Assigning student projects are fraught in the best of times. Will students go to the library? Will they ask for help if they are lost? Will interlibrary loan be able to even find the materials they need? Will you as a teacher be able to see them struggling in class and offer help? Questions like this are now exacerbated by the Pandemic, where we might not even see our students on screen. And with so many academic avenues closed to them, how in the world are we to provide them with meaningful student research projects?
With more and more archives and resources being put online, some projects lend themselves to remote teaching, especially in arts and humanities. I hope you will think about these, which are easily adaptable to your own discipline, for your upcoming student projects! Before getting into specifics, be sure you advise your students to consider their strengths, talents, and skills and think about how to apply them. And have clear cut instructions for what they must or must not do.
The first student project to consider is the unessay, which I have blogged about previously. Remember, written final research papers often fill undergraduates with dread too, especially if the student in question does not feel that writing is a strong suit of theirs, or they see themselves as more creative. The “unessay” – created by historian Christopher Jones – allows students to bring their own disciplinary interests and expertise to bear on historical research. For example, a student in Public health could research the history of infectious diseases and early public health efforts in the Revolutionary periods, and then create public health posters for their project. A nursing major could write a short story about someone’s first day in a hospital during the Revolution, drawing on some person’s extant writings and other primary sources. A music performance major could compose an original piece of music about Revolution and freedom. I now give my students the option between a traditional research paper and an “unessay.”
The second idea is an online exhibition or timeline. Students pick a project, and after intense research, put together an exhibit on their topic. Websites like the Smithsonian offer incredible tips on how to set up an exhibit, how to tell a compelling story, and how to present it to a target audience. It also forces them to understand all the ways – cultural, political, legislative, etc. – that a story or event captures the minds of an audience. They must sift through contradicting viewpoints and find their own footing. All these skills are exactly the kinds of things that are useful for college students. I am using this project for my scandals and crime class, because stories that appear just fascinating to read also teach historical methods.
The third and final project idea is to get in touch with a museum or library or places on the web, and ask to help them work on a project. The Museum of Ventura County allowed my class to do primary source research on women of Ventura County for their upcoming exhibit on women’s suffrage. The Library of Congress has ongoing projects that need community help, like the transcription of diaries and letters on a variety of topics. For history students, they get practice learning how to read archaic handwriting. They also learn about the Library itself. And they get to contribute to public historical work. Finally, consider signing up your students for a project on Wikipedia Education. Students pick pages that are linked to the course and either add to the scholarship, create their own pages, correct mistakes, and create bibliographies. Last semester 3 of the 4 groups that completed this project had their work uploaded to Wikipedia. They are also now trained Wikipedia editors who can work on other projects. And it looks great on a graduate school application!
Why this might be a “fit” for your own classes: students may choose their own topics within the parameters of the course, they may present it in any way they choose, and it will be evaluated based on how compelling it is. Students must do actual research in scholarly books and articles and in primary source materials, including online databases and digital history projects relevant to their research. The idea here is to break open the corral of the traditional essays and projects and to encourage students to take a different approach to the assignment. It requires some creativity. But the results can be phenomenal!
What I discovered is that students doing the “unessay” did about 75% more research than those doing a traditional essay. I was struck by the sense of ownership to their projects and to their subjects. Most students ended up with incredible amounts of knowledge that could only be accomplished by deep reading and active engagement with sources. I remain humbled and grateful for the engagement of my students in topics that might have at first been new to them. Watching someone bring their own expertise to a foreign topic means that it is no longer a rote exercise, but one imbued with real meaning. It becomes real for them and they behave accordingly. I highly recommend you give these projects a try!