This blog was written by Travis Snyder, PhD candidate and a Poage Library Teaching Fellow from Summer 2016. To apply for the 2017 program, go HERE.
The first day, I didn’t know anything. After being named a Poage Library Teaching Fellow, I showed up to the library at the end of June, ready to start my work—whatever it was to be. It didn’t help that I am no scholar of politics; I was an English major and am an English graduate student, here as a Teaching Fellow because I teach composition. The first day there I was oriented, given a desk and then left to my devices. A brief overview of all the material available to me did not help me narrow my ideas. My desk itself was situated so I could see the materials stretching all the way to other side of the room. Where to even start?
Some context: I have been teaching English 1302 and 1304 at Baylor for three years. ENG 1302 is a neatly packaged class; I can look at every individual day and tell you how it corresponds with course goals. ENG 1304 is a bit more shaggy, with room to improvise and make connections at will. ENG 1304 deals with research writing, and my students set their own topics. Given this, there are many more variables in how I plan the curriculum throughout the semester.
One of the difficulties of ENG 1304 is helping first-time researchers pick topics. They tend to be intimidated by the idea of a ten-page paper and try to pick topics that they think will help them write that much. This sends them to familiar topics: they want to write about gun control or abortion or paying student athletes—all worthy intellectual pursuits, but they are in fact much too large to attempt in ten pages. That’s what they don’t know, and that’s what the archive can demonstrate to them.
Trying to confront a large topic is like staring down a hall of boxes, like I was on my first day in Poage. If you want to write a paper about a topic like gun control, you have to imagine the largest room imaginable and then imagine it filled with boxes full of fascinating material on the subject. Confronted with this fact, you realize you have to narrow down and pick a more specific starting place. Good research is focused.
The challenge for students is that they don’t get this physical experience of being overwhelmed. There is no actual big room of boxes for them. Their experience is opposite. They plug their topic into a search engine and are met with relief when “gun control” turns up millions of hits—surely they will be able to get ten pages out of this. What I realized, overwhelmed on that first day, was that the archive can help me turn it around for them. That is when I got to work.
What I did was this: I split my students into pairs and gave them one small research question to answer. Each research question had a few boxes of material from the Poage Library that went along with it. They had only an hour to sort through gobs of material to gather information that would help them answer the question. It is quite literally an impossible task. The students realized quickly that they wouldn’t be able to cover everything, so they zeroed on a few specific materials and sought to understand them more fully. They turned in reports about what they were able to find in their time in the archive.
As I see it, my students were taught the following lessons: a lot can be said about a very specific thing; research can be overwhelming, and that this is a good thing; topics that sound uninteresting can still turn up interesting material; physical material has some advantages over digital materials; and—finally—they got to see first hand what it is to be researchers.