Beyond the research essay: women’s lit & archival research in an undergraduate course

I’m planning to post — at irregular intervals — some of the ideas I’ve had about university teaching and to showcase some of the projects that my students have done. I’ve been teaching undergraduate courses for a long time, and I think that one of my main goals from the very beginning has been to convince students that the intellectual life is worth living, and that it can be lived both within the classroom and beyond its walls. I’m not after some sort of practical demonstration that the study of English literature is “relevant” — that old buzzword– although I think it does have many practical applications. What I’m after is the demonstration that thinking about literature is part of what thoughtful people do even if they aren’t English professors, and they do it because it helps to explain our world, to connect us with the past, and to introduce us to different lives and cultures.

I usually try to build in certain features into my assignments:
–the assignment has to be read by or exhibited to or performed for an audience other that just myself, preferably even beyond the students in the class;
–students should be challenged to think about how to communicate their subject in new and creative ways, often using a variety of skills and talents. The conventional research paper is still a staple of my course requirements, but it’s not the only way that my students practice their writing and research skills.

My first piece in this series is a description of a second-year undergraduate project in a women’s literature course, which was originally posted on the Mount Saint Vincent University English Department blog.

MSVU English Department Blog

Terms of Engagement: Teaching & Learning in the English Department by Anna Smol

Peterson Protest Buttons postersIf you’ve walked along the fifth floor of Seton or through the tunnel linking Evaristus and Rosaria, you might have noticed a series of posters called “Pieces of Activist History: Betty Peterson Protest Buttons.” Produced by students in English 2242 (Themes in Women’s Writing), these posters are the result of a collaborative process in which students in this Winter 2014 course learned something about a remarkable Nova Scotian activist while practising their research and communication skills.

Betty Peterson, from Women Social Activists of Atlantic Canada site Betty Peterson (photo from Women Social Activists of Atlantic Canada website)

Frankly, I did not know what to expect when I assigned this group project. The theme of our course was “protest and polemics” and some of the reading material, such as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, focused our attention on Second Wave feminism. I knew that the Mount Library had received a donation of protest buttons from Betty Peterson…

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