By Lara Karpenko and Lauri Dietz
Lara Karpenko is Assistant Professor of English at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. Her research concentrates on Victorian literature and culture, theories of reading, the novel, and undergraduate research in the humanities. Lauri Dietz directs the University Center for Writing-based Learning at DePaul University in Chicago, IL where she specializes in one-on-one writing pedagogies and teaching writing and research across the curriculum.
How can we help undergraduate students discover the rich rewards of humanities research?
Photo by Tom Magliery courtesy of CC License: http://tinyurl.com/2kh3cr
Managing research projects in English studies as well as in other humanities disciplines can feel daunting for both students and faculty. Previously, we wrote about how college and university teachers can help students acquire resources necessary for humanities research. To build on our discussion of acquisition strategies, we want to share three key strategies and accompanying tools that can aid students in the process of analyzing, tracking, and managing their research so they don’t feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of words they need to process.
Because so much of the research and writing processes happen outside of the classroom, instructors do not often have opportunities to intervene in the process.. Students, then, are often left to trial and error as they navigate through the research and writing process, where success and failure can seem determined more by chance than by design and the potential for transferable lessons to future research projects are diminished.
Our goal in recommending these three strategies and accompanying tools is to help instructors empower students in humanities classes to conduct meaningful and rewarding research. By giving students the PIN to their Research ATM–Analyze, Track, and Manage–students can move beyond acquisition to the creation, communication, and sharing of knowledge.
Before students can start researching, they need to uncover some possible lines of inquiry through their careful reading of a target text. Though it promotes itself as a “toy,” Wordle is a powerful tool that can help students parse and analyze linguistic patterns in the texts they analyze. Identifying these textual patterns can be instrumental in helping students develop research questions and search terms.
At basis, Wordle creates a word cloud that graphically represents the top 150 most frequently occurring words (though that amount can be adjusted) in any given amount of text. Its usefulness partly lies in its exceptionally low learning curve. Students simply need to go to Wordle, click on the “create” button and paste their desired text into the box. Wordle will immediately create a visually appealing cloud that that portrays frequently appearing words as physically large and infrequently occurring words as physically small. Because Wordle does not set a limit on the amount of text it can process, students can paste something as short as a paragraph or something as long as an entire novel. For students in English specifically, we recommend that Wordle can be usefully used alongside websites, like Project Gutenberg, that convert texts into HTML documents.
The 150 most frequently used words in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861).
As an example, we generated a Wordle cloud for the entirety of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861.) Admittedly, as we created this word cloud, neither of us expected to be surprised; after all we have both taught and read this novel several times and considered ourselves well versed in the text. However, as we examined the cloud, we were not only surprised by the fact that Joe’s name appears with much greater frequency than Estella’s but we were also struck by the amount of words dedicated to sight; words like “looked,” “see,” “eyes,” “saw,” “look,” and “looking” fill the cloud.
Particularly useful for more advanced analysis is the Wordle-generated chart that specifically details the number of times any given word appears.To consult the chart, students need to go to the “Language Tab” and scroll down to the “Show word count” option. To extend on the example of vision-oriented words in Great Expectations, the chart reveals that the words “look” and “looked” together appear 495 times in the novel. Considering that the novel is about 500 pages depending on the edition, this is an extraordinary revelation and does not even take into account the other vision words such as “see” or “eyes.”
Noticing patterns like this can help students identify further key words for research (i.e., they can conduct a search for critical research on “Sight” and “Great Expectations”) and can help students formulate research questions and create paths of analysis. As an added bonus, these word clouds are great for helping instructors as they prepare lecture and discussion questions! For instance, what does it mean that Dickens seems so obsessed with the sense of sight in the novel? What does it mean that Estella’s name is mentioned far less than Joe’s? If students want to pursue this sort of lexicographical analysis further, they can supplement their research with a searchable version of the novel (through Project Gutenberg for instance) and examine the context surrounding each instance of the word. To some extent then, the Wordle tool provides students and instructors with a dynamic and free concordance.
With students inspired by possible avenues for research based on their textual analysis, they then need to dive into the process of collecting primary and secondary sources to flesh out and contextualize their research questions and possible arguments. Even for the most meticulously organized English major, tracking and organizing sources is no easy feat. Good humanities research requires the researcher to synthesize key scholarship related to the target text as well as the lens(es) through which they analyze the target text, all while extracting specific examples from the target text and other primary artifacts. Without careful note taking and documenting, it can be difficult to remember who argued what, who references whom, and what helped sparked the researcher’s lines of inquiry and analysis. Students without a good tracking system in place can unintentionally but quickly put themselves at risk for an academic integrity violation.
With a single click of an icon in the web browser, a researcher can add any source to her Zotero library.
Zotero is a powerful free online tool to help researchers “collect, organize, cite, and share” their resources. Zotero syncs to a web browser, which enables the user to collect sources found through a library’s database or any other website and file those sources within the user’s Zotero library. The user can then group, tag, annotate, and even search sources in their Zotero library. Zotero will also generate accurate bibliographic citations following the most up-to-date guidelines of a wide array of citation and style manuals, including MLA and Chicago Manual of Style.
While Zotero is accessible, we find that it has a moderate learning curve. As such, collaborating with a librarian to give a workshop on using Zotero–we’ve yet to meet a librarian who isn’t a fan–can aid in increasing students’ comfort and confidence with the tool. Plus, connecting students to librarians helps reinforce the message that librarians are extremely helpful and important resources in the research process.
Online collaborative project management platforms can be instrumental in helping faculty members mentor and advise students throughout the research and writing processes. Project management refers to specific strategies individuals or groups use to track the planning, executing, and completion of a project. Online project management tools can create a virtual English Studies lab where an instructor can see not just what students are accomplishing but also how students are accomplishing specific tasks. A shared project management platform gives instructors the opportunity to check in and mentor throughout the research process by offering guidance as to best practices for conducting research in the humanities.
An example of a Trello board for a student working on a research project about Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations.
To help you help students manage their research projects, we recommend Trello, a free user-friendly online project management tool. Through an easy drag-and-drop design, Trello allows users to organize “cards” on “boards” to track what is being worked on, who is working on what, what has been completed, and what still needs to be completed. Users can add checklists, images, documents, and due dates to individual cards as well as assign specific users to specific cards or items within a checklist. The dynamic interface of this project management tool can help bring transparency to the best practices of humanities-based research so that more students have a chance to succeed.
FIND A RESEARCH ATM NEAR YOU! Though our mnemonic of ATM may sound simplistic, we consciously created an acronym that would have universal familiarity to students. Just as ATM’s are at once easy to use but rely on the intricate knowledge of programmers, so too can research in English studies be conceptually complex and procedurally simple.
And for more tips on how students and faculty can collaborate to invigorate a culture of undergraduate research in the humanities, stay tuned to this blog. And please feel free to leave your own tips, questions, or gripes in the comments!