Creative Library Assignments From Our Faculty

art & art history / biology / communication studies / English / first term seminar / history / library / political science

Art and Art History

Linnea Wren teaches a course on pre-Columbian art that is a challenge because about half the students are seasoned art history majors and the other half have no background in the field at all. She gives them a task that sets a narrow boundary of inquiry within which each student has to make an individual and unique contribution. She asks them to pick an artifact found in a sacred well at Chichen Itza and make an informed argument about where it came from and what it's doing there. This means each student has two big challenges: they must learn enough about the Mayan context to make an intelligent guess and then - this is usually the harder part - they have to come up with an original, supportable theory. She gives them a list of major sources to start with, and they build from there, bringing what they have found to class every couple of weeks for a "swap fest"?- sharing sources, insights, ideas, forming in miniature the kind of community we are part of when we do research.

She also teaches a course on the Art of the Middle?Ages in which she asks students to think about art not as images in isolation (as they typically are presented in modern museums)?but in context. Each student chooses a passage in the life of Christ and locates an example of that passage as it appears in a manuscript, an altarpiece, and a fresco, comparing the treatment of the subject in terms of size, scale, composition, and other formal properties. How do these properties relate to the work's original setting? its audience??its devotional or liturgical use??


Pam Kittleson has her students write a research proposal for plant physiology. Before they commit to a specific project, they need to become familiar with the literature surrounding their topic by doing a thorough review (one which also involves learning what questions are being asked about plant physiology). They design a project and frame their proposal in terms of how their research might fit into and complement what other researchers have already done. The way they fit their work into the literature of the field becomes part of their argument that the research is worth doing. Though they don't actually carry out the experiment in this one-semester course, they have learned an important piece of the rhetorical need for situating new work in the literature of the field.

Communication Studies

Phil Voight teaches an advanced course on political campaign communication. His assignments involve a lot of research and application of theory, but result in a portfolio of different forms of writing, none of them explicitly scholarly. Small groups are assigned a real, live candidate in a real campaign. They write stump speeches, position papers, and prepare briefings for the candidates. They also create storyboards for television commercials. They have done some really remarkable work that calls on research and communication theory and puts it to work in a real-world context.


Don Scheese wants students to delve into the production, dissemination, and consumption of contemporary literature by taking a book they have read for class (Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections in this case) and presenting a poster that is a visual and verbal map outlining their approach to several cultural questions: what was the nature of the controversy when Oprah's book club chose this book, and what kind of power does a celebrity wield? where do best-seller lists come from and what is their impact? how are books marketed and promoted these days? To prevent repetition (and perhaps to start a goldrush), as soon as a group finds a good source of information they post it to the course alias to stake their claim on it. Their posters are not only presented in class, but are posted in the Confer/Vickner hallway afterwards.

First Term Seminar

Eric Eliason wants first-semester students to understand research involves dead ends, blind alleys, and strange detours, that not all questions have answers but they're still worth asking. He asks students in a first year seminar to look for ways a Bible story - Cain and Abel, for example - has been appropriated in the arts. He asks them to look for novels, plays, poetry, films, paintings, and music that somehow reinterprets the story. Students express frustration as they work on this assignment because answers don't come easily, and sometimes don't come at all, but they become incredibly persistent and determined - even obsessive in their search. Ultimately they all learn their way around the library, know the libraries on a first name basis, find more than enough material to do a poster presentation that is the public result of their work.

Lisa Heldke wants students to learn how to assess evidence, focusing not on how to use tools to find it but on how to think about the types of organizations and people from whom they get evidence. In her "Good Food"?FTS, students investigate a variety of information sources and analyze how their perspectives influence what they have to say. In groups, they choose four different types of organizations (a corporation, an advocacy organization, a government agency, a policy institute, etc.). They find information provided by their chosen organizations, document those sources, and write up an analysis. Then they have a "research roundtable" discussion in which the class presents their findings, pose questions of each other, and reconvene in a week to share additional findings with the class.


Greg Kaster wants students to understand the importance of citing sources accurately and to make them more critical readers of secondary sources. In an intermediate methods course, one of the assignments involves students selecting several notes in two secondary (not primary source) works and checking (by doing the necessary leg work in the library) the accuracy of the note and what it documents--e.g., a paraphrase or a quotation--against the original scholarly works cited. "Students are surprised to find mistakes and questionable paraphrases/quotations by prominent historians who have authored major, even prize-winning, books. Either the note itself is off, or the author has quoted out of context or paraphrased hardly at all (i.e., technically, plagiarized), to name just a few of the errors discovered by students this semester. In doing the experiment myself, along with the students, I discovered that a colleague at another institution, whose work I had read and commented on, cited my own work but in the corresponding text of his article used my original phraseology nearly verbatim. I couldn't have planned it better. In all of the cases where we found mistakes, we had to ask/discuss whether the mistakes were, to name some of the possibilities, intentional, the result of sloppy/hasty note-taking, a desire--conscious or not--to make the evidence fit an argument." (from an e-mail communication, 5/04)


Barbara Fister gives small groups copies of the small amount of first-hand and hearsay evidence available about a conversation held in 1941 between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, which happens to have been the basis of Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen. After reading the conflicting evidence, students are asked what they think happened. They conclude, while they might speculate that Heisenberg dissembled or Bohr misconstrued his friend's motives, it's impossible to know for sure what happened. Then they read secondary sources that tell what happened in that meeting. The secondary sources all treat it differently and most of them are not explicit about how the recreation is informed guesswork. (In fact, Frayn's play is more up-front than most "factual" accounts about the impossibility of knowing for sure what happened.) It's a quick-and-dirty way to make students more aware that secondary sources are interpretive to an extent the authors don't always reveal.

Political Science

Richard Leitch has students write letters to the editor on contemporary topics related to his course. In order to write the letter, they have to research the issue thoroughly. It's a nice way to demonstrate that research and the use of persuasive evidence is sometimes required for forms of expression other than college papers. It also gives students practice writing concisely and clearly for an audience other than the teacher.

Jill Locke has students do an annotated "bibliographic trace." Students locate a current book or scholarly article on their course topic, which they summarize. Then they identify a footnote or citation that is of interest, connected to a chosen theme, find that source, and summarize it. They repeat the process until they have five sources - and a clearer grasp of how to trace a theme of interest through several sources (as well as to gain more familiarity with scholarly literature about the course topic).

last updated 11/11