Emotion Research in PSYC 68

Written by Holly Shablack, GRC and graduate student in the Department of Psychology

With the semester wrapping up, I found myself looking back on my experience as a graduate research consultant for Dr. Kristen Lindquist’s PSYC 68 Psychology of Emotions courses with great joy.

I have come to admire the various ways one can teach and engage students, especially first year students. Being an IA for a large introductory course and GRC for a first year seminar has exposed me to a variety of teaching styles and methods. Dr. Lindquist doesn’t just hold “lectures” but class discussions and even debates that make the class and materials exciting and more applied. Emotions are so engrained in our daily life that it’s difficult to tease them apart and to explain them, as well as how they can be researched, in a way that is understandable and exciting. Through the material, readings, lecture and applied examples, Dr. Lindquist has made the students excited and interested, to the point that it is obvious in the class discussions, questions, and even when I meet with them; some students have even approached Dr. Lindquist and myself with an interest in pursuing research experience now. Dr. Lindquist’s ability to clearly tie in the required readings as well as facilitating great participation and critical thinking is amazing.

The psychology of emotions is an interesting topic as emotions exist in our daily lives, at every moment. As part of the course’s requirements, students must create and write an 8-10 page research proposal on emotions and present their proposed study to the class in a 5-7 minute presentation. I met with a number of the students throughout the semester (and still am meeting with a few) which has been an extremely rewarding experience. I think one of my favorite things about this project is that it not only lets me share my knowledge and excitement about emotions and emotion research, but it also re-opens my mind to other realms of emotion research as, oftentimes, one can become so engrained in one’s own line and forget many other questions that can be explored. Emotion research spans across multiple disciplines and theories and it is nice to take a step back from my current focus on language and emotions and remember how emotions can be researched in topics such as decision making, health, and morality. In addition, seeing and hearing students talk about what excites them or intrigues them about emotions has been very interesting. I’ve met with multiple students, and a handful consistently, to discuss their interests and helped them narrow their ideas down to a level that can be explored. I also attended some of the final presentations and it was great to see the final product of many of the students with whom I met. It was particularly rewarding seeing the students incorporate suggestions that I made, and take the questions I posed to them seriously. Something about seeing one of their final end products brings joy and a great feeling of accomplishment.

Another very exciting part of this course was the chance I had to present a guest lecture. As a first year graduate student you don’t get this opportunity too often. This was particularly exciting, as it gave me an opportunity to explore yet another realm of emotion research that is not my focus: gender and emotions. It also allowed me to present in front of students and share my knowledge to them as a whole rather than giving individual feedback on their research proposals – giving me exposure to yet another realm of teaching. Afterwards, I recall a few of my peers noting how euphoric I was – reassuring me that this is what excites me, research and having the opportunity to teach and share my knowledge.

One final thought and observation is that there are two different courses, and it is interesting to see the differences between each class and the personalities among students. Many of these students, if not all, are in their first semester of college and, for many of them, this is their first time being away from home. It reminded me of when I was in their shoes; being able to talk to them about their projects, interests and even their worries about being in college was refreshing. It puts things into perspective for not only you but them. Overall, my experience as a graduate research consultant has been extremely rewarding and I thank all who made this possible!

ENGL54: Undergraduate Research in a course on World War I

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

The last day of classes.  How can it come as a shock every single semester, even after thirty years of teaching?  Still so much to do and learn–and our time is up.

So how did my first year seminar on World War I go?  OK, although I am still trying to get the hang of this research thing.  What I failed to do was figure out a good way to integrate the research the students were doing into our class meetings.  Since the research projects were individual and were not completed until late in the semester, the bulk of the course concentrated on works we read together, with the last two and a half weeks devoted to the reports on the research projects.

Help me!  There’s got to be a better way, a way to avoid this splitting of the course into what feels like two disconnected parts.  Any and all suggestions welcome.

On the plus side, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the research projects were the most valuable part of the course for the students.  The topics ranged from Lloyd George and T. E. Lawrence to the role of women in the war and the famous 1914 Christmas truce.  The way I structured the research project, with two sessions with librarian Tommy Nixon to learn research techniques, the production of an annotated bibliography that required the use of a variety of different primary and secondary sources, and the oral presentation of the work to the class prior to writing the final paper, worked well.

The students developed significant research skills and they explored their topics at a greater depth than anything we handled in the earlier portion of the class.  I do feel like they got their hands dirty–and got a sense of just how much information is out there and some of the ways to access that information.

I want to end by thanking my Graduate Research Consultant, Katie Walker, who gave invaluable help when students ran into problems as they pursued their various topics.

Note: Here is Dr. McGowan’s first post about this course.

A GRC Perspective on Facilitating Undergraduate Research

Written by Giuliano Migliori, Graduate Research Consultant and Graduate Student in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures (Italian Studies)

Working as a Graduate Research Consultant for Prof. Escolar in her Undergraduate Seminar ITAL398 “Italy 1943-1946: Love in the Contact Zone” has been an excellent opportunity to experience the variability of development that our students take to approach research projects and what kind of tools they require to make improvements. Approaching the end of the semester, I am convinced of the fruitfulness of this opportunity that has opened windows of discussions and important cultural exchanges as well as various angles to look at WWII in Italy. From the beginning, I have been working closely with students, walking them through the historical complexities and layers of representations on which the arrival of Allies and their encounter/fight with Italians have been shaped, explored and researched by writers and filmmakers. Readings and screenings addressed very important and also contemporary issues, such as race, gender, and identity in wartime and how historical narratives played a fundamental role in the representations of these events.

Students had to deal with complex aspects of research: understanding differences between genres of literature and sources, focusing on key questions and finding ways and methods to answer, even if partially, those premises, creating a structured, responsive voice in which they were able to argue and discuss their own viewpoints within traditional frameworks. All these steps were surrounded by two technical and methodological problems. At first, a lack of confidence about how start research projects (how to move within historical and literary works) and what kind of steps are required to make an effective argument, the difficulty of data retrieval and the distinctions of sources (primary-secondary: types of articles, genres, approaches) were problematic situations they needed to face at an early stage. Secondly, after having submitted their abstracts, students needed to receive help and support, guidance and motivation, to organize their thoughts and ideas in a well-mannered structure. By means of individual meetings throughout these weeks in a continuous dialogue with students, I sought to provide them with tools (to search for reliable sources at the libraries and online), methods and possible approaches (comparatist, sociological, psychological and others) in order to help them in finding their own track of analysis and realize what it means to do a research project. In addition, together with Prof. Escolar, we gave them the opportunity in class to do peer-review activities from which they found great benefits in terms of feedback and different eyes looking at their work.

A significant moment of being a GRC has been the necessity of creating trust-based relationships with students. Many students, who have never been in a research-based class with two instructors, expressed skepticism at first and they did not how to engage with my role in class and with their projects. Yet, I believe that after a little hesitation they felt more comfortable engaging with my position, finding a less formal listener and helper. I have been working as a research guide facilitator on whom they could rely when facing issues and obstacles they did not how to overcome. I have seen constructive progress and significant developments in their confidence and abilities to make choices in understanding the directions towards which a research project might head. Some students are still struggling in deciding how to use a media source, or an article from 1950s, or propaganda posters from WWII. At the same time, I think these are necessary steps for a unique comprehension of their interests and ways of communicating ideas, topics, and arguments.

So far, it has been a very interesting and formative academic experience and I strongly believe that a more involved and dynamic environment in class is giving them an essential grasp on how create and organize a research paper even for future courses.

Read Professor Escolar’s reflection on this course here.

ITAL 398: Building towards a research paper

Written by Dr. Marisa Escolar, Assistant Professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures

Three-quarters of the way through the semester, as my Graduate Research Consultant Giuliano Migliori and I eagerly await the first rough drafts from our students, I want to share with you all the way we have structured the research trajectory. The semester began with a fairly dense historiographical essay (our topic is the ‘Liberation’ of Italy by the Allies in WWII). Students met in groups and, using that essay as the basis, decided on a practice research “topic”: questions were intentionally broad, like “How did fascism rise in Italy?” or “How were Americans perceived by Italians?” By the next class, they had to bring in a physical book as well as an electronic resource and explain how that would help them answer the question. During that class we discussed how to “vet” a source and evaluate precisely what kind of source it was, paying attention to the index, table of contents, year of publication, etc., before even getting to the prose. In the students’ reflection diary, they commented that they appreciated being given class time to do this kind of work.

Soon after, I gave a “research presentation” where I introduced various methodologies, practical tips for searching, and, above all, emphasized the importance of formulating a research question.

The next step involved students putting together an abstract that suggested not just a topic but a question, as well as a short annotated bibliography. Here, they received written and in-person feedback from both Giuliano and myself. I also asked for a reflection diary, where students expressed frustration in being asked to formulate a question in advance and some anxieties about the ability to find appropriate sources (and having the time to read them!).

The most difficult jump so far has been between this initial abstract and the successive step, in which I asked them to read at least one primary source on their own and write a critical evaluation of it, along with an updated bibliography. Here, several students recognized they were headed in a new direction, so in further meetings we helped them reorganize their work plan. In order to make the feedback more concrete, I improvised a peer-editing session in which I asked groups of 3 to evaluate each other’s summaries, particularly to help their peers press themselves towards understanding whether they had found an original approach to the material.

Before the first drafts came in, we collectively “peer-edited” a paper of a former student, both to examine an excellent paper and to establish expectations for the editing process. This discussion generated a number of useful critiques and questions, especially about the most effective use of direct quotations. Next, using a set of guidelines I’ve give them, they will peer-edit their drafts before handing in a second draft for a grade—and, ultimately, the final paper and research presentation. My main priorities in this last part of the class are to push students towards an argumentative question and to help them find a voice from the midst of all the sources they have so painstakingly retrieved, vetted and digested. It is my hope that the scaffolding we provided will make this possible.

Read Giuliano Migliori’s reflection on the course here.

Undergraduate Research: Memory, Momuments, and Memorials

Written by Kevin Chovanec, GRC and graduate student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature

This fall — and continuing into the spring — a few Writing Program Instructors and Graduate Research Consultants for ENGL105 courses have begun working with various campus organizations to develop courses focused on the complex history of the monuments and memorials on UNC’s campus. We’ve partnered with the Visitors’ Center and received support and direction from APPLES, the MRC, Wilson Library, and even the UNC Campus Historian. While fitting the normal ENGL 105 model, the class includes two units that focus on university history. Students in the class have therefore engaged with our past and interrogated what it means to be part of this university, and we hope that their projects (eventually) might supplement the growing collection of tours, articles, and information available about the monuments. A slight twist is that our students projects are narratives; as Missy Julian-Fox, the director of the VC recommended, our students have focused on telling stories about our past.

As with many of these projects, I imagine, we have encountered a few challenges. First-years often have enough trouble simply adapting to college writing; the rather ambitious research project – producing, we hoped, material that could actually be used — demanded from them a quality of work rarely required. They needed to write like professionals — and of course, at this point in their careers, not all students have that skill. Still, failing to produce publishable work can itself, I think, be a useful experience; students develop a sense of what professional writing should look like, and their ability to recognize the problems in their work demonstrates their potential as writers.

Students have used their research to tell the stories behind the monuments — stories of why and how they were built; of the controversy they have stirred; and of the groups and individuals honored. In the class focused on the Student Body Monument, for example, students have put together an account of the famous night of vandalism, when the statue had to be moved to a less conspicuous position; but they have also sought to uncover the true diversity of the “student body” that the stereotyped statues have — at least, according to some — failed to represent. One group developed an exhibit on the first female students to attend Carolina, including the autobiography of Sallie Walker Stockard, the first female student to graduate from UNC, and a manuscript diary of the first African-American woman enrolled at the university, Karen L. Parker.

A colleague and former GRC described the GRC experience as all the good parts of teaching with none of the bad. (By the bad parts, of course, he meant grading.) It has been exciting to talk about students’ work with them in groups, to hear their archival finds and to recommend possible directions for their projects. Despite certain challenges, many students have done impressive research, and I have enjoyed working with them to better understand the long, complex, sometimes ignoble but always fascinating, history of UNC.

 

 

The Art Question: Seeking Interdisciplinarity with the Ackland Art Museum

Written by Dr. Jan Koelb, Department of English and Comparative Literature, and Katherine Calvin, GRC and graduate student in the Department of Art

As the Graduate Research Consultant for Dr. Jan Koelb’s CMPL 260 course “Landscape: Reimagining the Natural World,” I have been working with students over the past few weeks as they begin to build the frameworks for their final projects, which pivot around a research question on some aspect of the intersections among nature, art, and society. Throughout the semester, we as a class have been using the Ackland Art Museum and its collection as a laboratory of sorts to investigate representations of landscape in Western art to accompany the literary texts related to landscape that the students have read for class, such as Virgil’s Eclogues, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Romantic poetry by Wordsworth and Coleridge. With the continued support of Dr. Carolyn Allmendinger and Caroline Culbert at the Ackland, our class has been able to use one of the smaller study bays in the museum for the entire semester, and Dr. Koelb (using input from the students and myself) has curated three separate installations that will go up over the course of the semester. I have found this particular aspect of the course to be incredibly helpful for the students, as they can study the works in intricate detail, heightening their visual literacy as well as their textual analysis skills.

As a graduate student in Art History, working with a comparative literature course has been an interesting experience for me, as it has pushed me to reframe the way in which I introduce and explain art historical concepts and techniques to a widely diverse group of students. At this point in the semester, I have completed one set of tutorials, which are an hour-long meeting with a group of four students, and have begun the second tutorial meetings. I hold the tutorials in the class’ study bay at the Ackland, so if a student is unsure about his or her argument, we can look closely at the work of art in question in that moment and talk through the issues as a group. It has been fascinating to see the elements in these works that interest students. We have individuals working on everything from the re-contextualization of an Egyptian sphinx in modern London as photographed by Coburn in 1908 to the representation of nature as wondrous and its conflation with mythology in relation to Dürer’s Das Meerwunder (The Sea Monster) from 1498.Art for Lunch tweet 1

Because the course encourages students to engage a variety sources across traditional disciplinary boundaries, however, it has often been challenging to help students narrow their research focus to make their project tenable in a single semester. Some of their proposals challenge my own master’s thesis in breadth! My strategy for this issue, so far, has been to encourage students to continually return to the work of art that they are focusing on primarily and to ask them to think carefully and critically about the details visible in the art. What do they see that strikes them? What can be used as evidence for their argument? And, conversely, what do they not see, and how can this help or hinder their project’s thesis? In this second research tutorial, we are talking about evidence quite a bit, particularly the kind of evidence students think they need to find in order to complete their first drafts. Even in a room surrounded by art, I have continually reminded them to not forget about the art as evidence, as example, and, often, even as contradiction, as they bring together other historical and literary scholarship. I look forward to the next rounds of GRC tutorials as I am excited to see first drafts of these synthesizing projects.

Katherine Calvin
10-15-2014

Art for Lunch tweet 2“Where will your curiosity lead you?” Our twenty landscape students have taken that motto to heart and are moving in twenty exciting directions with their research. Katherine’s tutorials make the critical difference between, as one student puts it, “the blind leading the blind” and making solid progress in a short time. The students’ feedback speaks for itself: “the concept of the tutorials with Katherine is excellent” . . . “very helpful, really allows ideas to form” . . . “great to be able to get help from Katherine in a small group setting” . . . “she’s knowledgeable and has great insights about art and how to write about art”. . . “a good balance of positive feedback and constructive criticism”. . . And as one frank student remarks: “It has been nice being forced to create a draft to present to her before submitting a final copy because normally I would probably end up waiting until the last minute to just create one potentially sloppy final draft.”

Jan Koelb
11-3-2014

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

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.