The Research Seminar: Part 1- Building the Course

Eight seniors have signed on to take a leap into the unknown with me this semester. I have taught six of them before, but not in a course like this. There is no set curriculum. The course will be what the students want it to be, and I am excited and a little terrified.  Anyone who really knows me, knows that I like to be in control. While I do not feel like I have lost control, it is a different kind of teaching when you feel obligated to consult the class on all matters.

We started with three basic questions. What do you want to learn? How do you want to learn it? How will you demonstrate/share what you have learned? In the first week, we have been trying to answer them. The first class involved some discussion and brainstorming of ideas for research. Then students spent time in the next class working on their chosen topics. Today, we sat around the seminar table, and each student shared what he or she has been working on. In some cases, there has been a laser focus; two students came into the class with an idea of what they wanted to research and have stuck to it. One is looking to build on some work she did this summer about conflict resolution and the UN. Another wants to look into the psychology of witch trials, although she has broadened beyond her initial focus on Salem. Another student is interested in the Cold War but has not yet determined a more narrow focus. Others have started with one topic, which has led them to something else, which has sparked an interest in a new area.

Today they decided that they wanted to do a different project each quarter, so they would have two in-depth projects by the time the course ends in January. They also agreed that they need to be able to share their findings beyond the classroom. Ideas included screencasts, TED style talks, and blogs. One student wants to develop a conflict resolution workshop to offer at school.

What is hard for me is figuring out how much to try to direct class time and how much to let them be. There are times when conversation breaks out, and it does not seem to be entirely efficient, even off-topic. But I am also not sure yet what is truly off topic. My role should be to let learning happen and try to guide students back on course when they stray. Except that I find some of the best learning may happen when students are having a casual conversation.

It is clear to me that they care about a lot of issues, and that is part of the reason several are having trouble settling on one thing. In the back of my mind, I am wondering if a student might substitute breadth of knowledge for depth in this class. I have been thinking about research as an in-depth process, but maybe it does not have to be.  Maybe a student could learn a little about a lot of different, related things.

So – my challenge for the course is to let the students shape their own work, help them create a classroom community of support for each other, and help them set standards that they need to meet. No wonder I am nervous. The class that requires the least amount of preparation may end up calling on me to work the hardest. I need to be fully present and responsive in class and reflective out of class, which is also what I am asking the students to do.

I anticipate blogging about this course through the semester, as a way of sharing my experience and also processing my thoughts. I hope some students will join me in blogging their perspective.


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