Thursday in the Park With Students

A visit to a class meeting in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park shows just how compelling a good research experience can be. 

October 6, 2015

It’s always inspiring to learn about new research from scholars who share their discoveries with excitement and passion at the best conferences. I had this experience last week. What was unusual was that the researchers were students just a few weeks into their first college semester. And the venue was a great urban park.

As part of a visit to the University of San Francisco, I joined a class being taught by David Silver, who I’ve known for years but had never actually met. He’s teaching a first year seminar about the Golden Gate Park, which is conveniently close to the campus, a great field site and living textbook.

On the day I joined the class we met at the site of the 1894 Midwinter Fair. This was a Californian version of the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition (though, so far as I know, without any serial killers – though there was a man-eating lion that actually killed a man during the event). There are traces of this event in the landscape of the park. Students had picked something at the fair that aligned with their interests and came to class that day ready with a three-minute presentation on what they’d found out about their chosen subject: the hospital for people injured at the fair that also showed off new surgical techniques, disputes with the local Japanese-American community about how Japan was depicted in an exhibit, the entrepreneur who gathered up people from West African countries to populate an imitation “African village,” the way the press covered the man-eating lion (In a word, luridly), and so forth. It was a great variety of topics, illustrated with photographs and accounts from the time found in digital collections online and in books from the library.

Giving the first public speech of your college career can be nerve-wracking, particularly when it’s in a public place where wandering tourists stop by to listen in, but these students quickly relaxed into a collaborative pooling of what they’d uncovered and the questions that emerged. Students began to ask if they could go next, because their research fit so well with what the last presenter had uncovered. Questions were kicked around, connections were made, and an impromptu plan to spend a Saturday at a nearby archives that held historical documents about the fair was quickly negotiated and unanimously approved. It was utterly fascinating and super-impressive, and left me thinking about what makes research so much fun for students just getting started – or (as is unfortunately much more common) so very onerous.

Why was this experience so great? Were they just unusually brilliant students? They clearly were pretty special – but I think there are some valuable lessons to take away from this class for students of all abilities.

  • They were clear about what research is for. David Silver made developing curiosity the focus of their first class meetings. Students had practiced it. They knew how to wonder and speculate. They knew that the point wasn’t having the right answers, it was conjuring up intriguing questions that may or may not have answers. Taking risks was encouraged, which is huge for students accustomed to a test-driven mark-the-right-answer educational system.
  • The focus wasn’t on following rules or procedures. Nobody told them what kind of sources they should use, or how many, or where they should look, or how to document them. Nobody told them they have to search differently now that they are in college, relying only a certain kind of source. Yet the quality and variety of materials they’d found was amazing. Their genuine curiosity made them want to keep digging, and sometimes pivot to pursue an unexpected lead. One student figured out how to track down the elusive perfect chapter in a book on a broader topic that included information about the fair – something you couldn’t tell except by making a reasoned guess and going to the shelves. These students may not know yet what external features identify a source as scholarly, but they didn’t have to – they were practicing authentic scholarship themselves.
  • Students had independently found interesting things to talk about, but during the class they were invested in creating a shared understanding. There was no sense of competition, but rather a great interest in finding out how things connected. Another fascinating thing emerged: as the class proceeded they began to probe beneath the facts, raising bigger questions about labor policies and public relations and the ethics of having human beings from another culture displayed in what one student called a “petting zoo.” They speculated about the economic motives of displaying California’s agriculture and industry and what it meant that it was so very hard to find out who, exactly, had been killed by the man-eating lion. What might have been an assembly of facts had become a conversation about the whole context and meaning of the fair, a snowballing series of questions that nobody, not even the teacher, had yet answered.
  • They were not just sharing ideas with one another, they had learned something about the conventions and style of Wikipedia and were preparing to add more material and documentation to the Wikipedia page about the fair. Why uncover fascinating information and painstakingly document sources just for your teacher when you can share it with the world?

 It was a really impressive class, and I realized later that it practiced five important things emphasized by the group that had invited me, a faculty learning community focused on information literacy in the first year. This interdisciplinary group of faculty and librarians looked at various definitions and discussions of information literacy and together determined which elements are most important to them. In brief they are:

  • Curiosity should drive the research process.
  • Authentic assignments can cultivate true information literacy.
  • Authority is constructed and contextual.
  • Scholarship is a conversation.
  • We should foster inquiry as a lifelong process.

It was incredibly exciting to see in practice exactly what those things look like when a group of students seems so totally engaged. When it comes to lifelong learning, they’re off to a great start.

Thanks to the students for sharing their discoveries with a visitor, and to David for inviting me and taking the photo of us gathered at the feet of Francis Scott Key. If you’re curious about the Midwinter Fair, you can check out the Wikipedia page – but if you wait a week or so you’ll find quite a lot more content there, thanks to these dogged young scholars.   




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