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. 

Digital Natives, WikiResearch and Lady Gaga’s Interactive Jewel Case

By Todd Herzog

University of Cincinnati

(Posted by forum moderator Todd Heidt)

Every fall, as the new academic year begins, countless articles and blog posts remind us that the incoming crop of first year students came of age in a different historical era than those of us who are teaching them. The granddaddy of them all is The Mindset List, which Ron Nief and Tom McBride of Beloit College have published in various forms since 1997. Indeed, this old-timer is old enough to remember when these lists were disseminated as forwarded e-mails! The list is always a collection of pop cultural references, mostly drawn from the adolescences of the incoming students and the adolescences of the Baby Boom generation. This year’s list, for example, reminds us that we ought to avoid references to Dean Martin or Windows 95, as these will go over our poor students’ heads. We should instead gain our street cred (is this still a term I can use? better check the list) by dropping references to Lady Gaga and the movie Chicken Run.

As silly as these lists are (their fundamental premise is that the sum of our entire historical knowledge consists of events that occurred between our tenth and eighteenth birthdays), they do remind us of one thing: experiences and expectations change over time. The important point of the Mindset List is not to remind us that we need to avoid references to Don Shula or floppy discs. Rather, it should remind us that, as we work to educate the class of 2016, we need to make sure that we understand that they grew up with a fundamentally different means of interacting with information.

Our students’ generation is often referred to by the term digital natives. Unlike us digital immigrants, they grew up in cyberspace. They grew up in an era in which information has always been fundamentally interactive. In a piece that I wrote reacting to the announcement of the first iPad, I noted that:

Our students—until further notice let’s just call them Generation i—have been writing on each others’ Facebook walls, filming video responses to YouTube videos, and assembling their avatars with friends and strangers for raids in World of Warcraft for years now. That student sitting in the back row with his smart phone in front of his face isn’t texting his friends during your lecture; he’s blurring the boundaries between the production and reception of content.

What does all of this have to do with undergraduate research? Well, one of the responses to the casual relationship that these students have with information might be to train them in traditional methods of locating and evaluating resources, as Lynn Marie Kutch nicely argued in a column on this site. I agree that it is important to demonstrate to them that things can be done differently than they had assumed and to introduce them to the still-valid rigorous practices of good old-fashioned research.

But the reverse is also true: we should allow them to teach us that things can be done differently than we had assumed. I learned to research in an era of scarce information. The first problem to overcome was how to track it down. Our digitally native students grew up in an era of abundant information. Their first problem is to learn how to manage and evaluate it. I grew up in an era of knowledge hierarchies in which relatively few had the opportunity to disseminate knowledge. Our digitally native students grew up in an era of democratization of knowledge. We can learn from each other. They can learn that perhaps someone’s opinions expressed in the comments of a blog post might not carry the same weight as those of someone who has devoted years to studying the issue. We can learn that perhaps dynamic, free-flowing knowledge has some advantages.

In a piece I wrote a couple of years ago about research in the information age, I identified four central principles of what I call WikiResearch:

#1: We no longer need to concentrate on teaching students how to track down scarce information; rather, we need to teach them how to manage an abundance of information.

#2: The democratization of knowledge is not only a challenge to researchers; it is one of the greatest positive developments in the age of WikiResearch.

#3: We need to make our publications more public—and that means putting them on the open internet.

#4: Most of the fundamental principles of good, scholarly research remain unchanged.

Even though, when I developed these principles, the class of 2017 was still in Middle School and Reading Rainbow was still on television, I think that they still hold. As we engage in research with these digital natives, let’s remember that research can and should be—as Lady Gaga once tweeted—”an interactive jewel case.”

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

This series of posts is based on an experience I had with integrating an undergraduate student into a research project. It is not a how-to, but one example that is intended to provide some food for thought.

How do we acknowledge the contributions of undergraduate students to faculty research?

I have read a number of books in which the authors praise a particular group of students, usually of a class closely tied to the subject of a book, for their thought-provoking class discussions. (These expressions of gratitude usually provoke a bit of envy for colleagues who have the treat of discussing their research topic in such depth and over the course of a semester with their students.) In such situations, students are rarely listed by name (although the class might be), and it seems more likely that class discussion inspired further thought in the author than that individuals contributed key ideas to the author’s own thesis. Another example: a student in a class of mine two years ago made an insightful observation that supported my argument in an article I was working on. I included the idea in my article and credited her in a footnote.

But what does one do when one is working with one particular student, perhaps even collaborating? What happens when the number of participants in the conversation is reduced from fifteen to two?

Some of my colleagues (who, I should mention, have had excellent experiences involving students in their research) have chosen to list their student as co-author of their articles. Others have included students as co-presenters or co-authors of conference papers. In my mind, this really represents an ideal situation: the student is so involved in the project that s/he is a true collaborator, rather than an assistant. Such projects have usually lasted more than one semester. One colleague in English worked with a student for nearly two years. Their collaboration on his article was clear; the title of co-author was certainly deserved.

Other colleagues treat their student researchers more as research assistants, i.e., students to carry out the necessary scientific trials, or they collect research materials and sources for social sciences and humanities projects. The compensation for students in such situations seems to vary from none to a footnote expressing gratitude. Perhaps such students can walk away with the pay that came with the work-study research position. Perhaps they simply take away the satisfaction of the resumé-building experience itself.

My sense, however, is that I am not alone in having had an experience that is neither one nor the other, that is more than simple grunt work but not as much as co-authorship. Working with my student Emily would likely have moved in the direction of co-authorship; the project simply wasn’t long enough. How do I acknowledge the conversations we had that energized the project and shaped the use of secondary material? How do we acknowledge it when students inspire us but in ways that are perhaps less tangible and concrete? How do you acknowledge student support of your research? Please share your comments and experiences!

Institutional Program Models

Knox has two unique programs which provide robust institutional support for multi-term research projects.

One particularly unique program is our Ford Fellowship program. The program is designed to identify junior-year students interested in pursuing an academic career and prepare these students for graduate study. The program spans 9 months, during which students create and carry out an original research project, practice grant-writing and research budgeting, and participate in informational seminars on graduate school and academia as a profession. The award includes funding for summer between junior and senior year, when the lion’s share of research and/or writing is to take place; however, students are expected to begin work in January already. While they primarily work with a faculty advisor on the research project, they have our Director of Undergraduate Research as a sounding board for proposals and budgets. Additionally, four faculty members are assigned to an advisory committee to serve these students. As a member of this advisory committee representing the Humanities, I aided in selecting candidates (10-12 per year of roughly 30-40 applicants), commented on applications and participated in the seminar series focused on graduate school and life in academia. The result is a real, campus-wide academic support for these students. Such research projects take lots of time, focus, energy and faculty guidance; however, we are able to divide this much needed support across many individuals and offices on campus.

Our Honors program at Knox — a year-long independent research project — is designed more like an MA or PhD project. First, student projects are vetted by a central faculty committee. Those proposals which are accepted are guided by three faculty, and have built into them a series of check-ins and progress reports. Knox even allocates a budget to professors to have meetings over lunch with the student to discuss progress at various stages. Students are provided additional library support, including study carrels and more generous lending periods. The Dean’s office sets aside funding for copying and printing costs for Honors students, ensuring economic boundaries are eliminated. Last, but not least, our Director of Undergraduate Research tracks each student and serves as an additional guide. Regular check-in emails and progress reports are forwarded to this Director as well. The Director may also suggest additional funding resources for research or travel for students. Students are also encouraged to use the writing resources offered by our Center for Teaching and Learning to aid in forming their ideas and improving their academic prose. For the two honors projects I have been involved in so far, students actively use all committee members. They receive input and coaching on their proposals, outlines and chapters, leading up to a final project which typically tops 60-80 pages (though one just defended weighed in at over 200 pages). There is also a formal defense, which includes a budget for an outside reviewer to be present for the thesis defense, providing the student with more feedback they must incorporate before turning in a final, revised version in order to be awarded Honors.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, funding and infrastructure is already present for undergraduate research, but this is often targeted at students in the sciences. Encouraging students in the Humanities to engage with research projects, and providing them with this manner of support, is still lacking. Such structured opportunities take this kind of undergraduate research project from an idealistic proposal to reality.

Could you foresee your institution creating such committees and programs? How could the intensive workload of mentoring such projects across multiple faculty and offices be carried out at your institution?

Undergraduate Conferences as a Tool to Stop the Decline of German Studies

By Heikki Lempa, Moravian College


The decline of German language and the German Studies in the United States is a reality. It is also a reality in such a heavily Germanic region as the Lehigh Valley. Lafayette College and Moravian College belong to a consortium of six independent colleges in the area, called LVAIC.  One of our partner institutions, Muhlenberg College recently lost its German major. Currently a German major is offered only at three out of six institutions.  The administrators are looking for “efficiencies” and one of the ideas is increasing the co-operation between consortium language departments and, at the same time, potentially downsizing individual departments if necessary.

We know that the number of German majors is in decline nationally.  Many leading  research universities have hardly any majors in German. PhD programs in Germanic Languages have been closed.  The undergraduate conferences in German Studies can be an antidote to this decline. Here are some of the ways this antidote has worked. Individual professors reach out. As a result of the Undergraduate Conferences interdisciplinary contacts have increased. At Moravian after the first conference we have started to pool the German resources. There is now lively co-operation between Music, History, Economics, Religion, Judaic Studies, and German. The director of the Moravian Archives, one of the largest German-related archives in the country and conveniently located on Moravian campus, has been an active partner in the revived German Studies program. We also have potential to expand it to Political Science and Art History.  The Undergraduate conference has increased the visibility of German studies on our campuses. Posters, web pages, and regular announcements have served as a reminder of our continuing existence.

Undergraduate conferences are not the only but they can be an effective way of saving the future of German studies. We should think creatively about pooling our campus resources. Active contacts among colleagues from different disciplines are a must. Recently colleagues in our science departments have discovered the German resources for scientists: DAAD, Rise Program, and Alexander von Humboldt Foundation are exceptional and generous resources in the world of increasing scarcity in funding for research and academic education. We should use those resources much more effectively. We should also discover our local and regional resources. Many communities and cities have archives and museums with significant German collections. Cities could be seen as labs where German culture, history, and heritage can be studied. We are currently working with a local consortium of museums, the Historic Bethlehem Partnership to provide research-oriented internships. One of the neighboring institutions, Kutztown University has a lively German Studies program that benefits tremendously from its location in Kutztown, the “German Capital” in America.

Finally, we should create a system of regional undergraduate conferences in German studies. In the Mid-Atlantic Region we have the Lafayette-Moravian Conference and in the Mid-West we have the conferences of the  Illinois Wesleyan University and  Indiana University, Bloomington. There should be coordination between undergraduate conferences in German Studies. And new regional conferences should be launched.  The decline of German Studies at graduate level is inevitable and now the next line of defense is at the undergraduate level. Undergraduate research and undergraduate conferences are an effective way of fighting back.

An Undergraduate Research Conference in German Studies

Undergraduate Conference in German Studies. Experiences of an Institutional Collaboration    

by Heikki Lempa, Moravian College

In March 2011, Moravian College and Lafayette College, two small liberal arts colleges from Eastern Pennsylvania, organized an undergraduate conference in German Studies.  The second conference took place on March 24, 2012 and the third on April 6, 2013. For the most recent conferences we accepted 24 papers out of 30 applications from 11 institutions mainly from Pennsylvania but also institutions from Texas, Michigan, Ohio, and Virginia.  The organizers were Margarete Lamb-Faffelberger from Lafayette College, Axel Hildebrandt from Moravian College and I, also from Moravian College.

The conferences have challenged us to move beyond the customary boundaries of teaching German language, culture, politics, philosophy, music, and arts.  In this first blog I will point out how we have started to understand undergraduate research and become aware of the many ways these conferences impact the lives of  individual students, faculty members, and institutions. In the second blog I will discuss how these conferences can have a sustained impact on regional resources for the study of German language and culture by enhancing networking and how they can even help keeping German Studies alive nationwide.

The idea of an undergraduate conference in German Studies was not to foster a narrowly defined concept of undergraduate research. As Todd Heidt has pointed out, we in the humanities have to be somewhat creative and broad in our understanding of the concept. We therefore opened the field to proposals for all students from freshmen to seniors who had written an essay or a research paper related to German literature, culture or politics. At our first conference most of the papers were in German literature but some were delivered by history and political science students. To my surprise a fairly large number of papers were given in German.  Since the students were struggling with the language the papers were often descriptive and topically confined to an author and were only seldom driven by a thesis.  As a result we changed the proposal requirements for the second conference. There had to be an abstract including a thesis and a bibliography. Now most papers were thesis driven and an increasing number had a good discussion of scholarship.  I would still like to see more papers that understand their topics as contested fields of scholarly interpretations.

For me the most important lesson of these three first conferences has been the new working definition of undergraduate research. At its most elementary level, starting from a freshman seminar, research is a thesis-driven activity that explores a topic as a contested field of scholarly interpretations. I think that the fundamental meaning of a simple thesis has come to us as a surprise — after all these years — and perhaps not least because of disciplinary differences in understanding it.  This, once again, has started to change the ways we teach our introductory courses —and not only in German literature but in other disciplines as well. Undergraduate research, once it becomes more widely practiced, might have its most profound impact at the introductory level and not at senior seminars or honors thesis.

Practical Ideas for Creating a Research-Oriented Classroom Environment

In my previous post I talked about resources instructors can use to foster a research-oriented classroom environment.  If the ultimate goal of a course is to produce a research paper and if a significant percentage of the grade derives from that paper, then it is very important that instructors take deliberate steps to integrate instruction and assessment. In order to design effective assignments that foster skills needed for thesis-writing and argument-building, John C. Bean offers an entire section in his book on designing tasks for active thinking and learning.  I offer examples and variations on these tasks here. 

One of the simplest yet most fruitful activities that I have used to get students to think about a concept is by designing statements that force students to take one side or another.  For example, as a warm-up or the first activity in a class discussion, the instructor could put a statement on the board like this one:  “Kafka’s Die Verwandlung   [is / is not] basically a biography.”  This can help divide students into like-minded groups, or the instructor can ask that half the room take one stance, and the other half take the other, regardless of their personal opinion. These absolute phrases can work with virtually any topic from any field.  This activity can work as a group activity or as an in-class writing assignment to get students used to writing a thesis statement and subsequently finding evidence to support that stance.

                Other informal writing assignments can take the following forms, all of which I have found to stimulate discussion, and ultimately thesis-forming:

·         Students must explain a certain concept (a text, a theory) to a fellow classmate who is having difficulty, or to a high school student, or even to an elementary student.  The college student will have to tailor the complexity of his or her language to match the target audience.  It will also help the student decide what is important to explain, and what they can leave out for this particular person.

·         Students must conceive a dialogue between two authors or two theorists that they have studied.  To modify the format, they can make it a TV interview show, in which both guests get the same questions, but of course they would answer them differently.

·         The instructor can provide ready-made thesis statements or arguments to small groups. They have to explain why the thesis is convincing or not, based on their knowledge, and based on evidence they glean from the texts.


Incorporating activities such as these on a regular basis give students consistent practice in inquiry-based thinking, which ideally leads to thesis-based arguments.  

                The other resource I mentioned, They Say I Say, provides actual templates that can help students organize their thoughts into a written thesis. For example, the authors offer “Templates for Indicating Who Cares” and “Templates for Establishing Why Your Claims Matter” (90-94).  These brief sentence models force students to answer the more abstract why and how questions with which they often struggle.

These suggestions may sound basic, but they also serve to keep us alert to the disparate needs our students have and to plan accordingly.



Fostering Best Research Practices in Classrooms with ‘Research-Hesitant’ Learners

Students benefit not only from assistance in formulating original theses and developing solid abstracts that persuasively communicate their ideas, but also explanations of why this type of exercise—the kind that we do every day in our discipline—is important and valuable.  In this post, the first of two, I will outline the challenges that many instructors face, especially those at public institutions, and I will cite some key publications that feature Writing Across the Curriculum methods.  In my subsequent post, I will share some field-tested strategies that I have deployed to help what I call our “research-hesitant” students conceive a topic, prepare an abstract for submission, and present at a competitive undergraduate research conference.

More and more frequently, we are encountering students in our classrooms who need what we would consider to be basic help with writing persuasive thesis-based essays. A key text that I consistently use, and one that I read and reread nearly every semester, is John C. Bean’s Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom.  Bean’s text has been a valuable resource for me to guide and support students through every step of the research process, from “Understanding Connections Between Thinking and Writing” to “Encouraging Engagement and Inquiry in Research Papers” to “Coaching the Writing Process.”  Design and implementation of assignments must correspond to that philosophy that writing is indeed a process.  Another valuable resource that I have used consistently is Graff and Berkenstein’s They Say I Say, which offers templates for structuring the argument and thesis parts of argumentative essays.  In order to force students to view writing as a process rather than as a once and done final product, I assign point values for each phase of the assignment they submit: for example topic, first three lines, first paragraph, first draft, final draft, and self-assessment of ideas, structures and argument.

Many of us have used or even have authored and published resources on how to write thesis statements or how to structure an academic paper. I have found, however, that students need much more practice with the steps that precede the actual paper-writing phase, such as developing ideas and testing out arguments well before the draft writing begins.  In my next post, I will share simple yet effective classroom activities and assignments that instructors can consistently implement to foster a writing and research atmosphere in their classrooms.