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Processes of Research and Engagement
(CCT698, Fall 98, 99, 00, 01, 02, 03, 05, 06; CCT692, 07, 08, 10, 13, 15, 16, 17)
(9/99 -see appended 9/01 update)
This course is based on a research course I taught several times in which undergraduate students investigated issues that concerned them about the social impact of science or about the environment--issues they wanted to know more about, or advocate a change. CCT students would instead focus on current social or educational issues, but, as in the previous course, they would be guided through different stages of research and action--from defining a manageable project to communicating their findings and plans for further work. The classes would run as workshops, in which students are introduced to and then practice using tools for research, writing, communicating, and supporting the work of others. To keep students moving along in their research, there would be many small writing assignments on their projects, with requests to revise and resubmit in response to my comments.
The emphasis on process, not simply the production of the final paper/report, makes room for confronting personal, psychological issues that usually arise around defining one's own work and convincing others of its significance. The course description, overview, assessment system, and expectations listed in the Fall 1998 syllabus spelled out my initial teaching/learning approach in this course.
On a practical level I had to condense the two 2 hour sessions from the earlier course into one 2.5 hour session.
Challenges and Responses
This has been my most challenging course to date at U. Mass. Five of the eleven students were very product-oriented, some of them because they were simultaneously completing their capstone projects on the same topic under a timetable that allowed little room for new exploration. Four of the five viewed the assignments, tasks, and requests for revision as getting in the way of doing what they knew how to do, completing a research paper. My use of illustrations from previous classes did not help them see the value of new steps along the way‹these classes consisted of young undergraduates from elite colleges, not adult learners like themselves. The four did not engage productively in the workshop activities, assignments, or revision. Most seriously, they avoided talking to me about the approach they were taking to the assignments and the course in general.
Although the full picture became clear mostly only in retrospect, I did realize during the semester that I needed to talk more with these students. However, I found it difficult, given the busy-ness of their lives and mine starting a new job, to make times when this could happen, or to follow up when appointments were missed. I now include a requirement of at least two conferences in all my courses, one of these early on before misunderstandings of course goals become fixed in a student's head.
During the semester, I also responded to expressions of "confusion" about what was expected in two ways:
i) producing a summary of the iterative, overlapping phases of "research and engagement." (This has since evolved into a structure reflected explicitly in the Fall 1999 syllabus and is reflected in the subtitle I have added to the course.); and
ii) by structuring my weekly handouts so they began with a summary of "Assignments due," "Tasks in preparation for class," "Other tasks," and "Follow-up and feedback," and followed this by details about item. After the semester, I digested my experiences and feedback and produced detailed "Notes on Teaching/Learning Interactions," which I now include in the course packet for all my courses. Including such material in the course packet also accommodates to students who want details in advance of future assignments and allows weekly handouts to be much simpler. I still need, of course, to draw students attention in class to the numerous tasks and assignments ahead, and to convey their rationale.
I do not, however, believe that the added written material would have "won over" the four students who resisted or rejected what the course offered. In addition to making more time to talk with students, I decided this fall to:
i) focus on producing the "dialogue around written work," as articulated in the Notes. (My efforts to achieve this will be illuminated by peer observation and reflection during this fall's faculty seminar on "Becoming a teacher-researcher.");
ii) include in the course packet examples from the previous CCT course (not the pre-UMass courses); and
iii) invite to the first class an alum from the previous course to be interviewed by the new students. This appears to have been an effective "innoculation" against students proceeding as they always have and focusing on the end of semester deadline for submitting a report/paper. (I think I can always expect product-orientation to be a default option for some CCT students, many of who have busy work lives and would not have chosen the CCT Program if they were not so headstrong.) There are again two Practicum students undertaking their capstone projects, but I worked with them through much of the Practicum process during the summer. Their role in the Practicum classes, when they can attend, will be to coach the others.
Fortunately, a number of students in the Fall of 1998 appreciated the course process, experimented with the tools I was introducing, and made significant progress. Even so, it was difficult to lead students beyond library research and to pilot implementations of the classes or workshops many envisaged. In the third class this fall, in order to model what is possible, I have scheduled a demonstration by an alum of her curricular innovation.
In addition to the changes above already being implemented, I am working (via advising, the CCT handbook, and notes to other advisers) to ensure that CCT students take the Practicum before they undertake their capstone projects. I am also exploring the range of other research courses in the GCOE with a view to allowing students to cross programs if another course matches their needs better.
I have implemented all the plans listed above and the students' evaluations show that they appreciate, without exception I think, the process emphasis of the course. My teacher-research during the Fall '99 C.I.T. faculty seminar allowed me to acknowledge the tensions facing students in taking themselves seriously as lifelong learners (see report in new exhibits). I have articulated a set of ten process goals to complement the "product" goals of the ten "phases of research and engagement" around which the syllabus and course packet (see new exhibits) are structured. I continue to adjust the format of the syllabus and course packet to help students find their way into them when needed‹they are not intended to be digestable at first sight.
The most significant outstanding issue is that not all students complete the written assignments, revisions, and the final report. This has worked against them and caused headaches for their advisors when the students have proceeded to undertake their synthesis projects. In Fall 2001 the question I have set for teacher-student-research is: "By what means can the group function as a support and coaching structure to get most students to finish their reports by the end of the semester?"
The other challenge for the future is to engage other faculty members--at UMass and elsewhere--in discussion about integrating inter- and intra- personal reflection into the teaching of research and writing. As much as I have turned away from didactic presentations of method, I know that there are currents in qualitative research that could inform my teaching and writing about this teaching.
In 2008 I began working with Jeremy Szteiter to put all tools from the course (and from 693) onto the CCT wiki and draft a book based on them, u>Taking Yourself Seriously: A Fieldbook of Processes of Research and Engagement. In order to put the course online for spring '10, I revised these entries and spelled out the sequence of steps for each session.
The book has been published (Feb. 2012). A new challenge is to bring online students in as regular participants in regular class sessions.
The 2015 syllabus attempts to build a learning community that includes online and face-to-face students by starting with autobiographical introductions. The lengthy syllabus has been reorganized to highlight the four different kinds of information provided in a syllabus.
Following the appreciative reviews from 2015, the only change is to ask students to buy a hard copy of the text, Taking Yourself Seriously. My experience has been that many students do not read the pdf version carefully or refer to it often enough.
Students submitted installments by email so I could pair them up to give peer commentary. This was additional work in a course that has many submissions due, but I was encouraged by the thoughtful comments and see this as important to building community in a mostly online class. I plan to continue this experiment.
(8/18) From 2017 evaluations:
"This course enabled me to re-think the value of my work and position myself to create and produce thinking and research of significance. It has been, for me, a personal journey of situating myself in my work and bringing understanding and in turn value to its development. A truly significant course."
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