best practice.

Two Perspectives on History 398: Stalinism in Historical Perspective

Written by Trevor Erlacher, GRC and graduate student in the Department of History and Don Raleigh, Jay Richard Judson Distinguished Professor in the Department of History

From Trevor:

Having worked as a Graduate Research Consultant this past semester, I am convinced of the great value of the GRC program for students honing their research skills. The GRC format allows for one-on-one coaching, which provides an effective complement to the normal in-class instruction. In my experience, students who were otherwise reluctant to share and develop their thoughts in class spoke freely about their ideas with me. Most relished the extra attention on their projects. They took my suggestions and criticisms seriously and gratefully, and seemed to genuinely appreciate hearing my perspective, which I offered as a supplement to the valuable feedback of their peers and Professor Raleigh. Nearly everyone got excited about the projects they were working on, and I shared their enthusiasm. It was a real pleasure teaching them what I know of the historian’s craft and the history of Stalinism, challenging them to look for sources in new places, and inspiring them to think about their subjects in new ways. They also taught me a lot about the diverse and fascinating topics of their own original research. I would welcome the opportunity to serve as a GRC again.

From Don:

I greatly appreciated the opportunity to have Trevor Erlacher serve as GRC for my undergraduate research seminar, HIST 398: Stalinism in Historical Perspective. His involvement greatly enriched the course not only because he offered so much sound advice based on his own rich and diverse research experience, but also because he connected with the students in a way that made it possible for us to attend to each student’s personal research needs. Trevor held private consultations with them throughout the semester, which nicely complemented the seminar sessions and my own one-on-one meetings with them. The experience—and the end result as reflected in the student papers—proved so positive that I look forward to working with GRCs again when I next offer a research seminar. In fact, I’m now seriously considering adding a major research component to a 400-level lecture and discussion course I will teach this fall.

Undergraduate Research in English 438: Nineteenth-Century Women Writers

Written by Rachael Isom, GRC and graduate student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature

What if Jane Eyre had decided to live in sin with Mr. Rochester? Would Frankenstein’s Creature have been less destructive if his maker had been a woman? What if Sir Thomas Bertram had satisfied Fanny Price’s curiosity about the slave trade by taking her to his sugar plantations in Antigua? These are some of the questions posed by students in English 438, Nineteenth-Century Women Writers. During the Spring 2014 semester, I had the privilege of working with these students as a graduate research consultant for Professor Jeanne Moskal. The readings and assignments for this course encouraged students to engage critically and creatively with the nineteenth-century “novel of vocation” as represented by four key texts: Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Valperga, and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. The two major written assignments for this course were a targeted research essay and a creative essay, each allowing students to choose topics of interest.

For the targeted research essay, students were to summarize and respond to either a critical interpretation of Mansfield Park or a historical essay. In conferencing with students, I was impressed by their deep engagements with these sources. Undaunted by scholarly critiques of Austen’s work or essays on subjects removed from their own twenty-first century experiences, these students confidently approached complex issues and contributed their own voices to conversations that could be intimidating even to graduate students. Their work demonstrated nuanced readings of secondary texts and fresh perspectives on Mansfield Park. One student, for instance, analyzed a landmark essay on Mansfield Park and pursued a gap in its argument by using her own knowledge of Austen’s novel. Other students tied aspects of the Romantic period to current events or social customs, creating more tangible connections and thereby making the texts relevant to their own lived experiences.

In the creative assignment, I was fascinated by the students’ investment in the project and the interesting ways they rethought and rewrote passages from the course’s key texts. Many students composed imitations altering single elements of original passages to address latent religious, economic, and gender issues. One student chose to consider Jane Eyre alongside James Frey’s recent book A Million Little Pieces as fictionalized autobiographies. By drawing attention to Jane Eyre’s subtitle and placing the novel in context with a controversial book from our own culture and time, the student was able to effectively demonstrate how genre labels inform readers’ approaches and reactions to texts.

As students constructed these projects, I was able to conference with them individually, but I also had a chance to interact with them as a class. Early in the semester, Professor Moskal allowed me to deliver a guest lecture on my own research interests and lead a discussion of a topic associated with Mansfield Park. Professor Moskal encouraged me to talk openly about my own experiences as a way to initiate undergraduates, many of whom expressed interest in further study, into the realm of graduate-level research in literature. As I approached this talk, I realized that, although I had often discussed my academic history informally and presented conference papers on my interests, I had never related to a group of students the larger body of my research in the context of my own entrance into the field. The experience proved extremely rewarding: I was able to step back from the immediate projects I have been pursuing and reflect on my larger trajectory and goals as a scholar. I was also challenged by students’ perspectives on the topic we discussed in Mansfield Park, and I received constructive and encouraging feedback from them after my guest talk.

In working with Professor Moskal and her wonderful undergraduates, I was able to witness the cultivation of interest and the fruits of active engagement with a set of texts within my own sphere of interest. The students interacted with landmark texts through innovative scholarly and creative projects, and I was able to learn from the new perspectives they brought to discussions and assignments.