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At Midpoint of the Newberry Seminar, Independent Projects Take Center Stage

Published: October 27, 2014

It's just past the midpoint of the fall semester, and the 22 students in the ACM Newberry Seminar in Chicago are intensively digging into their independent research projects.

That doesn't mean, though, that they've disappeared into their library carrels for the next few weeks, not to be seen until they emerge at the end of the term with their completed research papers in hand.

Workshop on history of the book

Students examine books from the Newberry Library's collections at a workshop on the history of the book.

The program's emphasis on developing a research community, as well as honing each student's skills as a researcher, ensures that the students will remain engaged with their classmates, the seminar faculty, and the librarians and scholars at the Newberry Library even as the individual projects take center stage in the students' daily lives.

For example, in the same week that they handed in drafts of the opening section of their research papers, seminar participants also spent a day at a digital humanities conference for Chicago area universities, where several of them gave presentations on digital aspects of their Newberry projects.

"The students were definitely happy to have the [formal part of the] seminar over, because they wanted to start working on their projects and concentrate more on their own interests," said Hannah Schell, who is co-teaching the fall 2014 seminar with her Monmouth College faculty colleague Bridget Draxler. "Still, we've set it up so we'll see them most every day and stay in touch with them."

Each year, led by a pair of visiting professors, the Newberry Seminar focuses on a broad theme in the humanities. Drawing on primary source materials from the remarkable collections at the Newberry – one of the world's premier research libraries and home to millions of books, manuscripts, and historic maps – students conduct research and create a substantial independent project.

At the Art Institute

The seminar group at the Art Institute.

Draxler and Schell designed this fall's seminar, Knowledge and Technology: From Socrates to the Digital Age, to incorporate the digital humanities as a frequent topic for discussion. They're also giving students the opportunity to use digital materials as components of their independent projects if they want to.

During their first five weeks in Chicago, the students' schedules were packed with daily seminar sessions to provide a context for the seminar theme. Readings from Plato, Nietzsche, Foucault, and many others were interwoven with class discussions and talks by guest speakers to frame how knowledge has been understood in Western thought through the ages, from ancient Greece to the present.

Assignments encouraged exploration of the library's holdings, and Newberry staff gave workshops for the group on the history of the book and on maps and cartography, and also advised students individually on potential sources and research topics.

The instructors have looked beyond the library's walls for resources, as well. Early in the semester, the seminar group took a walking tour of the Gold Coast neighborhood, where both the Newberry and the students' housing are located, guided by Peter Alter, archivist at the Chicago History Museum and an alumnus of the Newberry Seminar.

Hannah Schell, Bridget Draxler, and Jon Winet.

In late September, Jon Winet, Associate Professor of Intermedia in the School of Art and Art History at the University of Iowa, gave a pair of workshops. The first was on the invention of photography and the effect it had on painting and the other delved into the public digital humanities.

In between, Winet led the students on an excursion to the Art Institute and a viewing and discussion of a major exhibit at the museum, Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938. The group talked about how René Magritte was influenced by photography, the ways his paintings juxtaposed text and images to raise questions about language and meaning, and the effective presentation of the artwork in the exhibit.

Students were quick to add their observations during a lively session that drew connections between Magritte's work and themes running through the seminar readings, such as the authority of text and the transmission of knowledge.

By mid-October, the students had settled on their topics and formally presented their research proposals to Schell and Draxler, as well as to librarians and others in the Newberry’s scholarly community who serve as resources and mentors as the students continue their research and writing.

Stories of Discovery
From sniffing out the tastiest doughnuts in Chicago to uncovering a handwritten letter from Teddy Roosevelt, read about the Newberry Seminar experience in the student blogs.

A sample of the wide-ranging topics includes:

  • American Revolutionary pamphlets and print technology,
  • Representations of Pocahontas,
  • Chicago educational and cultural institutions, particularly Poetry magazine,
  • The papers of writer and editor Gladys Fornell,
  • The settlement house movement in Chicago,
  • 18th century American religious movements, and
  • The Chicago Literary Renaissance, and writer and social activist Edith Wyatt.

In the second half of the semester, Draxler and Schell are meeting individually with students each week to focus on the progress of their research projects. The group is staying connected, as well, by gathering on Tuesday and Thursday mornings to talk about the research and writing process.

"What we address will change from week to week, like how to deal with writer's block or giving a report on how you're structuring your paper," said Schell. "Sometimes we'll break them into smaller groups to start doing some peer review of their drafts."

Map workshop

The seminar's map workshop with the Newberry's Curator of Maps Jim Akerman, another seminar alumnus.

Throughout the seminar, the group has met on Monday afternoons for what they call their "hacking" sessions. "We talk about readings from a book called Hacking the Academy," Schell explained. "It's a collection of short essays written by librarians and professors, people just interested in the digital age and how it's influenced scholarship. The essays are very short, some provocative, and we’ll continue doing that."

The next milestone is approaching, when students will hand in a draft of the first 20 pages of their research papers – about half the length of the completed projects. By the time Thanksgiving arrives, they will have finished a draft of the full paper and presented their projects at the seminar's colloquium. The last week of the semester will be reserved for making final revisions of the papers.

In all, according to the two professors, it's been rewarding to see how the students have responded to the challenges of the seminar and support each other's work.

"From the first day, we set the pace at a fast clip, and they've kept up and are excited to be working on their independent projects," said Draxler. "They're doing really well!"


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