Rethinking the Senior Project in History, Part II Eric Kurlander, Stetson University

In my September 8th post, I outlined some ways of rethinking the Senior Project in History, which I hoped to test in teaching the Fall 2013 History Department Senior Research capstone course. For the Senior Project, History majors must research and write a primary-source based, historiographically-informed paper of article length (ca. 8,000 words) that makes an original scholarly argument. The changes made to previous iterations of the course included: 1) Contacting my senior research students early in the summer to discuss their topics and think of ways to combine their scholarly interests with my own areas of expertise. 2) Enhancing the structured peer review elements of the course. 3) Researching and writing an article, drawn from my own research, alongside the students, inviting their peer review at every stage of the process. With the semester over and student evaluations at hand, I can now reflect on the results of this experiment.

Trying to match student research interests to my own yielded seven projects in fourteen that tied in loosely with my geographical or methodological areas of expertise. While the three best projects fell into this group, the next four best papers were in periods or fields almost entirely unrelated to my areas of interest. Hence, it is not clear that an advisor’s familiarity with the student’s research is essential to the quality of the project. Rather, two other factors appeared crucial: peer review (see below) and the “Research Intensive” methodology classes that precede our Senior Research capstone. These seminars first introduce students in some depth to the diverse historiography and range of primary sources available on a major topic in the field (“The French Revolution”, “The Holocaust”, “The Fall of Rome”, “The Birth of Modern America”, etc.) and culminate in a significant (15-20 page) primary source-based research paper.  Students who did not take both of “Research Intensive” courses prior to the capstone were at a clear disadvantage, even where they chose topics with which I was more familiar. Moreover, the students remarked in the evaluations on the importance of taking both “Research Intensive” methodology classes prior to the Senior Capstone. Hence the student’s methodological preparation may be more important, at least in History, than the advisor’s familiarity with the project.

In respect to peer review, the core element of the class, we read and commented on each other’s work two out of every three weeks, first when presenting our next stage of research and/or writing, and then after posting our prospecti, introductions, first drafts, second drafts, and final drafts on “Blackboard” for everyone to access. One way I enhanced this process in Fall 2013 is by attempting to alternate peer review groups between students covering similar periods or geographical areas (twenieth century, Europe, North America, etc.) with groups based on similar methodology (cultural, intellectual, and art history; war and diplomacy; subaltern studies). Another way I attemped to enhance the peer review process was by researching and writing an article, drawn from my own research, alongside the students. I tried to alternate the group that reviewed my work from unit to unit, so that everyone had a chance to critque the professor. In the evaluations, students reported that the peer review process the best part of the course. Many also commented positively on working with the same group of students, whether based on similar topics or along similar methodological lines, for the entire semester. While students tended not to give much specific feedback on peer reviewing my article–– I probably should have added a specific question to that effect–– students did relate independently the value of reading my drafts as a model for their own. They also appreciated the democratc and collegial element it introduced to the classroom environment. Needless to say, I benefited from having to meet the weekly deadlines and student peer review, producing a nearly finished article as a result.

Ultimately, I found this semester to be the most rewarding Senior Project of my career. The experiment did not bear out all my “hypotheses,” notably in trying to align students’ projects with my own areas of expertise. But it might provide a few lessons for advising the Senior Project in History elsewhere. First, it reinforced the importance of regular class meetings structured around peer review, the core aspect of the class. Second, it suggested that students benefit by working in groups based on thematic interest and methodology. Third, it showed that researching and writing an article or chapter alongside the students can be a valuable pedagogical tool and useful in a faculty member’s own professional development. Finally, it reinforced the importance–– borne out by our department’s self-assessments—of requiring rigorous methodology courses prior to Senior Research.