The Perils of Creative Research

January 9, 2010

“Because I Like It”: The Perils of Creative Research (Composition I: Retrospective Analysis)

Last term, I taught a Composition I course at Marymount focused on analyzing, researching, and writing about images. I’d taught several comp classes before—almost too many to count—but I was eager to have the opportunity to break away from our program-wide textbook, Now and Then. We—Holly, Bess, and I—chose a new text, Seeing and Writing, with the hope that it would be in part that magic bullet—you know, the thing that will excite and engage everyone, leading to a fabulous daily classroom dynamic and work that excels in every respect: creativity, insight, and writing style. Ultimately, I found that the course organization—especially insofar as organization impacts content for new college students—was the largest area of concern. The major assignment, the research project, took as its subject a single image, chosen by the students, in the Newseum’s Pulitzer Prize gallery; their goal in the essay was to craft a fuller picture of the image, using both the skills of close reading and observation learned throughout the term as well as appropriate research material—both primary and secondary research material. I want to spend some time today talking about the assignment sequence as a whole, the thought behind the assignment sequence, the research project in particular, and problems I encountered while trying to open students to the creative sides of research.

The assignment sequence needed to work within the program’s existing assignment sequence, because all midterms and finals were uniform and team graded. We have four major writing assignments—a personal narrative, a summary, a comparative analysis, a research project. The midterm exam is a summary, and the final exam, a comparative analysis. Instead of opening with the conventional personal narrative, we wanted as a group to dramatize the creative aspects of research; to that end, Bess, Holly, and I used the personal narrative as an entry point to the research project. My goals with this choice were first to encourage students to see that, in all writing—as in all research—the individual’s approach to the material should be unique, honest, and attentive to the details that make a project compelling. I also wanted to push the personal narrative later in the term so as to give the students more time with summary, a skill that seems increasingly difficult to master. To emphasize the creative elements of summary, I had two formal assignments in this project—one, a summary of an image, and the other, a summary of an article. These summaries led into the comparative analysis, which was itself composed partially of summary. From there, we moved on to the personal narrative, which looked back to the first summary of an image assignment, and forward to the research project—the idea was to encourage students to develop questions about the image they chose, questions that they would need to answer with background and contextual research.

But I’d like to spend a bit more time thinking today about the research project, its parameters and goals, the way we approached it in class, and the problems I encountered.

The research project, as I mentioned before, used the personal narrative as a springboard—and the personal narrative itself referred to the first summary assignment. In the first summary assignment, I asked students to choose an image from a selection I’d given them, each of which was available in the textbook. [show images]. Several readings in the text provided models for critical, detailed description, and we used them as such. Students were to write 2-3 pages in which they “summarized” the image, or described it in as much detail as possible—touching both on the content (what was going on in the picture) and on the form (how the photographer presented the material). We’d been going over basic terms like tone and perspective, and in discussion, we took the images apart—considering where the photographer was standing, what was in the frame and what was not in the frame, what colors dominated and what kind of sensibility that created, what the title could tell us about the image, and so on. I tried to keep students from places in the text where the editor had commented on the image’s context, because the goal was to stimulate skills of close reading. Students also had to introduce the image properly—the photographer’s name, the title of the image, and the date it was taken. Students experimented with the kinds of things they could, legitimately, say about the image—based on concrete observations. For instance, Mom Ironing is clearly a cluttered image, even disorganized and chaotic, as one student observed. This kind of observation blends the obvious with a higher-order form of description that requires students to think synthetically. Then, we discussed ways to suggest a “so what” point—what is the photographer, having made these choices, trying to say with the image? In general, students found this assignment a useful tool for later assignments—while working on the research project, one student even mentioned—with a look of surprise—that parts of the research essay reminded her of the summary assignment. I tried to remind students throughout the term of the similarities between the current assignment and past work, though I’m not quite sure how much sunk in.

With this as a context, the research project—6-8 pages, perhaps a bit long for a first year comp class—again drew on a single image, which students first engaged through personal narrative and first-hand experience. I had organized a field trip to the Newseum, where one can linger over the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs from 1942 to 2007—these are images that capture significant moments in history and in individual lives; they should speak, on some level, to everyone, whether they shock, disturb, inspire, or confuse. Students were to browse the Newseum gallery, select an image that spoke to them, take a picture of it if they needed to, and take as many notes about the experience as possible, focusing on observation—what was the environment like? Who was standing nearby, and what was that person doing? What first struck you about the image? As you look at it more carefully, what questions do you have? Can you relate to the image, yourself? If so, how? If not, why? And so on. I gave students a copy of the personal narrative assignment sheet at the Newseum, where they could see again the parameters of the assignment and take notes, if they didn’t have paper of their own. As a group, we browsed the very crowded gallery for about :30 minutes, and then students were left to their own devices—many chose to stay in the gallery, and others explored different areas of the museum.

The field-trip had been announced, at the beginning of the term and periodically throughout; the date had been set, and it was mandatory. Given that the Newseum is easily accessible via metro, I opted not to arrange transportation. Out of 18 students, 7 showed up—none of those that didn’t show up got lost or were unable to navigate the metro system, they just didn’t show up. Here was the first big hurdle. How can students write a personal narrative about an image they’ve encountered face-to-face, and in a particular context, without having encountered it? Because the image chosen here was to become the subject of the research project, this hurdle was not insignificant.

The personal narrative assignment was 4 pages, and one of the things they were required to do was describe the image—as we’d done in the very first summary project. However, they were then encouraged to consider what the image meant to them—what did it remind them of? What did they not understand about the image, what questions did it stir up? What do you think the people in the image are going through? In the personal narrative, students were asked to either craft a story of that reminiscence and connect it to the image they encountered, or craft a story about the experience of the people in the photograph. My main goals for this assignment were oriented towards writing style; we spent a lot of time talking about word choice, sentence structure and variety, active and precise language, and so on. However, because of the term’s overall time constraints, we could not spend more than a week and a half on this assignment—a problem for which I definitely need to devise a solution.

After the personal narrative, we spent a bit of time considering what other information might be needed to come to a more complete understanding of the image. Brainstorming led to the usual suspects: who was the photographer, and what was his or her life like? What was the event photographed? I wanted the students to push further, with questions like: What did others think of the image? What else was happening during the time the image documents? What makes this an iconic, memorable, or important image? What was the effect of the image? Where was it first published, and in what context? What about the content of the image—what else do we need to know, or might we want to know, about the subject? If you’ve chosen the image Defending the Barrier, by Oded Balilty, of the conflict in the West Bank between Israeli security forces and Jewish settlers, would you want to know more about the history of the West Bank, or the history of Jewish settlement there? Or would you just want to know about this event in particular? These questions, ideally, would lead to the appropriate research, which could then be put together to form the larger quilt of the essay. As part of the data-gathering process, I asked students to interview at least five other people about their image, record their responses, and use them to help generate entry points into their description of the image or into the development of research questions. Students didn’t have to use all five, but some portions of the interviews should be represented. The interviews were approached as part of the research process, more eyes on the image to observe things that the writer may not have, more words and ideas to play off of, more responses to support or balance out the historical, contextual information. I wanted students to see that their observations could become primary research, the kind of initial response that formed the basis of secondary research.

And here is where the biggest difficulty lay: My concept of research was not my student’s concept of research. I devised the assignment for two major methodological reasons: 1.) to avoid the possibility of plagiarism, and 2.) to help students see how to build an argument. As it turns out, these two concerns were not unrelated. While constructing the assignment, I went to our library’s website and searched for material related to the images—in most cases, there was none. That is, a student could not search for the photographer’s name and come up with several books or articles on the subject—meaning that one source of information was not going to cut it. Students would need to reconsider how they did research. Instead of looking for an essay or a book on the image they’ve chosen, students would need to find a book on, for instance, the conflict over the West Bank, or on the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict more generally; an article on Jewish settlements or the move to dismantle them; the newspaper or magazine article in which Balilty’s image first appeared; perhaps a piece on the photographer himself—though this particular image may not be referenced. I required students to have at least one interview response, one book, and at least two print articles—they could be scholarly or more popular, from journals, magazines, or newspapers. Ultimately, students were being asked to think analytically about the act of research itself. Many students—even advanced undergrads and master’s students—think that conducting research means narrowing your topic, then finding a book or an article on that topic, reading it, and writing an essay in which nothing new has been done, no unexpected ideas juxtaposed. Essentially, most students understand research as “the research report.” It is not something that, itself, requires creativity.

The interviews were particularly difficult for the students to interact with—I had a great many sub-par interview responses, from the one-word “yes” or “no” to the generic “I like it because I can relate to it” or “I don’t like it because I can’t relate to it.” Some students, however, gathered quite effective interview material, choosing their subjects from not only peers but parents and friends from other universities, even acquaintances still residing in home countries. One student made the effort to contact the photographer of his image, Tom Gralish, who still works at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Beyond the difficulties of gathering the interviews, though, was the task of integrating them—and this was a problem much like that noted earlier, the problem of creatively synthesizing apparently disparate research resources.

We spent a lot of time in class thinking about organization, as students had big questions about that—how do I integrate my interviews? How much background information do I need? How can I give a “brief” overview of the Arab/Israeli conflict, or the 1970s in America? To address these issues of organization, we had to come up with effective thesis statements that could help us order the research most effectively; because this research essay was not, strictly speaking, “original,” students did have a hard time comprehending that they could craft a more interesting, synthetic, descriptive statement about their image, but the time we spent on that was not wasted. I used model thesis statements from essays in our text, and as a class, we broke them down into their parts and experimented with logical methods of organization.

I won’t go on much longer, but I wanted to take a few moments to go over the particular failures or significant problems I encountered.

The concept of research as both an analytical and a synthetic, creative process, drawing from multiple sources that may not be entirely “about your topic”–but rather, about parts of it. This proved incredibly frustrating for the students, because they’d never been asked to do this kind of work before. Students really wanted to be able to go to one full-text database and find four or five articles on their image—when this didn’t pan out, they became upset and resistant, rather than feeling challenged. It’s possible that the challenge I issued was too big, or not effectively clarified. In general, students tended to retreat to a comfort zone of familiarity, rather than working with images and asking questions about those images that problematized their belief systems—I had two students working on the Flag Raising at Iwo Jima and two (who produced admittedly much better essays) working on Brian Lanker’s Moment of Life. This is out of hundreds of possible images.

A related and significant problem I encountered personally was conveying this concept of research to the Library Instructional staff, who are required to conduct the library instruction sessions—my liaison had particular trouble finding reliable, citable images, or information about the photographers, and indeed tended to focus on this information rather than breaking the subject down into its parts. This difficulty also exacerbated the general antipathy toward the project—if they have trouble, how can I be expected to do it?

Use of unauthorized sources—I believe this is related to the problem of creative research, and the lack of comfort students generally feel with library resources as opposed to web resources. Students very rarely asked questions about how to find something they particularly needed, which is where the reference librarians would have been very helpful—for instance, how do I find the 1973 Topeka Capital Journal photoessay in which Lanker’s Moment of Life first appeared? Students could find many pertinent web versions of print sources, but few were either readable or reliable.

Interviews—I needed to spend more time showing students how to conduct interviews, how to get the quality of responses they’re looking for, and so on. I spent one small-group session (four-five students, 20 minute meetings) going over their interviews, answering questions about the process, and addressing concerns about the research project as a whole, but I think more time was necessary. In the future, however, I may nix this portion of the assignment, especially given the time constraints.

Working within the given program structure, which demands that a certain number of particular writing assignments be given. I tried to ensure that all worked together, but there was still not enough time. The general structure I created with the assignments I feel was sound; however, given that students’ work with comparative analysis occurred much earlier than the last weeks of class, the final exam was a bit more removed from what we were doing at the end of term. Further, we were not able to spend as much time on the personal narrative as I’d have liked—in future iterations of the class, I would probably cut the second summary assignment and move directly into the comparative analysis as a vehicle for learning the skills of summary, and then reserve the last week of class for a return to the form in preparation for the final exam.

Finally, getting everyone to the Newseum—and the attendant problem of ensuring that everyone was working with images that I’d approved. I tried to ameliorate this problem by circulating a book of selected Pulitzer Prize photographs, but in the future I should probably arrange transportation, and perhaps even have the field trip during class time.

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