Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Teaching Research at Bryn Mawr

Seniors have commenced, grades are submitted, and now I’ve begun to reflect on everything that has happened during the past four months. The semester was full but rewarding. Perhaps most notably, I experimented with some new approaches to teaching research skills and supervising theses. While not all my experiments went perfectly, I was pleased to see strong results and I hope to continue to innovate in these areas.

Teaching research skills

Along with the Social Sciences Librarian Olivia Castello, I developed a new research component in my course The Power of the People. Olivia and I sought to introduce students to the idea of a research conversation, the discussion scholars have with one another through their scholarship, and to equip students with the skills to discover and explicate one of these conversations. We did this through staging research and writing projects alongside explicit instruction about finding library materials, using databases, and creating bibliographies.

Here’s a photo of students on their library Scavenger Hunt.


The students embraced this project, choosing topics from how local tribal governance and democracy interact in Ghana to democracy and social media to Latino/a voters and participation in the United States. I loved how students surprised me with their creative explorations of democratic theory in a variety of contexts and from unpredictable angles. And I think the exhilarating discoveries of research surprised the students even as they developed confidence about their abilities to make sense of complicated scholarly work.


Senior Theses

I also supervised eight senior theses this semester on themes such as civil society in China, religion and anarchism, and “the political death assemblage.” This year I experimented with an accountability method of advising that worked very well. At the beginning of the semester students committed to their goals for the semester: how much time they could devote to the thesis; to what degree they wanted to prioritize the thesis; and whether or not “done was good” or they were striving for a graduate school-worthy academic product. I found it extremely helpful to know from students up front about their goals; this also allowed me to push (or encourage) them in the appropriate ways.

After our initial meeting, two groups of four students each met with me once a week for an hour. At the beginning of each meeting, students described how well they had met their goals in the previous week and what obstacles they had encountered. I recorded their progress in a Moodle forum. Once we had checked in, I opened the floor for questions. If I had read drafts recently, I would also use this time to respond to any general issues that were appearing. At the end of the meeting students would commit to how much time (how many hours on what specific days) they would devote to the thesis in the coming week as well as what concrete tasks they wished to accomplish.

Student response to these accountability sessions was strong. I was struck by just how difficult students found the activity: committing to specific times in the coming week helped to highlight how many events could interfere with completing one’s work, from the needs of people in their dorm to midterms in another course; students just like most adults never have enough time for everything they want to do, let alone those things they may not want to do but must. But so much of the challenge of independent research lies in just this kind of time management; if the students learned anything, I think they learned this.


The theses themselves were in general stronger than last year’s. More importantly, the stress levels seemed lower. I saved time explaining the same basic questions to student after student in one-on-one meetings; our small groups also found ways to support one another – even if this was group lamentation of the “academy of misery” – even while undertaking very different projects.