What I learned about teaching research from having a summer research student
For eight weeks this summer, I had a summer research student, a rising senior at Wabash. I learned some things over these weeks about how to teach students to do research from seeing what was surprising to my student and what was difficult. The student who worked with me approached me last semester about doing summer research because he said he wanted to see what faculty in philosophy do when they do research. I invited him to work with me on an article manuscript that I am working on. He began by reading secondary literature which then directed him toward primary texts and dialectically back and forth between secondary literature and primary texts.
Here is what I learned from what he learned:
Good Research Takes Time
Good research takes a lot of time, not just over weeks–spending time lets ideas fester–but in hours in a day, reading deep and widely. It wasn’t just that the student learned more and became a more careful thinker, but that he realized that he did so because of the time he put in. If anything, putting in many hours for half a summer helped the student see how few hours he is putting into the work during the semester. It made me think that it is worthwhile to talk to students about how much time it takes to be good at something–10,000 hours to become an expert, they say. Sure, they are undergraduates at a liberal arts school so I don’t expect them to be experts in philosophy, but they could be an expert at being a student, and that would take many more hours than many of them are putting into their studies.
Putting students in the conversation.
- Citation and referencing is an art, a matter of judgment, that puts one in the conversation. I’m not giving this student a grade. He has no reason or, it seems to me, investment in plagiarizing. But he still struggled to learn when he could use other people’s ideas and words and when he needed to cite them. My diagnosis of this is that students do not see the importance, relevance, or worth of situating themselves in a larger academic conversation. Seeing themselves in a conversation should help students see no shame in referencing other thinkers’ ideas and using other people’s language in quotes. I realized this summer that students use the language of others when they don’t quite understand it and so they can’t put it into their own words. At the end of the eight weeks, he told me that he realized reading footnotes was important because they contained insights that could be followed up on. It seemed to me that these two things are interrelated: caring about reading footnotes also makes students more invested in writing good footnotes.
- Putting themselves in the conversation through citation and referencing requires students take their own ideas seriously enough to be relevant to the larger conversation. What I learned was that students need to be set up to have worthy contributions and to proudly and explicitly reference other people’s ideas, that is, to put themselves in the conversation. I think it is useful for students to see even in short snippets the views of others on a particular point. I teach ancient philosophy. This fall, I’m going to teach ancient texts alongside short selections of secondary literature to help students see that there is a dispute over how to read the text to which they can contribute.
- While the first step is putting that language in quotes and referencing the source, the more important one is putting students into the conversation by asking them to include only what they understand. If they don’t understand, I want them to know they can either ask or just as well decide they shouldn’t focus on that part. I mean really, how often do we do that ourselves, we who research philosophy professionally! I want students to see that figuring out what they need to understand and can’t ignore and what they can ignore is part of the work. Moreover, writing a paper is not a report on everything they know, so much of the background that set them up to explain what they do include can be left out or relegated to footnotes.
- Another element of this being-in-conversation is that students benefit from and do not always explicitly see how thinkers are themselves already in conversations with their predecessors. My student started by reading Aristotle with me, but he took the initiative to trace ideas back to Plato and the pre-Socratics and so we read Plato’s Timaeus and fragments from Empedocles and Anaxagoras. It occurred to me that making explicit to students that I am teaching Hesiod and the pre-Socratics to help them understand why Plato and Aristotle take the approaches that they do would help them see why we a) start with thinkers they have never heard of and b) can’t just start with Plato and Aristotle and ignore their history.
Developing Their Own Thinking: The Forest and the Trees
- Students really don’t know what we mean when we tell them they need to develop their ideas. I regularly give students a hard time in their writing for mentioning rather than offering an argument. But that isn’t the whole of it. Students tend to briefly describe an argument without getting into the details. But I learned this summer that this often occurs because students don’t see the point of getting into the details. When they see how working through the details is what actually allows them to get to a final point that reveals something about the argument, something that cannot be revealed without the details, they are much more willing and interested in working through the details. At the end of the eight weeks, this student was talking about the importance of the hermeneutic circle, of rereading in light of what you have already read and finding interpretation changes once you know context and other texts.
- Writing in short focused low-stakes but semi-public settings through a particular point can sharpen students’ thinking and embolden them as well as encourage a more careful discussion over ideas. I had my student blog almost every day. We set up a blog where only the two of us were authors and readers. The student would write several paragraphs, articulating an argument from an article or from a passage in Plato and Aristotle that allowed us to have continuously more advanced and detailed discussions as the weeks progressed. There were days when I took advantage of this blog for my own effort to work through a place in my manuscript where I had become stuck. The low stakes of the blog that still felt somewhat formal forced me to articulate my problem or my argument. Writing it out without having to write it directly into the manuscript loosened me from the place I was stuck and clarified my thinking. It made me think it might be worthwhile to set up a private blog for writing where one could keep ideas for projects and write when one needs some space for informal writing related to a more formal project, a digital journal. Then it made me think that students would benefit from that even more. In a 300-level seminar in the fall, I’m setting up a group blog for students to do this kind of regular low-stakes yet still careful writing.
- I had my student write a short reflection on what he learned over the summer, and two things in particular struck me about this reflection (besides the idea of having students in every class write end-of-semester reflections on what they have learned). First, the student said he learned the importance of formulating his own questions. In class, he said, professors offer the questions and students consider them. But research, he reflected, requires developing one’s own questions and this is hard. Second, he realized that the contributions that we make in research don’t have to be paradigm shifting, but the important contributions can be small-scale arguments about a particular reading that might support a paradigm shift suggested by someone else. This second point seems like a way of seeing the relationship between the forest and the trees. The arguments we make in research are often tree-arguments, arguments about details, but they can have forest-level consequences. Helping students see this can help them see that the work can be both manageable and important.
- Finally, the student said the hardest thing was figuring out what his own contribution was. I’m glad he wants to make a contribution. I’m also glad he sees that it will take a lot of work to get there.
While I do not name this student here, he granted me permission to discuss our experience publicly.