Pedagogy, Digital Tools, and Undergraduate Research: Librarians as Co-Educators

Written by Donna M. Bickford, Associate Director of OUR

The Multimodal Librarians initiative is approaching the end of a summer-long workshop series. In the second workshop I was able to attend (read about the first one here), Jonathan McMichael, UNC’s undergraduate experience librarian, discussed some pedagogical considerations in using the digital tools available to help support undergraduate researchers and faculty embedding undergraduate research in their classes. He noted that the most effective projects/assignments are a careful balance between order and chaos, a concept that I love.

Jonathan posed a number of interesting questions to reflect on as you consider your pedagogical choices and classroom practices.

  • How do you figure out what tool works best for what kinds of data sets?
  • Can the tool you are using answer the question that you’re asking?
  • Can the data that you’re using generate an answer to the question that you’re asking?
  • What are the learning benefits in using this tool and/or this digital assignment?
  • Does it help teach a concept/fact/skill better than you currently teach it?
  • Does it provide a learning environment for a unique skill that can’t be taught any other way?

Jonathan suggested two specific questions to ask when you are designing an assignment or implementing a particular tool:

  • What will students be able to do at the end of this learning experience?
  • How often will they use this new capability in their future?

Sometimes there are costs to consider in using a designing a digital assignment – and Jonathan didn’t mean only financial ones:

  • Does it create anxiety or boredom for students? (From my own perspective, student anxiety is not necessarily bad and can provoke a teaching/learning moment. But I agree that it needs to be managed effectively.)
  • How are you going to grade the assignment?
  • What, if any, are the extra organizational or administrative needs for the assignment?

We discussed the Association of College & Research Libraries framework for information literacy, which is based on a set of threshold concepts. Two that resonated for me were “research as inquiry” and “scholarship as conversation.” Undergraduate research is often described as one approach to inquiry-based learning. At OUR, we are frequently guiding students to think about how, as researchers, they are entering an intellectual conversation. How does their research question interact with what’s going on in their field and with what others have done and are doing?

This approach to scholarship as conversation also helps with the tendency many undergraduates exhibit when they’re thinking about a research paper for a course. They will share that they are writing about X (Jane Eyre, the Civil War, poverty in India, whatever their chosen or assigned topic may be). But selecting a topic is not the same thing as designing a research question. In my own teaching, I try to help students reframe their project by asking them to tell me what question they are asking – or trying to answer – about their topic.

Jonathan also mentioned the concept of visible learning, discussed in a book of the same title by John Hattie. According to the Visible Learning website, “Visible Teaching and Learning occurs when teachers see learning through the eyes of students and help them become their own teachers.” This is the kind of empowered learner undergraduate researchers generally become as they move from being consumers of knowledge to knowledge producers.

I encourage faculty to think of our librarian colleagues as partners and co-educators. There is a plethora of expertise available as we think about how to innovate our pedagogy and support undergraduate research in and out of the classroom.


Librarians Support Undergraduate Research

Written by Donna M. Bickford, Associate Director of OUR

There is an exciting new initiative at UNC Libraries. Multimodal Librarians “is an initiative at UNC to cross-train the research and instruction staff on digital tools and techniques that can easily be incorporated into undergraduate class assignments. This is a natural extension of the traditional role librarians play in research instruction and it supports the library’s strategic goals of engaging both the entire research lifecycle as well as transformative teaching and learning.”

NGram UGRAs part of this initiative, librarians are invited to training sessions to learn how to use digital scholarship tools to support undergraduate research. I had the opportunity recently to attend a session facilitated by Dr. Stewart Varner which focused on using data visualization tools for text analysis. Stewart demonstrated for us Google’s Ngram Viewer, Voyant, and Google’s Fusion Tables.

Ngram pulls information from the Google Books corpus to create its visualizations. You can search in several different languages and you can use words or phrases. I used “undergraduate research” and “inquiry-based learning” for my example.

The Voyant tool creates visualizations based on the text you input. In our session, Stewart uploaded a digVoyant GRC pageitized book from the Project Gutenberg catalog for our demonstration example. Voyant only works with single words, not phrases. You can see the number of unique words in your text. Or, you can use the “keyword in context” tool to see where in your document any particular word appears. There is also a “stop words” function if you want to exclude common words like “the” or “it” — or the title character in the book you’re analyzing. I used the GRC page from our website to generate my word cloud.

Spring 2015 GRC Courses

Spring 2015 GRC Courses

Fusion Tables works with data you provide in spreadsheet form. You can also use Google spreadsheets or public data tables. Then you can display the data in several different formats — scatter charts, line or bar graphs, pie charts. etc. I used network analysis format to map the connections between course prefixes and course numbers for our Spring 2015 GRC courses.

While we were experimenting with these tools, Stewart was careful to remind us that at this point we were just generating data points, not making an argument. It’s easy to see, though, how these visualizations might “inspire a research question,” in Stewart’s words. In one project Stewart described, the researcher compared unique words in the texts of two different authors to examine the range of vocabulary one author used in comparison to the other. Stewart also emphasized the need to select the tool that can answer the question you are asking. As a result of the Multimodal Librarians initiative, many of the librarians will be prepared to help students and faculty think through what kinds of research questions and projects will benefit from the use of digital tools.




RELI 77: Marytrs and Warriors: Religion and the Problem of Violence

Written by Brandon Bayne, Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies

Marytrs and Warriors: Religion and the Problem of Violence (RELI 77) was an experiment for everybody. It was my first time offering the course and my initial experience with a First Year Seminar (FYS). The breadth and sensitivity of the topic daunted us all, even as its pressing urgency and relevance became increasingly clear throughout the semester. For all of these reasons, I was thankful to have the support of an excellent GRC, Matthew Dougherty.

Before the semester began, Matt helped me strategize the most effective assignments as well as pedagogical techniques that would provide important context to the students and prepare them for original research. The course was structured in discrete units that were meant to scaffold together as components of their final project. By engaging contemporary accusations, scriptural citations, scholarly explanations and historical instantiations of religion and violence, I hoped to provide the broader context and intellectual resources for the students so that they could take on their own projects in the last third of the semester. Matt supported the initial instruction by organizing a “scavenger hunt” at Davis Library. Together with library specialists, Matt exposed students to the digital and material resources that would be crucial for their success, including specialized search engines, databases, technology, and yes, even books.

We then guided them through short papers based on close readings of a so-called “texts of terror,” scriptural passages that are typically cited as inspiring violent action. As they interpreted these textual representations of stories like the “Akedah,” Abraham’s binding and potential sacrifice of his son (Isaac or Ishmael, depending on the tradition), we encouraged students to move beyond mastery of content and to an investigation of context and possible consequences for the original audiences. Matt proved especially crucial in pushing them beyond the twin errors of simple summary or rushed anachronism and into critical evaluations that engaged these texts on their own terms.

Their growing skill at combing empathetic understanding with critical inquiry served them well as they took on their final projects. We asked them to pick a contemporary moment of conflict or violence in which religion may have played a dominant role. Instead of taking the category of religion for granted as a discrete sphere of cultural production and direct cause, we encouraged students to imbed their research in local, historical, and social fields. They were asked to also evaluate how other factors contributed to the hostilities. As Matt pointed out in his blog, they found that these other elements proved crucial in understanding what is too often dismissed as “religious fanaticism.” He aided this process significantly as he met with students personally and helped them find the connections between our study and their own research.

Several students gravitated to moments when religion seemed to inspire conflict. At the same time, others charted hatred and fear against religious practitioners as its own source of violence. This reality hit particularly close to home in mid-February, when our class grappled with the brutal murders of Deah Barakat, Yusor and Razan Abu-Salha. Having chosen a topic almost ripped from the headlines, our class conversations had regularly circled around reports of terrorism – from the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, to the saints of the Mexican drug cartels, to the increasingly brutal theatrics of ISIS. However, none of us expected how our topic would touch our city and our campus in such a tragic and heartrending way. In the days after the deaths of Deah, Yusor and Razan, we simply created space to talk about both the murders as well as the campus response. Some knew the victims or were connected through the Muslim student community. They expressed how their faith sustained them as they grappled with its meaning.

As weeks went by, several other students were able to connect our academic study of martyrdom and persecution to the murders and trace the ripples of response that extended from our very campus to other parts of the country and the world in cycles of memorialization and recrimination. Two students, for instance linked vandalism at a New England school to the wider problem of Islamaphobia that may have contributed to murders, but certainly was one of the unfortunate reactions. Other students noted in their research that while Muslims are often presented as the principal perpetrators of terrorism in the media and popular imagination, they often find themselves the primary victims of ideological violence in Africa, Pakistan, Myanmar, and unfortunately even Chapel Hill.


Come to the Table: Undergraduate Research on Food and Feasting

Written by Sarah Morris, GRC and graduate student at the School of Information and Library Science

By fate or by fortune, this semester I served as the Graduate Research Consultant for CMPL255H: The Feast in Philosophy, Film, and Fiction. The class is beautiful: the students read, research, and write on the ways food and feasting intersect with identity, custom, ethics, and relationships. They examine what facets of the feast speak to cultural priorities, which ones probe at essential humanity.

I am a graduate student in the department of library sciences. Working with Dr. Inger Brodey as a GRC was a dream, because we were able to scaffold original research into the class, each assignment building on the prior one. The first was primarily a close reading, using supporting texts from the class; the second included research on visual media and artistry along with thematic research in the fields of literature and philosophy; the final assignment was an in-depth, comparative research paper of the student’s choice, where the student linked concepts and texts from the course. As a librarian, I have a vested interest in ensuring that students know where and how to find resources that support their ideas, but as a GRC I was able to also help students see that research should always support and shape one’s argument, not be supplementary or tangential. Original research is where students can contribute to the conversation on ideas that interest them, on texts that inspire them.

Study Gallery at the Ackland

Study Gallery at the Ackland

To emphasize their creative and critical contributions, Dr. Brodey and I created several public platforms for the students to publish their work. We created a virtual site,, to publish the student work from all of the sections of this course. Not only do the students see that their work lives in a beautiful place, but they can see how their work contributes to the larger body of ideas from students of this class past and future. We also collaborated with the Ackland Art Museum to create a student-gallery with student-led explanations of the artwork that is on public display. And lastly, the students are urged and prepped to submit their papers to the food issue of the literary journal of Transverse.

Final Feast

Final Feast

My favorite part of class, the aspect that set it apart for me, is that each class was hosted by a student, who did background research for the reading, prepared questions, and brought in food. The term “hosting” assumes an offering, a welcoming, a relationship. It establishes a generosity of spirit that was carried throughout discussion and reflection. Moreover, students exercised important skills that are often left out of academic spheres: how to value and acknowledge the contributions of others (offering gifts to speakers), and how to connect the world of ideas with the world of the living (feeding others with questions and breakfast). Good research not only supports a paper, but strengthens the arguments and ideas as they move beyond the classroom into the lives of the researchers. Through these elements, the class not only researched the feast, but embodied it.

I am grateful to have been the GRC for this course; I am happy to have had a seat at the table.

Undergraduate Research in FREN 285 (Sex, Philosophy, and Politics: Revolutions in French Literature, 1721-1834)

Written by Jessica Tanner, Assistant Professor in the Department of Romance Studies

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 (, 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.

Note: You can read Emma’s reflections about the course here.

An Oyster of Great Price? A Semester at the Institute of Marine Sciences

by Kathleen Onorevole, GRC and graduate student in the Department of Marine Sciences

What’s the first image that pops into your mind at the words “scientific research?” If you’re like most people, you just envisioned a lab, a white coat, and plenty of test tubes with mysterious bubbling liquid. An undergraduate student from UNC’s Institute for the Environment (IE) Morehead City Field Site, however, would probably respond with descriptions of coastal marshes, rugged field equipment, and enough mud to destroy an entire roomful of white lab coats. As the IE students learn, scientific research often defies expectations and crosses boundaries in exciting ways.

Every fall, a group of about twenty IE undergrads moves from Chapel Hill to the Southern Outer Banks to study at UNC’s Institute of Marine Sciences (IMS), located in Morehead City. Although s/he may be living at the beach, an IE student’s life at IMS is anything but a vacation. Students enroll in three courses, an independent research project, and a capstone seminar, all of which keep them busy in the classroom, lab, and field. During fall 2014, I served as a Graduate Research Consultant for the capstone course, a position that gave me the opportunity to get to know an outstanding group of undergrads. I was consistently impressed by the students’ dedication and enthusiasm, and found the group’s strong comradery particularly striking given that the students were strangers upon moving to Morehead City.

The 2014 IE Capstone Seminar (ENEC 698) was taught by my advisor, Dr. Michael Piehler, and focused on ecosystem services provided by oyster reefs. Since my research on nitrogen cycling in oyster reefs dovetails nicely with this topic, I was asked to serve as the GRC. The students were tasked with responding to a report issued by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Research Competitiveness Program, commissioned by the UNC General Administration. One of the recommendations in this report was for UNC to “commission studies on the economic valuation of coastal ecosystem services and natural capital.” Oyster reefs were the resource in question for the capstone, and over the course of the semester, students worked in small groups to quantify ecosystem services provided by these habitats. Ecosystem services refer to processes that are naturally facilitated by habitats and considered relevant to human interests. The physical presence of oyster reefs, for example, helps reduce wave energy, which could limit erosion and loss of coastal property. Ecosystem services are typically represented with dollar values, and the challenge for the IE students was to assess a range of services and convert the data into meaningful economic units.

The students chose to survey oyster reefs that were both closed and open to shellfishing. Working in small groups, they measured physical parameters of the reefs and analyzed water filtration, nitrogen cycling, and habitat provision. One group also measured fecal indicator bacteria in the reefs, which is typically used to guide safe shellfish harvesting. Students planned and executed the lab and field work, giving them ownership over their research that usually isn’t available until graduate school. Meanwhile, I learned to better facilitate group-based research, sometimes through trial and error: always double-check for all field equipment before leaving the dock! The Morehead City IE students also had the opportunity to meet with IE students from the Outer Banks Field Site, located at UNC’s Coastal Studies Institute in Manteo, who were studying oyster aquaculture. During their weekend retreat, the students compared their research methods and results, and brainstormed ways to combine their data in the future.

By the time the students shared their findings with a packed seminar room at the capstone final presentation, they were knowledgeable and articulate about many aspects of oyster reef ecology. After presenting their research, which indicated that the oyster reefs studied were valued between $22 and $32 per square meter, the students deftly answered challenging questions from the audience. They also compiled a written report that will help local coastal managers prioritize oyster reef restoration initiatives. As a grad student, research is my full-time job, and helping the IE students become researchers too gave my own work renewed clarity and meaning. Like anything else, scientific research includes ups and downs, but the IE semester helped both the undergrads and me understand research in ways that go far, far beyond expectations.

You can read more about IMS undergraduate research on oysters here, here, and here.

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.