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Bobcat Stories

Breakthroughs on a Wednesday Morning: Another Relationship to Learning

By Dr. Spree MacDonald

It is a quiet Wednesday morning, just a few days after winter break, and the students in my Senior Humanities Capstone class are hard at work. Today, they are eating donuts and finalizing fieldwork research plans for their thesis projects. It is clear from their occasional groans and commiserations that this is a really challenging phase in this yearlong research and writing process. Their projects span the gamut, from studies on the impacts of casinos on indigenous economies to the possibilities of psychological interventions in treating dementia to the possible impacts of artificial intelligence on the middle class. Now, they are all reaching out of their comfort zones to connect with experts and community partners for insights about the topics they have been researching on their own for several months. I can feel the discomfort in the room, and even the donuts I have bribed them with have not lifted their spirits much. 

One student, who I will call K. here, has expansive knowledge of drone technology and its implications for the current conflict between Russia and the Ukraine. K. is starting to form a very compelling project, but given that this is an ongoing military conflict with rapidly developing technological dynamics outside the scope of most traditional scholarly sources, we know K. needs to find quality interview subjects to provide enough information for him to complete his research. There is a lot riding on these interviews. He has just reviewed with me the draft of an email that he would like to send out, requesting an interview with someone who has deep knowledge in this field. Because I know virtually nothing about this topic, the best way I can support K. is to settle into the role of thought partner, asking questions and helping unlock ways forward in response to challenges in his research process. This is one of those moments, and while we both know his request to interview this source might be a long shot, we cross our fingers as K. sends his email off into the digital unknown.  

I have taught research and writing for more than twenty-five years in different contexts, mentoring Ph.D. students completing their dissertations, teaching college writing classes, and guiding countless high school students through similar extended projects. So far, this class has been building the foundations of their projects by developing research questions, reviewing scholarly literature on their topics, starting to stake out their unique claims, and now edging into conducting original fieldwork to round out their research before jumping into drafting their full theses in the coming weeks. This has meant heavy lifting for everyone, and I have often found myself in the role of the taskmaster, urging the class to “put one foot in front of the other” every day as they work on what often has probably seemed to them to be the insurmountable task of writing an original twenty-page research paper. But I have been here before many times, and on this Wednesday morning, I know there is a delicate shift taking place. 

I am in the midst of conferencing with another student about their fieldwork plan when I see K. anxiously fidgeting at his desk a few feet away. As I wrap up my current conversation, K. lifts his laptop towards me so I can see his screen, saying, “Look! He responded!” I am a little mystified and ask, “The source you emailed five minutes ago responded already?” K. nods, and I ask, “When is he available to speak with you?” K. answers with a hint of dread in his voice, “He says he’s available and wants me to call him Right Now!” The whole class pauses for a heartbeat. Nearly everyone looks towards K. with raised eyebrows before looking to me for my response. A little overwhelmed myself, by the sudden escalation, I ask the only thing I can think of, “Well, are you ready to speak with him right now?” K. pauses and, with a level of self-awareness that takes me off guard, says, “I don’t think I am ready. Do you think it is ok for me to ask him to speak tomorrow instead?” We both nervously agree that it is better to be prepared for this conversation than to rush into it and that he should ask this expert if they are available to talk another time soon. As K. sends off this reply, what is unstated between us is the worry that asking to postpone the interview could mean losing the chance to speak with this source altogether. 

Although I have a Ph.D. and have invested many years developing expertise in a particular field of study (African literature), teaching in and leading high schools for most of my career has made me a believer in another relationship to learning than the one I learned as an academic. As “Dr. MacDonald” in the university classroom, I understood my primary role as sharing my knowledge with my students. Moments like this one with K., where authentic student-led inquiry escapes the confines of any expertise I have and a student’s research process suddenly, undeniably takes on a life of its own, are pure magic. 

But K.’s situation is just the beginning. As this Wednesday morning class draws on, we have clearly reached a tipping point as a class as student after student reports the next steps in their fieldwork taking shape: interviews scheduled, surveys sent, and insights already breaking open for many of them as their projects take on new dimensions. The hard work of months of preparation starts to transform into living, breathing projects that the students own and I stand aside for in partnership. 

Before long, the class period wraps up, and the students begin to file out, snatching up the final few donuts from the box by the classroom door and exhaling as they step into the rest of their days. As I distractedly pack up my papers and catch my breath, too, a student pauses by the door and says, “It’s scheduled for tomorrow.” I look up and see the smile on K.’s face as he confirms that he has successfully rescheduled his interview for the following morning. We both laugh about the magnitude of the moment to come, and he waves a donut at me as he steps into a morning that now feels very different than it did an hour ago. And in the midst of a meeting the next day, I see a message arrive from K., confirming that the interview was an unqualified success. I smile the smile of a happy teacher.