Research Seminar: Part IV Scandal Style

My seminar class is now into the second project of the semester. Although the first projects were due at the end of the first quarter, the presentations took several classes, due to the breadth and depth of the work they shared. The presentations varied from slide shows, a TED style talk, an original spoken word, to a workshop. We went well beyond the two classes we had allotted for presentation. While we were wrapping up the first project, we began to contemplate what would be next – with no set curriculum, we had to devote some time and thought to it.

As we approached the new project, there were a series of decisions to make. The first decision was whether to do shared work or individual research again. After some discussion, the students chose to do individual work but under a common theme. Proposed themes were revolution, scandal, and innovation. Scandal is the one that generated the most enthusiasm. We quickly dismissed anything that was really just gossip as not worthy of attention and effort. Students set out to find their scandals, a task that was easier for some than others. We may have to have a fairly broad definition of scandal in order not to be too limiting. So far, the list of topics includes: Monica Lewinsky, Valerie Plame affair, Bill Cosby, Chappaquiddick, Dyncorp, NCAA violations. There are a few who have not settled in yet.

Today we had to decide on a plan for presentations. One student arrived about half an hour early and we started talking about it. Her idea was to have a roundtable type discussion where each person would tell the story behind the scandal and why the scandal matters. She wanted to do “techless” presentations, with maybe a posterboard instead. She brought that plan to the class which approved it, with the modification that the chalkboards and white boards in the room be used as a place to put images that students would connect as they told their story “Olivia Pope style.” Beyond just the stories, students will share their essential questions with the class, which could be about corporate power, presidential power, etc. I also challenged them to add a new type of source to the mix that they used for the first project. Many of them will be looking at media sources, such as historical newspapers. Given the nature of the topics, they will need to scrutinize their sources carefully and be certain they know the difference between allegation and confirmed information.

After that conversation about process, they locked into their research. There is a certain energy in the room when students are engaged in their work – even silently – that is palpable. They have a limited time for this project, as it will be due by Dec. 12, at the latest.  After that, we shift into exam week and winter break. They decided that they did not want this to carry over break. We will do something else for the final two weeks of the course in January. Several students are lobbying to have this class extend to become a full-year course. A few said they could not imagine being in a “regular” class again after this. They value the autonomy of their work and the community they have constructed, I think. So do I.

Using Digital Resources: How do we get past Google as default?

Two weeks ago, I was headed to Boston to take part in a focus group for Digital Public Library of America. I had limited knowledge of DPLA as a resource, but I was excited for the opportunity to learn about this enormous collection of sources. For eight hours over the span of two days our focus group met to discuss what online resources we use, our opinions about the DPLA site, and what we would like to see on the DPLA site. It was a fabulous experience, where I think we all learned quite a bit from one another.

When we began talking about our “go to” sites, I realized the true challenge of online resources – keeping track of them all. Other teachers mentioned sites that I had used in the past but had dropped off my radar. Some talked about things that were new to me. I furiously took notes so that I would remember these resources when planning. It is nearly impossible to keep it all straight. I have my notes but I have to do something with them to make them useful or that will simply be another place where I have information stored and forget to look at it. A few years ago, my department started a page on our LMS to list resources we thought would be useful as we came across them. The problem is that nobody uses it.

There are a couple of different ways I find that teachers deal with this. Some just stick to what they have done in the past, using lesson plans and resources that are tried and true. Others try new things but with a resource they just learned about so it is fresh in their mind or by Googling and hoping for the best. Most of us are a hybrid version but either way, there are amazing resources that are simply not on the radar screen. I would love to create a system where I keep track of what I have used and how, along with places to add new resources and how they would be useful. That never surfaces to the top of my “to do” list and realistically, it never will. Even if I had such a system, it would require maintenance. Many sites add new documents and features on a regular basis to enhance their utility; others are left to atrophy with broken links.

I think this is partly what sends kids to Google for their answers. It is simply not possible to keep in mind all of the possible resources that could help with a particular topic. I try to keep my students working with a few “go to” sources in our Digital Library – JSTOR for scholarly articles and the Gale Virtual Reference Library for specialized encyclopedia articles. Based on my two days in Boston working with DPLA, I suggested it as a resource for some of my students for their research papers. I try to remember the specialized scholarly databases, like the National Security Archive for modern foreign policy topics, but I know that there are more. Once students know of a resource, the next hurdle for them is to learn how to navigate each different source to find what they need. All of this takes time. Googling does not.

This question of staying fresh, keeping DPLA on teachers’ minds, surfaced in our focus group discussion. One suggestion was a monthly e-newsletter or something to remind teachers of the DPLA. This is certainly a good idea for teachers like me, who check their email more regularly than their Evernote folders. I have a folder that contains a mountain of articles and links that I want to save to use later. At first I was good about putting them into class folders and checking them when I plan, but the day to day workflow can be overwhelming, and looking back in a folder through a lot of notes takes time I do not have. Every day there is new material on my newsfeed. One of the ways to keep my classes fresh is to make use of current events, so many of those articles in my Evernote folders go unused.

So – all of this speaks to a very real challenge, one that is at the heart of teaching and learning today. How do we make the best use of the resources available to us in the time available to us? Googling takes the time issue off the table but does not bring the best resources. Using a database like the DPLA can yield amazing resources but at the cost of the time involved in vetting. There is a tremendous amount of time, energy and money going into making learning a much richer experience than was available when I was in school. There are so many choices for students, and so many options for teachers. We need to figure out how to manage them, how to leverage them, in a way that is fruitful, and not inefficient.

I wish I had more answers, but for today I am happy to have diagnosed the problem. While I keep trying treat research as a science, it is at least partly an art.