Yesterday was the last day of “hell week.” The first draft of a research paper was due in my freshman seminar, American Political Institutions. The week was tough on my students, and maybe even a little on me.
First, a little background. About a month ago, I gave each of the freshmen (32 students spread across two sections of the class) the results of a “whip count” that had been conducted on a major piece of legislation immediately prior to floor action in the U.S. House or Senate. Ranging from a 1956 school construction measure to Senate action in 2001 on “No Child Left Behind,” the bills include some of the most consequential legislation considered on Capitol Hill since World War II. As part of the project, I am asking that students do background research about their assigned topic; use the results of the whip count (basically an informal poll of member preferences taken before floor action on the measure) to create datasets in a software package called Stata; merge in additional data from various on-line sources; conduct rudimentary but informative statistical analyses explaining how and why the positions of members changed over time and the outcomes of the relevant votes; and write up the results as a 15-20 page research report. Especially over the last week, I have emphasized to the students that their papers need to be as close as possible to professional quality.
Yeah, that’s right. A bunch of first-semester freshmen are supposed to make sense out of detailed legislative history, sift through archival records, figure out how to use a leading statistical software package, construct a fairly elaborate data set, conduct systematic statistical tests, and crank off a long research paper – all in addition to eating, sleeping, keeping up with the work in their other three or four classes, and maybe playing an occasional game of Guitar Hero. My assignment probably strikes you as excessive, overly ambitious, and perhaps even downright mean spirited.
Actually, my experience has always been that William and Mary students tend to accomplish more and learn more when class assignments are really challenging. Given the proper raw materials, course instruction, and personal assistance, freshman students at the College are fully capable of producing something near professional quality research, at least in my discipline of political science. Indeed, I spent most of the last week meeting with the freshmen in my office, one-on-one, showing them how to work with their data, develop and test hypotheses, and write the kinds of papers that professors like me present at conferences. Even though the last seven days occasionally may have felt like the week from hell, I think they learned a lot.
Obviously, few if any of these students will be able to produce papers of publishable quality by the end of this semester. We’re talking about a bunch of 18-year olds who have been in college for only three months, after all, and we need to be realistic. But based on their drafts, a number of them are going to come pretty close. And because of the assignment, by the end of their first semester at William and Mary, all of the students will have been exposed to the practical logistics – and maybe even some of the fun – of conducting original scholarly research, hopefully enriching their experience in my seminar and also their future research efforts in other classes at the College.