Doing Research with Humanities Undergraduates [uncut version]

I am grateful to the editors over at The Chronicle of Higher Education for publishing my thoughts about helping undergrads take their work in humanities classes more seriously in the form of this essay. And I am also on record as saying that I love editors. I do. They do tremendous and often thankless work and usually, they make my writing sound better after they’ve fiddled a bit.

But in the case of this piece, I just miss some of the pacing, inversions, and odd verbs that I had in the original, before the language was flattened for a broad readership like the Chronicle’s. I do think that it is clearer in its final form, and I also think clarity is a noble goal, but, when the edits came back I was a bit sad. To give you a sense of what I mean, here is the opening as I originally had it:

Admissions Office materials routinely tout the benefits of small class-sizes with pictures of lab-coated undergrads doing beaker-work alongside goggled science-professionals. But how much is that work real work, I've always wondered. Are the pair about to discover something? Or is the research, like the photo, staged? And how could we in the undergraduate Humanities engage the eager intellectuals, however “budding,” with which we’re surrounded? Mightn’t giving students real, necessary, projects to do, rather than just "assignments," be a boon to all concerned?

Admissions brochures routinely tout the benefits of small class sizes, with pictures of lab-coated undergraduates doing beaker-work alongside science professors in safety goggles. I've always wondered: Is the research, like the image, staged or real? And if it is real, could those of us in the humanities offer undergraduates a similar opportunity to contribute to our scholarship?



See what I mean?

One other thing that got left on the cutting room floor was the fourth anecdote, cut for length. Unfortunately, this was the one specific to the Writing classes I teach at SPU. I liked it. I still do.

Here then, for the curious, is the excised passage, featuring one more tip on how humanities professors might engage their students in fruitful research.

And one more: I recently transitioned to a new university and was a bit flummoxed by some of the mythologies and folkways that made up the campus culture. I was new, but I loved the place instantly and wanted to know as much about it as possible, to put the new country's wine in my blood, so to speak. But when was I going to bother researching the figure for whom the building I work in was named? I was curious--I usually am--about such things: "Tiffany Loop" sounds like such an evocative, almost a magical name for a quadrangle, and it's a lovely place, full of century-old plane trees and poplars. Who was this Tiffany? I could research it myself, but I've got a new book just published and babies at home. So I thought I'd have to leave aside the buzzing in my ear, the questions constant as my two-year-old's: why is there a totem pole on campus? How come that road doesn't lead anywhere? Who made that great relief sculpture on the clock tower?

Then, I remembered I was assigned to teach a composition class aimed at helping freshman write argumentative academic papers. The HOWTO text was fixed, but we could assign any readings we wanted. I read somewhere that a good leader is someone who refuses to take the leadership position, instead directing energy where it is most likely to solve problems. I wonder if the same is true for professors. I could very well have looked up all this information on my own. I could have told it to them via lecture or media slides, could have quizzed them to make sure they'd mastered it before leaving my class and assigned papers wherein they told those stories back to me. That would have been fine. Normal even. But it would have meant a lot more prep for me and a lot less fun for them. Instead of playing the authority distributing knowledge, I turned them into explorers, discoverers: authorities at least on their chosen site. They'd pick a named site--a building, a stairway, a library collection, and write research papers based on their findings.

They uncovered some interesting things. One noted, for example, looking through the archives, a photograph from one of the college's first graduating classes featuring four seated figures: two of them women and one a native American, which made real for her the fact that SPU has been co-educational and diverse since its founding. That affects how she thinks about the campus now: that diversity and gender equity are not --for us anyway--historical correctives or post-1970's activism come home to roost. They are part of our DNA, as integral to what this place is as those plane trees in Tiffany Loop.

Another student found that few of the buildings are named for actual donors. Most were ways of honoring longtime servants of the college: a librarian here, a biology teacher there. One of my students knows more about the sculpture in my building's lobby than anyone else on campus. Maybe anyone else anywhere, since she found the sculptor's address and wrote him a physical letter to which he responded with the details of its creation, touched that anyone cared. Another wrote a eulogistic description of a courtyard we've just lost due to renovation. I found out about the totem pole.

The point is not that students are an untapped labor resource that we should exploit to our engorgement, but that they're people, and people, I have found, generally know when they're being tricked. Inviting students into one's actual research can be daunting to set up, and it can't always be done--certain classes need to be taught regardless of how they match up with our current research concerns, but if you have a supportive enough environment, as I do, what one usually needs is the imagination to think aloud, alright, I've got to teach such and such a class. I've got the goggles; you get the beaker. What couldn't we brew up?

Teaching Digital Humanities

This is my tenth year of teaching at the university level, and while I usually have students make some kind of project in addition to writing essays, the projects for the class I've just finished were exceptional, for the clarity of thought that went into them, and the sheer import of the undertakings. 

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The class was called Texting: Writing about Digital Humanities, and the idea was to introduce students at an early stage in their academic careers (this was my first time teaching Freshmen in quite a while) to the plethora of tools available to them during this explosion of all things digital, but also to the problems surrounding the humanities generally, and the digital ones specifically. Not least: what are they?

If nothing else, I wanted to gain, over the course of the class, an answer to that question, and so we set out, week by week, confronting the memes and websites, databases, archives, and articles that make up the debates surrounding

  • Digital Music
  • Digital Scholarship
  • Digital Poetics
  • The New Aesthetic
  • News Aggregators
  • Centers, Symposia, Initiatives
  • DH Resources particular to UW

One student, in a farewell blog post, summed up our project particularly well:

After taking English classes for more than 7 years, I expected to re-learn about things I have already been taught. How wrong I was. My English 111 class's focus was digital humanities; something I've never even heard of. We learned to navigate our way of information, data, history, poems, research, and so much more through the future of the digital age. We live in this digital age and it only grows from here, so I thought that learning about it now will only allow us to strive for greater success later. It doesn't end here. We would take digital works of course, such as articlesblogspoems and really learn to dig deep into them and read. Read for context, read for analytical purpose, but we also read for style. Like what apprentices do, we learned from people who were better than us, who had mastered what we desired.

The class explicitly aimed at education's not being theoretical. I didn't just want them to know what I could tell them during our ten weeks together, but how to learn/make/do whatever it is they are individually in to better ever afterward. Again, a student summed it up better than I can:

I remember in our first day of class, our teacher told us something that stuck with me. He said, "You can do, what you can do." He put great emphasis on how much impact one person can make if they really wanted to. Throughout the whole quarter, we learned about many great organizations and devices that became successful just because one person had a crazy idea.  Due to English 111, I have learned "One person is all it takes", is overused for a reason; because it's true.

You can read more of the students' weekly responses here.

Projects

This is the really exciting part.  The students completed two large projects for the class in groups; one of them, called "The New Aesthetic Project," I'll have to tell you about later; the other was a Free Project of their own choice and devise. The prompt said simply find something that could be better and make it that way using the tools we've discussed. Here's a sample of what they outlined and built:

  • A Facebook page--The Husky Food Project--featuring photos and reviews of every restaurant, eatery, or coffee stand on campus
  • A book (pdf preview here), yes, that you can buy in hardback, softcover, or pdf from here, which is a guide to all the public art on University of Washington's campus, featuring pictures, history, and a short description of each.
  • A Comprehensive Digital Map of UW building interiors (for finding your class on the first day of school, bathrooms, etc) whose pitch is just a model of professionalism and urgency.
  • An e-book about 100 Changes Due to Tech.
  • A website listing all the free products available to students at UW

The point is, I was impressed. These students, for many of whom this was their first college class ever, conceived of, argued for the importance of, and executed significant projects they designed, while writing papers, doing readings, and keeping up with the other, rather large project we were working on as a class.  Hats off!