Transnational Romanticism and Undergraduate Research

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

During the Spring 2015 semester, I joined Dr. Jan Koelb’s Comparative Literature 460 class as the Graduate Research Consultant (GRC). This course on “Transnational Romanticism” included readings from canonical writers such as William Wordsworth and Walt Whitman, but it also encouraged students to view Romanticism more expansively by interrogating the theoretical aesthetic frameworks essential to Romantic ideologies and by incorporating a broader range of texts. Focusing on “Romantic Imagination and the Modern World,” the course proved not only transnational but also interdisciplinary, exposing students to a variety of art forms on UNC’s campus, including works at the Ackland Art Museum and a production of Arthur Miller’s An Enemy of the People at Playmakers Theater. Many students pursued their interests in projects that traversed continental boundaries and incorporated topics as various as social protest in Romantic drama and realist fiction, the intertextual understandings of the window in nineteenth-century visual art, J. M. W. Turner’s paintings of sublimity, and the legacy of Jose Marti in modern Cuban politics. Tackling these topics and more, they formulated research questions, compared primary texts, and probed extant criticism in search of answers to their evolving inquiries.

My chief responsibility as the GRC was to be an additional resource, a helper and mentor along the journey from curiosity to composition. Throughout the course of the semester, I met with students in pairs for hour-long tutorials in which we discussed their progress at various stages of the research process, from developing a question to formulating a storyboard, as well as through two complete drafts of the papers that emerged as answers to nearly semester-long queries. One of the most challenging tasks in these tutorials was to help students find the proper scope while still attending to their interests. Using the Turabian research model, we worked toward specific, targeted questions that could lead to fruitful investigations of the Romantic writers and painters students had chosen. As these topics became narrower, it was fascinating to see how each student’s interests shaped the comparisons and issues that emerged. For instance, two students wrote on Wordsworth’s Prelude in conjunction with more recent texts; however, one student compared Wordsworth’s “spots of time” to the experiences of twentieth-century psychedelic writers, while the other used Wordsworth’s conception of childhood to inform her reading of the Kenneth Grahame’s popular children’s book, The Wind in the Willows. Two other students wrote on Whitman, but one examined critical links to Blake while the other connected Whitman to Chinese poet Guo Moruo. As students moved from question to hypothesis to supported reasoning, their arguments took shape, and our later tutorials supplemented Dr. Koelb’s instruction by examining each piece of evidence as it related to the larger claim. Using scholarly models and a systematic approach, students were able to move from storyboard outline to rough draft, from rough draft to their finished products.

In the fourth and final set of tutorials, I reviewed students’ final drafts. As gratifying as it was to hear students’ thanks for the suggestions and affirmations of these sessions, what was far more rewarding was to see them directing their own revisions and advising those of their peers. Though they still solicited my advice, even the types of questions they asked evinced a much stronger sense of what good research demands. They’re still learning, as are we all, but their collaborative efforts are certainly steps in the right direction. While the students of CMPL 460 didn’t quite spend fifty years building and revising their targeted research projects as Wordsworth did with his Prelude, their “honourable toil” of sixteen weeks represents a set of fascinating papers by remarkable undergraduate students. Challenged and guided along the way by Dr. Koelb, they infused the research and writing process with their own interests, skills, and expertise. I am grateful for their trust, for their confidence, and for the chance to be a part of their growth as researchers and writers.

Note: You can read this related post from Morgan Welch, one of the students in the class.

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