In my ICAI 2019 conference presentation, “Improv(ing) Course Design: A Riff on Experiential Learning and Academic Integrity,” I shared the research of James Lang, L. Dee Fink, John Biggs and Catherine Tang, Lion Gardiner, and Tricia Bertram Gallant as underpinning for my redesign experiments with EN 455, an Advanced Studies in Writing course at The University of Alabama. I call my newly imagined course “Dirt Poor: Researching and Writing the Great Depression” (first taught in spring 2018, teaching now, and slated again for spring 2020).

“Dirt Poor” is an experiential learning opportunity that includes authentic assessments in addition to active and collaborative learning strategies to foreground academic integrity and help students become so engaged in their research and writing tasks that they don’t consider cheating an option.

I initially had two concerns for the new course: finding an engaging hook and managing the organic nature of the class. I addressed the first by tapping into my own interest in genealogical research, using the free library edition of available in UA’s library databases as a course tool. The second is still a challenge--but one that makes the course as exciting for me as for the students.

Dirt Poor: How does it work?

During the first two class meetings, I introduce students to and remind them (with activities) of ethical source-based writing skills—summary, paraphrasing and avoiding patchwriting, quoting, and correct and ethical citation and documentation (and why these skills are professionally important). I ask them to start doing genealogical research on their own family and then eventually select any one “lost” relative alive during the Great Depression to serve as their subject in an expanded semester-long research project. I then help the students learn basic historical facts about the time period by using  children’s books as the basis of a group presentation project. Next the students explore two more research elements: 1) visual texts (exploring, analyzing—and citing—images from the online Library of Congress FSA photo collection), and 2) archival research (exploring the ephemera holdings of UA’s Special Collections Library and creating an annotated bibliographical catalog description—with citation—as a resource for future researchers).

In the final two-thirds of the semester, the students settle in to research their relative and the historical and cultural contexts of that person’s world. They conduct interviews, use research-library databases, explore historical newspapers, investigate government documents, track down whatever other sources might contribute to a more complete picture of their own family history. From this research, they produce two essays: a shorter descriptive piece focused on an artifact that might be associated with their relative, and a longer profile piece that offers a narrative portrait, fleshing out that person’s life, especially during the Great Depression.

Another feature of my course redesign is modelling: I write all of the assignments along with my students, so they see me struggling with the same writing and research issues that they are facing. We work together to solve the same problems:  to restore a lost relative and to produce better writing.

I’ve watched it happen in both semesters I’ve taught the course: students start out ambivalent and then they get hooked. Suddenly they are doing significant research on someone in their own family—someone they have chosen to learn more about—and they are doing significant critical thinking and problem-solving and writing and revising—much of which we do in class, together. Suddenly they are sharing their work-in-progress and offering each other source ideas, research angles, even ideas about hooks and organizational frameworks—both during and apart from our face-to-face and online peer review sessions. Ethical research and writing practices weave their way through everything we do all semester.

Toward the end, with help from the Alabama Digital Humanities Center (ADHC), we move our work onto a public-facing Web site; and, at the end of the semester, the students showcase their work at an ADHC faculty development brown bag lunch presentation.

In an Inside Higher Ed blog in September 2018, John Warner asks “What Happens When Writing Is Fun?” He talks about giving students five freedoms:  freedom of choice, of form, of time, freedom to discover, and freedom to roam and realize “the payoff of curiosity.” “Engender[ing] these experiences for students . . . isn’t easy,” he says, but “when it clicks . . . it really is magic.” For me, an experiential-learning course design, one that fuses academic integrity instruction with active and collaborative learning activities and authentic research and writing experiences, produces exactly that kind of learning magic.