Fostering Critical Thinking

by Todd M. Jensen, MSW
School of Social Work

During the Spring 2016 semester, I joined Drs. Aaron Shackelford and Mimi Chapman in their undergraduate American Studies 398 course as a Graduate Research Consultant (GRC). This was a service learning course with a focus on the arts and social change. Students in the course had the opportunity to develop a research project in which they proposed an arts-based intervention to address a particular social problem or challenge related to their field-placement work. My role for this project, and throughout the course, was to serve as a mentor, source of support, and consultant with respect to the research process. In addition to meeting one-on-one with students, I made a presentation in class centered on the nature and value of research. I also highlighted some of my own research in an effort to provide real-world illustrations of how research can impact individuals and organizations.

As a social work researcher and doctoral candidate, I am passionate about helping others become wise consumers, appliers, and producers of knowledge. Serving as a GRC provided a great opportunity to work with undergraduate students and to foster within them an appreciation for research and evidence-informed decision-making. I believe exposure to research should be a central component of the higher-education experience, and the GRC role provided me a meaningful opportunity to engage undergraduate students in that capacity.

My time serving as a GRC also provided me with several lessons. For one, I quickly learned that undergraduate students at UNC are generally very competent, capable of engaging in thoughtful discussion and critical thinking. The students with whom I worked were able to take in and process relatively complex information and explore new ideas with enthusiasm and excitement. In addition, I learned (or perhaps re-learned) that you can never start too early in terms of fostering critical thinking, healthy skepticism, curiosity, creativity, and an understanding of varying epistemologies—abilities and features that will serve young undergraduate students well as they move forward in their academic and professional careers.


Hungry for Survival

by Michaela Dwyer
Department of American Studies

Cast on new ground
Must first perceive
That it knows nothing.”
—Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower

My spring semester began with Octavia Butler, and with a series of then-unanswerable questions: How do we forecast food futures? Who can access survival? What tastes like home? As a Graduate Research Consultant in Dr. Michelle Robinson’s Literary Approaches to American Studies course (AMST 201), I collaborated with Dr. Robinson to situate Butler’s novel—a core text for the course—as a way for undergraduate students to think creatively and experimentally about food. The dystopian text—set in a near-future America where apocalypse seems both imminent and already underway—asks variations on the questions Dr. Robinson and I identified. Faced with limited possibilities for self-sustenance, Butler’s teenage narrator strikes out in search of fertile land to plant “Earthseed,” a self-created religion (and, later, a community). She writes in diaristic missives, recounting her travails and listing changes to her survival kit.

Dr. Robinson and I used this idea of the “survival kit” as a way for students to investigate the values they attach to food, place, and community—especially in the face of a precarious environmental future. We applied for and received a UNC Food for All Micro Grant for the course; this grant enabled us to prepare a “speculative food tradeshow” for the students. The tradeshow included around 30 food samples and food accessories deemed appropriate (by health gurus, apocalypse survival advocates, etc.) for survival scenarios such as those fictionalized in Parable of the Sower. Students immersed themselves by testing instant dinners, energy chews, and protein powder. All throughout, they were on a mission: to identify the object that most accorded with their own “recipe” for survival.

This food object became the kernel for the students’ “speculative food writing” project. Pedagogically, I built on Dr. Robinson’s previous discussions of speculative fiction to ask the students what speculative food writing might look like. Taken at face value, “speculative” signals an orientation toward the unknown, and to the imaginable. As a GRC, I tried to model this approach for the students. I developed a lecture/workshop on speculative food writing using an essay of my own (“Southern Maps,” written for Dr. Bernie Herman’s Writing Material Culture course, another American Studies offering) as well as my background in nonfiction writing. I distilled a set of possibilities for a “speculative” approach to writing about food objects that borrowed from documentary writing pedagogy (i.e., turn outward into the world and displace oneself from the familiar; write as a way to make things legible but also as a way to allow for multiple interpretations; consider your positionality as a writer.) Students drew out these themes in their own essays, which you can read (in addition to more information about this course and project) at

This course project encouraged students to adopt a flexible, creative, and imaginative approach to humanities research. It proposed research as, quite literally, a form of doing. Preparing material in consultation with Dr. Robinson in turn required me to expand the bounds of my own research philosophy and methods. I left this course hungry (no pun intended) for more opportunities to embark on tactile and embodied forms of intellectual exploration.

Teaching Research in a Large Lecture Class

by Seth Barrett
Department of Chemistry

This past semester, I have been fortunate to serve as a Graduate Research Consultant in CHEM 251: Introduction to Inorganic Chemistry. Working with Professor Miller, the class focuses on the properties and reactivity of metals. We designed two research-based projects that allowed nearly 170 students to gain exposure to the aspects of chemical research that take place outside of the laboratory.
In the first project, I encouraged students to draft, edit, and submit clicker questions designed to test understanding of the material and reinforce concepts from class though the use of chemistry in real world applications. The research-based clicker question encourages students to think about chemistry beyond the classroom, looking through the scientific literature to discover new, real world examples using inorganic compounds. The questions illustrate how basic concepts of inorganic chemistry appear in cutting edge technology and research.

Once students drafted their research based clicker questions, I held peer review sessions in which students reviewed and edited their neighbors’ clicker questions to further improve the question. This process exposes the students to the peer review process, a critical component of scientific research and publishing.

In the second project, I created a research-based question for each of the five problems sets assigned during the semester. The research-based questions were designed to connect a concept discussed in class to a real word application. In one example, I asked students about ruthenium(II) tris(bipyridine), a transition metal complex that was made famous by the renowned UNC chemist Professor T. J. Meyer. The students used two publications from the primary scientific literature to answer questions about fundamental inorganic structure and reactivity. Students learned about a significant scientific contribution from UNC and gained experience gleaning information from primary scientific literature, while connecting the research findings back to elementary concepts in inorganic chemistry.

Through the GRC program, Professor Miller and I were able to incorporate a research component into a large lecture class while taking advantage of existing active learning techniques comprised of group problem solving through word problems, clicker questions, and exam review sessions. Students gained experience searching for and reading scientific articles, applying concepts learned in class to challenging, state-of-the art research. Students participated in the peer review process, writing and editing research-based clicker questions. Through two research projects, students discovered the ever-changing world of chemistry and the importance of using chemistry in real world applications.

The Roaring Research Ocean

by Amanda Moehlenpah

The ocean—an expanse of blue glass that surges gently, rhythmically, predictably, its foam-capped waves grasping eagerly at the shore. Standing at a distance, the water appears endless yet approachable, awe-inspiring yet someone familiar. As we deliver our bodies to its icy wet, we quickly understand that it is not the soothing body of water we perceived at first impression. Rather it is a monster, with greater risks and greater perils the farther we plunge into its depths.

The metaphor may seem exaggerated, even ridiculously so, but to first- and second-year undergraduate students—pleasure-seeking beach-goers forced into the roaring waters of a research university—it is more than accurate. The expanse of resources available through our library systems is titillating to an experienced diver (the graduate student and the professor) but terrifying to the undergraduate. Those of us who have come to understand the beauty and wonder of the research ocean and the life-giving resources that it furnishes are immune to its dangers but not the undergraduate. She only sees the stacks of books, the dizzying interconnectivity of the library system, and the online search engines linked to thousands of printed pages as a ferocious beast waiting to consume her. Requesting a short bibliography on a specific topic is akin to self-immolation.

Serving as a GRC this past spring for an introductory French literature course reminded me of the importance of taking these novice swimmers by the hand and leading them gingerly out into the ocean. They cannot be tossed a life jacket and instructed to float along or even shown a few elementary strokes and then left to tread water. If we truly wish to produce excellent scholars, undaunted and even invigorated by the research ocean, we must carefully instruct them as to its wonders and dangers. We cannot omit one detail or they will surely drown. This does not mean that we cross the ocean for them while they profit from our exertion to stay afloat, but it does mean that we do not let them venture out on their own without assuring ourselves first that they have the skills necessary to survive and thrive. I would encourage every graduate student not to assume that the undergraduates in their care understand the research ocean or know how to navigate it. If they pass the swim examination with flying colors, then we can conclude otherwise, but for most, we must take the time to give them proper instruction so that they are assured of a successful voyage.

The Logic of “Yes, AND”

by Andrew G. Jenkins
Department of Communication

In Spring of 2016 I was fortunate enough to join Andrew Davis’s Practicum in Cultural Studies (COMM350) as a Graduate Research Consultant (GRC). This advanced introduction to the project of cultural studies departs from the typical course designs found in other areas of the humanities and social sciences in exciting and engaging ways that rely heavily upon student-driven research. The course adopts what Davis and others within the project call an “anti-anti-essentialist” stance on knowledge production and cultural analysis in order to understand the complexity of cultural processes and phenomena. Cultural Studies develops out of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University in the UK, and is driven by an openness to cultural analysis that Davis describes to his students metaphorically as a “logic of yes, and.” By this, Davis indicates the commitment to engaging cultural phenomena from multiple perspectives, situating the phenomena under analysis within its proper context, and tracing the complex assemblage of articulations that converge to make that phenomena mean certain things to certain people. As the course title suggests, this practicum offers students a perhaps novel way to go about understanding cultural phenomena by asking them to do the work of cultural studies. Pragmatically, this means the course develops around student-designed group research projects that culminate in a co-produced article length paper, delivered as a collective presentation at the end of the course. It was my privilege to function as a research consultant for these groups, suggesting particular methodologies, resources, and theoretical perspectives to help otherwise self-driven research projects come to fruition. Such a research-focused paradigm for course instruction is imperative in today’s information-dense society.

But the course was not just exciting for its novelty and the challenge of group-research. Pedagogically, this course helped me to recognize the need for multi-modal teaching strategies that engage a variety of learning styles. Such multiplicity aids in honing the critical thinking abilities of our undergraduate students by asking them to apply the theoretical frameworks to self-procured ‘raw data’ in order to make persuasive claims about particular cultural phenomena and the implications of those phenomena. This course has also opened my eyes to the importance of peer engagement in the education process. Students given the opportunity to debate amongst themselves, within limited and agreed upon theoretical and empirical boundaries, offers a space for collaboration and collective deliberation that fosters a cooperative understanding of knowledge production itself. It also forces us to recognize the importance of a multi-perspectival approach to understanding both cultural phenomena and knowledge production, offering students a way to link research work with a deeper and more complex understanding of social reality. I would highly recommend the experience of being a GRC for the engagement with undergraduate researchers, to hone your own understanding of method, process, and interpretation in research, and to gain greater perspective on the relations between pedagogy and research.

Thinking Through Research

by Lauren Townsend
Department of Philosophy

One of the most important things I have found to be a part of working with students engaged in philosophical research for the first time is helping them understand basic research methods. Philosophy often requires an unfamiliar way of thinking and writing that students need practice and instruction to get the hang of. Because we do not have to worry about lab safety, IRBs, and other more formal protocol many instructors forget that students haven’t a clue where to begin–and many students have a harder time grasping what is expected of them. My consulting with undergraduates this semester most often took the form of helping them think through their ideas, figure out where to find sources, and providing guidance about the structure their papers. While in other fields the research and the writing components comprise distinct parts of the research process, in philosophy the writing often just is the process of an individual working out her ideas. First-time philosophy students definitely need support finding their way to the databases and search phrases that will be most effective, determining when non-philosophical or empirical work is an appropriate text to consult, and learning what kind of research questions philosophers ask. But, they often need support researching their own intuitions. Learning how to think through and evaluate their own thoughts, evaluate the ideas of others, and put into words the reasoning they find adequate to support their claims is the project of a philosophy course and philosophical research. Integrating research into a philosophy course is quite simple—many courses already require a term paper necessitating philosophical research. But seeing the GRC model engagement with the professor, having them as a resource for feedback on outlines, drafts, and most importantly to discuss ideas with is an even better way to introduce undergraduates to philosophical research for the first time.

To Be Or Not To Be…Researching the Tragic Fire in Hamlet, NC

by Gregory DeCandia
2016 Graduate Research Consultant
Department of Dramatic Art

It is essential for an actor to be a ravenous researcher to truly portray the raw emotion of another’s tragic circumstances. UNC’s Drama 85H- Documentary Theatre course presented freshman students alternative methods to make research more resonant, long-lasting, and even fun. Research projects ranging from the traditional to the avant-garde instilled a deeper understanding of the events surrounding the tragic fire at Imperial Food in Hamlet, NC. Students began their research of North Carolina’s worst industrial disaster at UNC’s Davis Library under the guidance of Dramatic Arts Librarian Thomas Nixon. Mr. Nixon highlighted for students the Library’s impressive access to periodicals, databases, and an arsenal of internet tools to enhance their research papers that tackled topics from race relations to food processing regulations.

Next students were exposed the the audio library of the award winning Southern Oral History Project (SOHP) allowing them to listen to first hand accounts of a wide range of experiences of living in the South. Students selected SOHP transcriptions to cull into theatrical monologues to be performed during the courses’ final presentation. Local choreographer, Aya Shabu, offered a workshop in documentary dance that created a vocabulary of movement for students to physicalize their research and experience the monotony of factory work.

Ernest Grant, RN, Anita Fields, RN, and Pastor Shirley M. Massey from UNC’s Jaycee Burn Center were invited to share their experience treating burn victims and their families physically, mentally, and spiritually. The fact that these nurses treated victims from the Hamlet fire had a profound effect on the students’ understanding of this event. A field trip to Hamlet, NC allowed students to actually walk the site of the fire, pay their respects at the memorial, and experience the sights and sounds of this tiny town that had suffered so greatly. Once all the research and reflections were compiled, the class, Professor Kathy Williams, playwright Howard Croft, and I collaborated to present the results in theatrical form. Ultimately a script was written, rehearsed, and presented by the students as a stage reading on the last day of class to a very responsive audience. The effort of the expansive research will continue on by serving as a dramaturgical source for a new play by Mr. Howard Croft and directed by Kathy Williams during Kenan Theater Company’s 2016-17 Season at UNC Chapel Hill.

4 Lessons from Working with Undergraduate Researchers

by Anthony Chergosky

student speaking in front of undergraduates1. Individualize your advising. Although many graduate students have received extensive training in research methods, most of the students I worked with were fairly new to conducting original research projects. Thus, awareness of your audience is critical when working with undergraduate researchers. For me, this involved asking students about their background in research methods and advising their projects accordingly. If I found out that a student had taken several classes in statistics, we could devote attention to relatively advanced quantitative data analysis. For students without prior coursework in statistics, I would focus more on the processes of theory development and relatively basic data analysis. Through individualizing my approach, students could gain valuable experience with the research process that built on the skills and prior knowledge they brought to the class.

2. Reduce large projects to small, manageable steps. Students can be overwhelmed by the prospect of conducting original research projects simply because the size of the entire project can seem overwhelming. I combatted this through helping students break down the full process of completing their research projects into smaller, specific steps. Rather than telling students to “work on their projects,” for instance, I tried instructing them to “find three relevant academic publications” or “identify an appropriate data source.” Completing these smaller steps gave students a sense of accomplishment along the way to finishing the overall project, helping them maintain motivation throughout the research process.

3. Keep the interests of students first. When students asked me for guidance about topics to research and address in their projects, I needed to resist the temptation to steer them toward topics that I study. I knew where this temptation was coming from, as I was in the position of advising students and would naturally feel comfortable advising them on familiar subjects. However, this approach risked putting my interests before those of the students. As a result, I made sure to remember the importance of understanding the interests of my students, and making sure that their projects reflected their interests. After all, students are more likely to be driven to complete a high-quality research project when the project addresses a topic that is personally important and meaningful to them.

4. Convey your passion for research. As students encountered the struggles that are inevitable in the research process, I found it useful to help them stay motivated through emphasizing why research is worth conducting in the first place. In what ways will their research projects offer interesting, important insights? What will we learn from the projects? What is original and novel about the research they are conducting? I loved noting the exciting lessons to be learned from students’ research and seeing the students react with enthusiasm. I believe that this helped convey the importance of academic research and showed students that their projects were much more than just a course requirement!

Surf, Sand, and Trash: Undergrad Research on Marine Debris at the Institute of Marine Sciences

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


Not your typical day at the beach! Capstone students walk along the shores of Carrot Island, searching for debris.

Not your typical day at the beach! Capstone students walk along the shores of Carrot Island, searching for debris.

The students looked like they were running drill practice as they walked up and down the shore of Carrot Island. They weren’t enrolled in ROTC though, and no one had lost a valuable. In fact, the students were searching for the exact opposite: they were looking for trash. Judging from the heavy garbage bags they were toting, this was a sadly successful mission.

The students had plenty of trash in their futures. The class of 11 undergraduates was enrolled in the UNC’s Institute for the Environment (IE) Morehead City Field Site at the Institute of Marine Sciences (IMS). Located in the southern Outer Banks, IMS is a marine lab that studies everything from algae to hurricanes to fisheries. It may sound unglamorous to add trash to that list of research topics, but thanks to work done by the IE Field Site Capstone course, we can do just that.

student standing with trash

Patrick Winner holds marine debris collected from the beach.

The Field Site Capstone (ENEC 698) is designed to immerse students in a topic pertinent to the Morehead City area. Students are charged to think like consultants and work in small groups to ultimately create a report and presentation attended by the public and relevant stakeholders. After serving as a Graduate Research Consultant for last year’s class, I was assigned to work with the Fall 2015 Capstone, which focused on the prolific problem of marine debris.

The students decided to investigate the impact of human recreational activities on the presence and distribution of coastal marine debris. Their study sites were beaches used by people in different ways. One beach, for example, was on an island mainly visited by the odd boating party looking for a temporary place to anchor. Another study site was Shackleford Banks, which receives high volumes of tourist traffic in the summer. The Capstone students were interested in exploring the connection between beach use and trash along the shoreline. After framing their question, the students started to develop a research plan.

The group-based format of the Capstone makes the GRC role particularly necessary. As a graduate student, the research process is almost second-nature to me, but many of the undergrads had never designed an experiment or packed for a field day. My role was especially pronounced in the first half of the class, as I helped the groups organize their research plans. Of course, it was also important for me to assist with fieldwork, which conveniently enough is at the beach!

students grabbing buckets and boarding small boat

The students sort through debris as they prepare to hop aboard the boat back to IMS.

At each site, the students paced systematically along the shoreline, documenting and collecting any debris. The debris they found was analyzed in various ways, including taking measurements and quantifying bacterial abundances. Meanwhile, other groups within the Capstone worked on supporting research questions. One group conducted an experiment to document organisms that colonized pieces of marine debris over time. Another used data from The Ocean Conservancy to compare marine debris in Morehead City to coastlines worldwide. I was available during all parts of the research process, including near the end as the students synthesized their work into a final report and presentation.

Among their many findings, the Capstone class reported that small pieces of plastic were the most common type of marine debris on Carteret County beaches. They recommended that future beach clean-ups focus on zones of the shoreline with the highest concentration of debris. Since the students presented these results to an audience that included local environmental professionals, their findings may help future beach clean-ups more efficiently remove debris.

Thanks to the 2015 Field Site Capstone, beaches in the Crystal Coast now stand a better chance of being crystal clean!

Locating Lynching: Digital Humanities and Undergraduate Research

Written by Elijah Gaddis, GRC and graduate student in the Department of American Studies

One hundred and twenty three years ago this month, Carter Burnett was abducted from his jail cell in Oxford, North Carolina and hanged from a nearby tree. The men responsible for his murder were never caught. His death was a lynching–one instance of the extralegal mob violence that plagued North Carolina for decades, especially in the years during North Carolina’s gradual transition into the 20th century. Carter Burnett’s story is one of the roughly one hundred and fifty stories featured in Locating Lynching. This digital humanities project was born out of a collaboration between myself, Dr. Seth Kotch, and a class of first year students. It maps every reported lynching that took place in North Carolina between 1865-1941 in an attempt to show how widespread this form of racial terror was and how close our connection to many of these landscapes still is.

While serving as a Graduate Research Consultant for Seth Kotch’s first year class, Digital Humanities: The Rural South, I came to class initially to help the students with digital research tools and strategies. Early on in the class, the Equal Justice Initiative and its project to place historical markers on the sites of every lynching in the South was profiled in a New York Times article. Dr. Kotch brought this article and an accompanying map to the students and discussed its implications for the study of the rural South and for the digital humanities methods that the students were learning. Afterward, when he polled the students, they unanimously agreed to forego their individual projects in favor of working on a larger scale digital map that would show the lynchings in North Carolina and reveal details of the lives of some of its victims.

The ability to change direction here was important. It allowed the students to be invested in a project that they’d help outline and that they wanted to learn more about. It suggested to them the possibilities of digital research and digital humanities tools which would allow them to collaborate with one another. And most importantly, it showed them that research–original research that they conducted–could be responsive, important, and timely.lynching capture

To start the project, we paired students up and assigned them lynchings to research. They used digitized newspapers, city directories, and census data to find out about each lynching and each victim. Their data went into a database that I had designed in consultation with Dr. Kotch. As the students continued research, fuller stories of these events and the people at their center started to emerge. We saw, in what those of us working in digital humanities often think of simply as “data,” sketches of the lives of people made marginal by their race or social class and whose lives each ended amid the indignity and terror of a communal practice that left great wounds on the history and landscape of North Carolina. For the students, this was a lesson both in how to do research and why research matters. Like me, many of them were struck to discover how close many of these lynching sites were to places they’d been many times before. They helped uncover and make visible hidden histories that we all live with and among.

We published a version of Locating Lynching in October, 2015. We hope to continue and expand the project in the future, but you can see our interactive map of North Carolina Lynchings, as well as explanations of our process and further details at