Practicing Research in the Classroom

We’re at the halfway point now in my history methods course. At this point in the semester, we are still meeting twice weekly to go through a speedy survey of reform and radicalism in American history—the content side of the class—while also holding a few special sessions in the library. We’ve had sessions with librarians on special collections, finding secondary sources, and finding primary sources online. There are two more weeks of the survey, and then they are off to begin their research papers. At this point in the semester, we are looking ahead towards those projects. For at least half of the students in the class, this is the first time that they’ve had to write a paper this long.

So as I’ve been lecturing them about Progressivism and as I’ve been prepping for my next few weeks of courses on Civil Rights, Feminism, Student Activism, and the rise of the Right, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make these sessions do double duty. Accordingly, I’ve been experimenting a bit more with ways to bring short bursts of research into the classroom to give them more opportunities to practice what they’ve learned in our library sessions and to think about how they should go about a larger research project.

In practice, this has meant a lot more group work, and a lot more relying on them to teach each other. When we talked about Progressivism, for example, after a discussion of our common reading (a chapter from Atlantic Crossings that got us talking about how structural factors like the economy and technology shape the possibilities for reformers) we spent the bulk of the class period working in pairs. They had the following instructions:

In pairs, use the research methods we have covered in class so far to begin exploring one of the categories below. Prepare to present this subject to your classmates, including a brief overview of what the topic is, how it relates to Progressive reform, one secondary source you would recommend reading to learn more, and one person, group, or specific event one might search for more information about to understand this better.

The different groups were:

  • Settlement houses
  • The Social Gospel
  • Black women’s club movement
  • The Women’s Christian Temperance Union
  • Child welfare
  • Trust-busting
  • Food safety
  • Women’s suffrage

This worked very well, though next time I will try to do this in the library so that we won’t be limited to e-resources. It was remarkable how much they were able to find in the hour or so given. I was happy, also, that this allowed them to get a sense of one of the big points I wanted to make about Progressivism—how many different types of issues and concerns fell under the umbrella of Progressive reform—in a way that reinforced the research methods that we’d been learning about in our library sessions.

When we’re back from spring break and further into the twentieth century, we will do a similar exercise as we talk about SDS. They’re all reading the Port Huron Statement before class, and after a discussion about the reading, they will break out to read select issues of the SDS Bulletin (available online through the MSU Radicalism collection, a seriously awesome resource on campus here that we’ve been having a lot of fun with). We’ll work with four issues of the journal, covering a pretty tight time span, but providing an overview of a wide range of issues and concerns. After going through one, they will come into groups of four or eight to teach each other what was in their respective issues. Then, as a group, they will have to plan an outline and research plan for a project on SDS. Which issues would they want to highlight? What further research would they need to do? Each group will put their outlines on the board, and we’ll compare. In theory, this will be a great exercise in reading primary sources for larger research projects.

My hope is that these exercises are helping the students to understand how to jump into research and calming the fears of some that a 15-20 page paper is a huge task. So far, I’ve been happy with the ways that they allow me to jump in and help them troubleshoot. In the Progressivism exercise, for example, we were able to talk some more about why certain sources would be more appropriate than others. When students couldn’t find anything about the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, we could troubleshoot.

It’s giving them more practice in how to go about doing this kind of research, and practice is good. I am getting very excited to see what they are going to come up with when they get to choose their own topics.

One thought on “Practicing Research in the Classroom

  1. I so enjoy your thoughtful, instructive, revelatory pieces. I teach high school history classes, and I find I am able to benefit my students through the application of your ideas. Brilliant!

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