Getting Carried Away with Research
My father, several years ago, told me a story about his childhood that immediately drew me in. When he was a young boy in a one-room schoolhouse in 1943, a work camp for German P.O.W.’s had been erected in his small, rural Illinois town. The P.O.W.’s worked in the fields harvesting pumpkins for Libby’s canning company in the field next to their school. His casual statement spurred an entire, ongoing research and writing project: “We used to jump over the fence and go to talk to those guys. The guy in charge of watching them was always at Mrs. X’s eating her homemade pie.” He paused for a moment and then went on to say that when he later learned more about the war, he realized that at the time he was talking to those men, their homeland and perhaps their families and own homes were being “blown to bits.” Putting political reasoning aside as much as possible, I saw him working through what the POW’s might have felt while they were talking to this eight year old farm boy, in particular the German speaking Mennonites, and his neighbors who stole into the fields during recess.
That vivid image and his deep feeling while remembering spurred a long, very much in process project that has involved many levels of research and aims. It was a story, then a novella, and is now a far from finished novel. The research process has been varied but most interesting for this reflection is the advice a novelist friend offered when I mentioned I needed to read more novels written about that time to understand how people spoke. She said, wisely, that I needed to read what the people in the story would have been reading, those small town Illinois Mennonites and the German POWs. I ended up driving from one tiny town to another seeking out microfiche reels of tiny local newspapers (a dying breed) and looking through meticulously kept old church bulletins in Mennonite archives discussing church business and the challenges of their pacifist stance. I’ve looked into POW camp history (fascinating) and tried to determine what materials were available to the prisoners at that time (fascinating and difficult). I’ve listened to old radio shows and watched movies made during that time.
So far, I’ve turned this research material into a conference presentation and successful grant proposals, but I really want to move forward on the book while I am still excited about the material. Like some of our students, I’ve learned that research can become a form procrastination from doing the actual work of writing, especially when the task seems daunting or intimidating.
How might we expand the definitions of a research project to more fully contain the curiosity and delight of research?
I am intrigued by the idea of introducing students to the process of making an Annotated Bibliography based on a question geared toward their own interests. I’ve never taught a research essay this way. When teaching a very traditional research essay model, I’ve asked students to summarize sources before writing their essay. But I can see developing reflections into the annotated bibliography will encourage students to do more than simply analyze and restate what the authors are saying. Students will include why the source is important to them. The annotated bibliography, endnotes, and footnotes are in professional papers sometimes favorite sections. I think this may be for the same reasons that Graf offers in her discussion of teaching tools for developing “meta-awareness,” enabling students to articulate why this source or detail is necessary and unique to them as a reader/researcher. Footnotes and endnotes, I’ve found, sometimes contain ancillary information that the writer couldn’t squeeze into the paper but can’t bear to leave out. Annotated bibliographies often include why the writer was so excited about the source in addition to citation information about where and how it can be found. Asking students to explain why an idea or detail or quote in a source that they’ve chosen feels to them so utterly “necessary” validates their excitement and their attempt at discovery.
I also think giving students wild freedom to choose topics, which I’ve tried unsuccessfully to do in the past (or it seemed unsuccessful) but would really like to try again, is important. Kynerd shows this poignantly in her essay. The story of her student Malcolm in addition to others emphasized the importance of providing students a space in which they can take true emotional risks and giving them a framework to make those risks pay off by gaining a sense of personal agency through writing is an ideal writing “situation.” Not all students will take the risks her students did, but Kynerd also shows (more than she explicitly states) how giving students a chance to be heard and to be truly read by their instructor encourages them to write and investigate their own ideas, in addition to understanding key elements of audience and purpose. She also shows how the more flexible final project allowed them to create something that mattered to them: a brochure, a book on language discrimination, an exploration of how to ask questions themselves.
How could we put these goals for a research project into practice? By these goals I mean:
- helping students develop “meta-awareness” about their own sources and the transferable writing process
- a willingness to take risks
- a sense of personal connection to the final product
- and, skills that they feel they can apply to other classes.
I’m not sure yet! But I do know I want to revise what I’ve been doing because I feel like more can be gained for my students and for myself through developing and rethinking this often dreaded assignment. I’m really interested. I’m curious! I suppose that makes this all a research and discovery experience in itself.