Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Collaborative research issues - post 1 - data?

Northwoods U tries to encourage our students and faculty to do what's called faculty/student collaborative research; since we're a regional university with a few MA programs, almost all our student research is undergraduate research.

For the next while, I'm preparing to go to a conference on faculty/student collaborative research. And as I'm preparing, I'm brainstorming, trying to figure out how models work in my field, and how I may be able to do this sort of work well. For me, there has to be double pay-off: the work has to benefit me and also the student. There's no bonus at NWU for this, so it has to help my research or some area of my work for me to add in the extra effort.

Here's my difficulty:

In the sciences, from what I remember, there's a model for research that goes something like: faculty member has a research project and can fund a couple students to do parts of the project, often parts involving repetition (measuring something, for example). On some level, those activities are good learning experiences for the student, and can be made into excellent learning experiences if the student has the gumption and the faculty member provides guidance. Perhaps the student also does a literature review of related materials, and provides them for the professor.

In the humanities, my sense of the model is a LOT more vague. Partly this is because my methodology just isn't nearly as well articulated as typical scientific methodology.

Let's take Shakespeare research, for example. Say I want to argue something interesting about the body parts in Titus Andronicus, a play noted for body parts. First I have to have read the play, and decided something about what I want to argue; then I probably have to do some reading around in the critical literature to see what other people have said about Titus specifically, always testing my idea against what others have been writing. Then I have to read more widely and learn what people have said about body parts, especially theoretically and historically, again, testing my ideas and refining them. Then I may turn to other early modern works, plays, sermons, laws, broadsheets, medical texts. Once again, I test out my ideas and try to refine them, make cultural connections, and so forth.

Where do I fit a potential student collaborator in on this sort of project?

I could ask someone to do the sort of thing I did as a grad student research assistant, read the basic argument as started, then read everything related and make summary notes and suggestions for the professor to read specific pieces/areas. It was good experience for me, and helped me find a dissertation topic. But my mentor had to help me develop my understanding and my judgment about issues in the field (and read over things I had summarized and said probably weren't material to his argument anyway).

In a parallel to the sciences, I could ask someone to "collect data." In the sciences, that might mean the student measures some plants in different growing conditions. You can teach someone to measure plants with some reliability in a couple of hours, I'm guessing. In my field, the "data" is in texts, often in textual wordplay or anecdote. And it took me several years to begin to get a sense of how to really make good sense of texts without a modern editorial apparatus. Give a solid undergrad student a good edition of Shakespeare and s/he can get the point, understand some historical or cultural relevance, and enjoy the jokes. Send that same student to EEBO to read a broadsheet or whatever, and life gets much more complex.

And typically I'd say I spend 10 hours reading stuff for even the smallest "find" that works its way into an argument. Sometimes the "find" (a group of letters between spouses) can give you weeks of joy and fruitful learning. But sometimes the find is something you put on a backburner to remember, and hope that when you have something to say about it, you remember the source accurately (and have good notes).

So it doesn't necessarily help me if the student's read something and I haven't, because the student may not have the experience to make textual connections, and I certainly won't have the memory or notes in a couple years to recall interesting tidbits.

In a way, then, doing textual research is more like doing observational biology than experimental science; so maybe I should think about that sort of model. My memory of doing observational biology is basically that you decide to observe something (say your local Goldfinches) and then record either EVERYTHING you can about the behavior, or record specific incidents of behavior. When you're starting out, you probably try to observe and record everything, because you haven't decided what's important. As you begin to get ideas about what's important to you, you get more focused on specific aspects of behavior.

So, say I'm observing Goldfinches, and I write everything down. Then I become interested in how they share a feeder. So I might start focusing my observations at interactions at a specific feeder.

In either case, I might not realize that something is really important and so not record it (say an alarm call). But if I record absolutely everything, I can go back later and mine my notes for data to help me do more focused observation. If I've videotaped, then I can look over a subset of the data for more observation, but it will take a lot of time.

In English studies, especially early modern stuff, we have the luxury often of being able to go back over our "data" again and again, noticing new words, wordplay, meanings, possibilities. It happens when I reread Lear and realize that I'm blown away by a speech I've read a dozen times without READING it carefully.

But because language represents in such a fragmentary way, and cultures are so complex, it's probably as complicated to teach good reading as it is to teach good observation in young biologists. And it probably takes more time than the usual semester we're likely to work with a given student on a project.

Like biologists, we teach these skills probably in every class. I spend lots of time having students read aloud, talking about words, meanings, wordplay, jokes, cultural contexts, all in short passages. And at the end of a semester, some students get pretty good. But in all those classes, we have the benefit of modern edited texts (though I've done projects using Early English Books On-Line).

All this still leaves me wondering how I can teach a student to do useful observation or reading of complex texts not available in modern editions?

I had a really interesting discussion with a scientist here about these issues, so I'll be posting more about that in coming days.


  1. I find this post really interesting. In the social sciences, I view the process as somewhere inbetween. There are times when I'm analyzing a data set and think that it will be difficult to bring a student in on that part of the process, much for the same reasons as you describe in your own textual analysis. Sometimes when we each do a pass and then have a discussion about it, the collaboration occurs there, in the moment of sharing where our individual ideas merge and extend.

    I look forward to reading about your conversation with the scientist.

  2. Like Profgrrrl, I find this really interesting and I'm looking forward to reading more. I've never done collaborative work with students, and I'm not sure that I'll be doing any in the near future--but I'd really love ideas about how to introduce undergrads and M.A. students to the kind of work that scholars actually do.

  3. I've found that one form of collaborative research that is pertinent to us English literature folk is in the preparation of modern/critical editions of early printed material. Let me offer two examples. The first is a shameless plug, so apologies beforehand!

    The first example is collaborative work towards an electronic edition of Thomas Dekker's The Whore of Babylon, based on the 1607 quarto. I have transcribed the text of the play, using EEBO as a reference for comparison. I have then had a friend (also finishing her doctoral thesis) over in New Zealand (who has a great eye for detail) proof my transcription. The playtext, now completed, is now in the hands of Professor Frances Dolan (UC Davis), who is preparing the introductory material. She has also enlisted the help of some enthusiastic graduate students to work collaboratively with her in preparing notes and annotations. The final product will then be passed by an advisory board, and then made freely available online.

    The second example is the Early Modern Texts Project at Valparaiso University. The project offers an online portal annotated extracts of early modern printed material prepared by undergraduate students working in groups. The selection is quite small, but that's besides the point.

    I really think that editing texts offers a fantastic insight into selecting and finding source materials from earlier periods, introducing students to the techniques and theories involved in textual analysis. In a class-room setting, the texts can be used to discuss important historical/cultural issues in context. Finally, and best of all, the final product is something of intrinsic value to the scholarly community.

    There are, of course, other collaborative projects available to English faculty/students. These might include staging a play, which would involve making editorial decisions regarding what to cut/include, staging, lighting/sound, music, etc. It could then be followed by reflective essays describing each individual's or group's different contribution. For those that aren't directly involved onstage or backstage, they can still offer insight as the audience and perhaps write performance criticism to be shared. Perhaps the production can be filmed, and have a website to host all the student essays etc... The possibilities are endless.

  4. Thanks for the feedback. I'm really inexperienced in the social sciences, so I'd love more information from that angle, if you'd care to share.

    bdh - I think you're absolutely right about how great editing projects are!

    When I taught our grad research methods course, I organized our final research project around a collection of manuscript materials in our Special Collections section of the library; each student had to select a manuscript and edit it, and then mostly, they were put on line, or made available to the Special Collections librarian in print. So there are editions with introductions, textual information, and so forth about these documents.

    They're unique documents, and each student became the world's leading expert on his/her document. It worked better even than I'd hoped, but the students HATED beginning the project (and mostly loved having done it because they learned lots and were, finally, real researchers).