“Interdisciplinary research is disciplinary research or digital humanities are just humanities”

by Grant Glass, M.A./Ph.D. Student and Teaching Fellow | Department of English and Comparative Literature

During the Fall 2018 semester, I joined Dr. Courtney Rivard in her undergraduate research class “English 353: Metadata, Mark-up, and Mapping: Understanding the Rhetoric of Digital Humanities” as a Graduate Research Consultant (GRC). This Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE) has greatly influenced what kind of researcher and educator I want to be.

Recently the humanities have stressed doing interdisciplinary work, which famous literary critic Stanley Fish once characterized as “very hard to do.” It is difficult because one has to have a complete understanding of at least one domain in another field’s discourse and concepts. However, with the expansion of digital tools and methods, many disciplines including English have attempted to bridge computing with the humanities with rather limited traction. If the expectations of a scholar are mastery over a particular subject, then doesn’t the interdisciplinary scholar risk alienating their home discipline in order to become interdisciplinary? Courses like Dr. Rivard’s challenged me to take on this question not from a theoretical standpoint, but from a more practical one, where we would teach the students how to critically think about code and algorithms while using those same methods to answer questions in the humanities.

While serving as a GRC, I came to realize that many graduate and undergraduate students are already doing interdisciplinary research. They have no issues reading in another discipline and deploying different methodologies simultaneously. Maybe then the future of digital humanities is just humanities research. Is the practice of doing interdisciplinary research the way out of theorizing about it? Because the nature of contemporary work in the humanities often involves technologies that mediate our research and help us gain access to new material through search engines, this work is already “digital” in nature. Helping undergraduates see they are already doing some sort of interdisciplinary work by mediating their research practices through technology will help shape the future of what research in the humanities looks like. This mediation is not limited to just academics; we all use these technologies. So, much like the New Historicists thought we should talk about the historical context of texts, English 353 advocates for examining the technological context of our research. However, to do this type of analysis is to do interdisciplinary work.

Essentially, through this class, we are making an intervention that digital humanities must become the humanities and therefore we need to dispense with debates centered around interdisciplinary concerns. Once we move on from these debates, combining digital humanities with traditional humanities, we can articulate why the humanities matter more than ever in our ever expanding digital world.

Storytelling in Business

by Dave Shevlin, 2nd Year MBA student at Kenan-Flagler Business School, Graduate Research Consultant for ENGL 105i

Facts, figures, data: dumped. An issue that I have observed in many of the presentations I have witnessedand, admittedly, some that I have givenis that too often the facts, figures, and data are left to speak for themselves. The research phase of a project tends to be rushed for one reason or another, and then, armed with a few nuggets of knowledge, the presenters get to work assembling a presentation. While the research may induce curiosity, it does not become compelling until it is effectively worked into the arc of the story.

Over the fall semester I had the pleasure of working with Professor Liz Gualtieri-Reed’s ENGL 105i course, Writing in Business. As a recovering consultant and current graduate business student, I was asked to meet with teams of undergraduate students to help them with a consulting project of their own. Their task: to develop a written proposal and deliver a final presentation to the Department of English and Comparative Literature on ways to more effectively engage various stakeholder groups (prospective majors/minors, alumni, employers, and donors/partners). The students leaned on the support of Professor Gualtieri-Reed and the librarians for specific research tools and sources, but my role was to ensure that the students were not going to dump the data and run.

If the students were reflecting on this experience, they might think of me as a broken record with a whiteboard and marker (as I said, a recovering consultant), but in my view there are a few key points to consider when crafting an effective, persuasive presentation:

  1. Know your audience and their goals. By nature, individuals tend to focus on themselves. What is my goal here? A strong consultant needs to balance the goals of the team (in this case, the parameters of the assignment) with the goals of the client organization. A consultant might assume that all clients want to increase profits, but perhaps a business owner is making sufficient income and additional profits would mean less family time. Asking the right questions is the best way to discern the client’s objectives. I like to use open-ended TEDY questions: Tell me, Explain to me, Describe to me, and Why?
  2. Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them. The structure of a presentation is critical, and this is the simplest formula for making sure the message is retained. Setting the stage with some combination of a ‘hook’, an executive summary, and an agenda will pique the audience’s interest and let them know what they are about to hear. To be even more blunt, I prefer to BLUF, or put the Bottom Line Up Front. Next, deliver the content (more on that below). Lastly, recap the problem and recommendations, and end with a call to action. Each repetition sets the message deeper with the audience.
  3. Recommendation. Data. Risks. Next Steps. Structuring each recommendation is just as important as structuring the overall presentation. The method that I use is derived from my case interview preparation. Recommendation: Tell the audience the details of the proposal and, importantly, the problem it is solving. Data: Use this as justification for why the recommendation will help to achieve the client’s objectives (see above). Risks: Show vulnerability. Sharing risks can feel counterintuitive, but sharing them along with potential resolutions can show the audience that the proposal is well crafted. Next Steps: Share a plan for getting started to help get even the most skeptical client on board with the recommendations.

Presentations that lack substantive research will fall flat, but research that is dumped (i.e., not effectively delivered) will not do much good either. My advice to the ENGL 105i students was to view their presentations as opportunities for storytelling. The students’ advice to me was to drop the marker and step away from the whiteboard…

Looking Back on PSYC 058H: First Year Seminar: The Psychology of Mental States and Language Use

by Sandra Zerkle, GRC and Graduate Student in Cognitive Psychology (Department of Psychology & Neuroscience)

As a GRC I assisted my advisor, Dr. Jennifer Arnold, as a GRC for her First Year Seminar in Psychology. The course is offered to first year honors students, and focuses on examining how we infer other people’s mental states and how we use this information to guide decisions in speaking and understanding language. A major component of this course is to learn techniques of experimental psychology and develop and test a novel research question. My task was to mentor students as they designed and conducted their own research projects. It was especially rewarding to see such bright students get excited about their own experiments and their eagerness to learn how to improve their research techniques.

Early in the semester I used Qualtrics and Amazon Mechanical Turk to collect data for a pronoun comprehension experiment, and Dr. Arnold and I presented this data and used it as a means to talk about experiment design as well as data organization and analysis. For many students, this was the first time they had seen behavioral data in a spreadsheet format, and they were in awe of the complicated things we could do with a click or drag of a mouse. I believe this sparked even more interest in their projects, because they were excited to get their hands on their own data and comprehend what it meant.

Students with overlapping interests in a specific research question were organized into groups of two to four people. They had been reading and writing article summaries throughout the semester, so they knew what their options were for interesting questions to ask about mental states and language use. Topics ranged from the informative-ness of referential gestures, to sarcastic speech and understanding, to the benefits of face-to-face conversation during matching tasks. I assisted each group with narrowing down their ideas into a feasible research question, and prompting them to think of variables that could be manipulated to test these questions. Each group then ran their experiments on their friends around campus, and brought their data back to class to be analyzed.

To me, this was the most exciting part because students had to work through the hard tasks of cleaning, coding, and transcribing their data, but they also get to see beautiful graphs emerge from the numbers at the end. Watching students’ excitement about how they understood their results was incredible to witness, and it reminds me why I love doing research in psychology as well. Even if their findings did not support what they originally predicted, at the very least I had prompted the brainstorming of alternative explanations and possible limitations of their designs. At the end of the semester, each student wrote their own research report, and each group gave a presentation to the class about their findings. I offered support during the writing process in the form of feedback on their drafts, and many expressed appreciation for this as it improved their writing before the final report was due.

They might not know it, but these students have already learned more about research by doing it themselves in this course than they could by just reading about experiments in other psychology classes. I hope this experience pays off for them in the future, because they now have an arsenal of tools to use the next time they find themselves doing experimental psychology. From this experience, I have learned how to be a better mentor and different ways to communicate with students. If I could act as a GRC again, I would emphasize the importance of collaboration and teamwork in order for the research projects to be successful. I would also spend more time talking about my own path to becoming a graduate student and how I came to love thinking about research methods and analysis in the field of psychology. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to have been involved in the GRC program, and I am thoroughly impressed by the intelligence and enthusiasm for research these Carolina students have!

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 www.seedsofsurvival.web.unc.edu.

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.