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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Research Project: Scaffolding & Exploring Information as a Freedom & Justice Issue

The research paper. It's funny--I have my FJS students read Barbara Fister's article on "Why the Research Paper isn't Working," but they still have to write a paper for me. It's an upper-level class, after all, and for the first iteration of this course, the research paper is how I'm scaffolding in information literacy as well as keeping students well on track to completing a larger project as they consider concepts throughout the course.

Back on topic: for my FJS 340 course, my students are required to work on a research paper. Essentially, they get to explore any conflict or issue of interest to them that involves questions of freedom and justice, but they must explore their conflict from an information perspective (which is our focus for the class). I leave the subject matter wide open for a reason--the course I teach is an upper-level general education course, multidisciplinary and international in scope. I want students to choose a topic of interest to them, since they'll be living with it for a few months.

Having worked an academic library reference desk for more than a decade now, I know that undergraduate students with wide-open options for paper topics are wild-haired, confused things, dazed by possibility and overwhelmed with options. (An exaggeration? Perhaps not by much.) This confusion often manifests among freshmen and sophomores, who may not have enough grasp of a subject yet to have particularly well-thought out areas of interest.

This semester, I found the largest part of the struggle for my students wasn't actually identifying a topic of interest, it was in the attempt to articulate the information issue(s) at hand for their particular conflict. The topics themselves are fascinating, and the students were excited to focus on something of their own divining. Topics of interest included felons' loss of voting rights, Native American land rights issues vis-a-vis the federal government, the illegal car modification and racing community, black women's experience of violence by law enforcement officers, prisoner access to information through prison libraries, and women's voting rights, among others.

Refining the Research Topic: Let the Students Hash It Out

More difficult than identifying the social justice issue students wanted to focus on was identifying the information issue at work within the larger social justice context. This go-round, I had students submit their topics to me as part of their weekly assignment early in the semester. Fielding questions about the assignment, I decided to use a portion of class time to have student discuss and white-board their topics, exploring not just what angle of their larger social justice issue they wanted to tackle, but having them attempt to articulate how information was a crucial component of their topic.

At this point in the semester, we had covered not just freedom and justice theory, but some information theory, and readings on information poverty, ways of knowing, and how information is used and viewed in various disciplines. The discussion at this point revolved around deciding what the information issues at hand might be. Questions I had students consider included:

  • How is information at work here?

  • Are there information haves and have-nots in this situation?

  • What processes are being informed, or not, and by whom?


And from here, the students engaged with each other, pressing each other to expand on their topics and to hearken back to the readings for concepts. Three examples that stand out of students taking underdeveloped topics and really hashing out a better way to think of them as information-centric:

  • The student interested in felons' loss of voting rights refined her idea to focus on how the denial of voting rights means felons cannot inform the political process through voting, and she wants to explore what information loss is there, what alternative avenues felons can pursue to inform the political process, and whether those avenues have the same impact as informing through voting.

  • The student interested in the conflict between Native Americans and the federal government over land ownership was able to articulate the conflict between a dominant culture dependent on written record of ownership and the non-written record-keeping of a minority or oppressed culture, and how different "ways of knowing" come into conflict.

  • The student interested in car modification and police profiling decided to focus on information communities surrounding taboo subculture practices, the information-signaling people use to identify themselves as belonging to the community, and the information-signaling that law enforcement recognizes and uses to police the community.


All of the students' topics benefitted from the class exploring each topic, and discussing how the information concepts covered to date in class readings could be made a focal point for each research project. Having students lead the discussion for each topic and probe each other for more information to help build a case for a topic was incredibly effective, and received unanimous approval after the exercise. Yet again, something that happened serendipitously I am now going to build into the class for next semester. I love learning better ways to make things happen from my students! I'm also genuinely excited to read their final papers.

Basic Scaffolding: The Annotated Bibliography

To ensure that students actually consider their topics in depth before the paper is actually due, I tried to scaffold assignments related to the project throughout the semester. Like the active journaling assignments for the course, the smaller assignments were for low-stakes grades, but in totality the pieces of the project add up to the major part of the grade for the course.

The annotated bibliography is a wonderful assignment, for a few reasons. First of all, and most important to me, it means my students have to at least do some basic searching of their topic some weeks before the project is due. I scheduled an information literacy session (just like I ask my fellow faculty to do), and it was taught by Awesome Amy, our Dean of the Library. (I would have loved to teach the session, but I wanted students to be exposed to other librarians as much as possible.) They learned to refine research topics, choose appropriate databases, and work with keywording. Most importantly for my purposes, they also learned the need to synthesize information from multiple sources, and that The Perfect Article does not exist.

The annotated bibliography is also a good opportunity for students to make mistakes. I allow students to use either APA or MLA, since the course is a GenEd and I expect to have majors from across the spectrum. (Since I've completed graduate theses in both styles, I'm comfortable correcting both, though most faculty I know require one or the other.) Students can murder the annotation style and I can help them at this point, before the higher-stakes paper.

The annotations were also a good way for me to eyeball which students might have difficulty digesting and writing up academic work, catching it early, and supporting them so that the drafting process is not as painful.

The Project Plan Outline

The next stage is what I called the project plan outline, where students submit an outline of their paper. The writeup indicates not just the outline of the overall paper, but initial thoughts for each section, where their different research sources will be used in the paper, where they indicate they'll use interviews and other information. It forces students to consider how they will structure their paper, and not to believe that simply finding relevant sources was enough. This is a stage where I can indicate where they might need sources in addition to those they discovered earlier, to support assertions or firm up a section of the paper.

The Rough Draft

The rough draft is the first draft of the full paper. This is a great opportunity for students to have a full draft done (and to have my comments back before Thanksgiving!) and to have their mistakes or weaknesses again sussed out in a low-stakes assignment. I also discovered that watching student papers grow organically through these scaffolding assignments allowed me to treat them as the experts on the subject, and to make that clear to them. Lots of shy smiles when I would tell a student, "You know more about this particular subject than I do! Seriously. You've done the research to support the argument you are making. I am just here to help you work on the structure, to help with your writing, and to identify weaknesses for you to address, given your knowledge and research." The biggest breakthroughs for me were every time I saw a student smile, and truly take ownership of their topic. It also, I think, helped create a mentor/mentee relationship instead of a more adversarial or intimidating relationship. I'm still waiting for the student reviews of teaching, though.

The Final Paper and Presentation

The presentations happened during the last class session. The students had created the assessment and grading rubric for the final presentation as a class session with Dr. Sohui Lee, our Faculty Director of the Writing and Multiliteracy Center. Students each had 10-12 minutes to present their research and field questions. Previous to the sessions, we explored how academic conferences were populated and presented, and how my intent was for them to conduct themselves in similar fashion. The presentations themselves were excellent, and had a celebratory atmosphere--one student had her husband attend her presentation, and my own husband delivered burritos from a local carniceria. The students were not only responsible for developing the rubric for the assignment, they were also responsible for filling out the rubric and assessment for each of their peers. This assignment earned them credit for participating in the assessment, and was also used as 50% of their grade for the final presentation (the other 50% was my own grading of their presentation). The result was that the students offered considered and thoughtful comments along with a grade for their peers' presentations, and had a stake in addressing all of the points in the rubric they had themselves created.

Moving Forward: Evolving Into Service Learning

For future iterations, I'm considering a bigger service learning component option. I just requested a meeting with our Center for Community Engagement folks, and we'll be talking in January about how I might be able to make this happen for the Spring 2016 iteration of the class. Since the focus of my version of the topics course is on information as a freedom and justice issue, developing a service-learning component where students help to identify and address a community information need seems to fit nicely with our university mission pillars and (I hope) with the intent of the Freedom & Justice Studies program itself. (More on this as I find out more and consult with the faculty in charge of the program!)