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In Mexico, two WU seniors discuss spiking the traditional history research paper

by Chuck Gordon

At a conference in Mexico, a pair of Wingate undergrads recently shared their thoughts on the use of unconventional methods to document history research.

Senior Hannah Givens has written more 12- to 20-page research papers than she can remember. As a freshman, she took – admittedly ill-advisedly – two upper-level political science courses in one semester, writing 20-page papers to cap off both classes. She wasn’t even a poli sci major yet.

“Little freshman me was shocked,” she says.

Givens survived those efforts, plus a 40-page paper her sophomore year. But that standard research paper is undergoing a makeover. As Givens and fellow senior political science major Anna Holmquist are finding out, the lengthy research report is no longer a sacrosanct part of history courses. Throughout the world of higher education, there is debate as to how history students should be required to present their research.

Last semester, Dr. Steven Hyland gave students in his Cold War History class the option of presenting their findings either on a webpage they built themselves or in a podcast. Givens, who picked podcast, and Holmquist (webpage) then got to hear the debate firsthand when they participated in a roundtable discussion at the Southeastern Council of Latin American Studies’ 2019 conference in Oaxaca, Mexico, March 27-30.

The trip was eye-opening for Givens and Holmquist in a number of ways. For one thing, they were two of only three undergraduates attending the conference. The two senior volleyball players also spent several days networking and took a couple of educational day trips, including a tour of villages where women are given zero-interest microloans in order to expand their craft and food businesses.

But the impetus for the trip was to discuss their digital research projects. Hyland says that for years he has been interested in giving students a digital alternative for presenting their research. It’s a natural evolution of the classroom, considering the technological advances made in the past 30 years.

Hyland felt compelled to try something new around his third year at Wingate, when he began feeling frustrated by the results of the standard 10- to 12-page research paper. “It was clear that the average student did not want to write the paper,” he says, “and thus it became unfulfilling to read them.”

He did some research of his own, and last spring he finally made a change: He required students to present their research online via Weebly, a site that enables users to easily build their own webpage. The students were still required to use citations that conformed to Chicago Manual of Style guidelines and write the equivalent of a 12-page paper, but the delivery mechanism was more 21st century.

“The idea was to tell a story that would communicate in a smart fashion to an audience broader than me,” Hyland says. “The students bought in. In general, they liked the freedom to be creative.”

Last semester he introduced a couple of new wrinkles: Students could produce a podcast or construct their own website, by learning how to code.

Wingate University seniors Hannah Givens and Anna Holmquist participate in a roundtable discussion.

Wingate seniors Anna Holmquist, second from left facing the camera, and Hannah Givens, third from left, participated in a roundtable discussion about digital presentation of historical research at the Southeastern Council of Latin American Studies conference in Oaxaca, Mexico, March 28-30.


Digital deep dive

The parallels between Givens and Holmquist are uncanny. They were both starters on the Wingate volleyball team that advanced to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight last fall, and they both come by their political-science chops naturally: Each has a state senator in her family (Givens’ dad, David, is in his third term in the Kentucky Senate; Holmquist’s grandfather, L. Patrick Engel, served four terms in the Nebraska Senate). They even have the same middle name (Catherine).

They also both entered Wingate as freshmen leaning toward careers in journalism, and they both love to write. Still, Holmquist appreciated the break from grinding out another lengthy research paper. And learning to code was a bonus, though she says her site was “very basic.”

“That’s something that’s very relevant, a good skill to have,” she says. “If he hadn’t made me do it, I don’t think I would have ever looked into it.”

The seniors both say they did just as much research as they would have had they written a typical end-of-course paper. Givens produced a podcast about Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. “It was really in-depth, because I had to connect all the dots for my podcast to make sense,” she says.

Holmquist, who studied the East-West divide in Ukraine, says she felt like she would have gotten a little more out of the project by writing a standard research paper. She says use of a website made it more difficult to tie together the relatively incoherent subject she chose to research.

Being nearly the only undergrads at the SECOLAS conference, Givens and Holmquist say they were treated like “rock stars.” In a standing-room-only session, “Digital Tools and Latin American Studies: Promise and Peril for Research and Teaching,” the pair relayed to the audience their experience in Hyland’s Cold War History class.

“Dr. Hyland made it clear that it was a low-pressure situation and that he had a lot of faith in us that we would do a great job,” Holmquist says. “Once I started talking it was clear that I was being received well by the people.”

They found the surrounding debate fascinating. “A few people were really skeptical of it,” Givens says. “Like, ‘We have to write a paper to be historians.’ But other people were really excited about it. I had a couple of people come up to me after the panel and say they were really inspired by it, like, ‘I want to have my class do a podcast after this.’”

“They were worried about the death of students’ knowing how to write a research paper,” Holmquist says. “But we’ve written so many research papers, we know how to write one. If every professor was doing it, maybe nobody would learn how to write, but that’s not going to be the case.”

A meaningful experience

Wingate might be the perfect size school at which to test out digital presentation of research. Doing so at some of the schools represented at SECOLAS, such as Cal Berkeley and the University of Texas at Dallas, could be overwhelming.

“If you have 300 students in a classroom, you don’t want to listen to 300 25-minute podcasts,” Givens says.

Hyland is trying out another technique this semester that could be an option for larger classes: a class-produced podcast. “As I tell all of my students the first time I try a new assignment, ‘It will be awesome the second time I teach it,’” he says.

Time will tell which, if any, of the modern methods stick. Givens and Holmquist are just glad Hyland is willing to try something new with his classes, not to mention going to bat for his students.

They’ll never forget their trip to Mexico. Hearing the women’s stories had a big impact on Givens and Holmquist, each of whom speaks Spanish and has an interest in global economic development. “Apparently, the interest rate in Mexico is about 90%,” Holmquist says. “If they were to get loans from another source, a lot of them talked about it, they wouldn’t be able to pay it back. I mean, that’s insane.”

Givens was impressed with the women’s entrepreneurial spirit. “One woman sold papas fritas – french fries – and other kinds of little snacks,” says Givens, who plans to take a year off before most likely starting grad school. “She had a bike and she would ride around the village and sell them. They found their niche and they filled that in.”

Holmquist, who is headed to the University of Pittsburgh this fall to work on a master’s in international development, is already thinking that she’d like to do an internship with En Via Fundacion, the organization that provides the microloans.

Spending a few days in Mexico, rubbing elbows with professors and seeing economic development up close, has made the vision of her long-term future just a little clearer.

“I’m just so grateful to Dr. Hyland,” Holmquist says. “I mean, he made it happen for us. He found funding from wherever he could. He was just unstoppable with making sure everything was in place.”

April 4, 2019