Digging Deep for Knowledge and Discovery

Upper School History teacher Christopher Loomis writes about the great opportunities for discovery that were born out of this year's Independent Research in History and English project. From War of the Roses to Harry Potter, 17 juniors and seniors participated in this new academic opportunity.

Working on projects ranging from the Wars of the Roses to Harry Potter, 17 juniors and seniors joined Bill Davies and James Flanigan this year to launch a new course entitled Independent Research in English and History (IREH).

“It was such a thrilling experience to be able to do something like this in high school,” said Chiara Kaufman ‘20, who wrote about William Faulkner and James Joyce. “For me it felt like I was writing a thesis.”
The class builds on two priorities in the Redefining Excellence: “Redefining a Liberal Arts Education” and “Promoting the Hilltop as a Learning Hub.” It takes as its model the parallel Independent Research Program in the sciences, and leverages both Hackley’s existing English and History curricula as well as the students’ own eclectic array of interests and experiences.

“It does grow out of the fact that these kids have all gotten turned on to History in general someplace by somebody in the last two or three years, and at least want to find out how deep their interest is,” Mr. Davies said of the history students he advised.

Chiara Kaufman became captivated by Faulkner during English 11 with Mr. Flanigan, and has explored stream of consciousness -- one of Faulkner’s techniques -- in her own fiction writing.

Max Rosenblum ‘20 spent the year studying Dubai’s economic growth, an interest which stemmed from both his travels to that country as well as his work in 20th Century World History. He also won last year’s junior essay prize for a similar research paper focused on Chile.

“It was cool to be researching on my own…and just to research and write about something that I thought was really interesting and really cool,” Max said. He added that much as the IRP serves students interested in taking a deep dive in the sciences, the IREH filled a gap in Hackley’s curriculum “for kids who are interested in the humanities...to really engage more fully with those interests.”

Meeting as a minor course, IREH’s goal was for students to produce a substantial research project by the end of the year. Mr. Davies and Mr. Flanigan praised the final projects written by students like Max and Chiara.

“Max’s was really not only substantive but also written at a very high level,” Mr. Davies said. “He writes like a historian.”

“She did what could pass as a college thesis pretty easily if not something beyond that. It was pretty incredible,” Mr. Flanigan said of Chiara’s work.

Mr. Davies said that even history students, who complete research papers in all three required history courses in grades 9-11, found the process much different in IREH. While the research papers in their courses emphasize efficiently gathering sources to complete relatively short essays, in-depth historical scholarship is much less linear.

“They are not as comfortable with the idea that real research means that you are going to find a lot of stuff that never shows up in what you write,” Mr. Davies said, explaining that students spent lots of time reading for context or to better understand how other historians have approached their question. “Some of them are finding out, ‘Oh this is harder than I thought’,” he added, while for others the reaction is, “Wow, this is really cool. They just want to dig deeper and deeper.”

Chiara’'s research, for example, took her to an actual archive, New York’s Morgan Library, which housed a rare Faulkner manuscript. Because her project focused on draft and manuscript history, the early work was a crucial find.

“That was essentially a first draft of a lot of what he tried to do later,” she said.

Elizabeth Hetzel ‘20, who produced a 42-page essay on the War of the Roses, faced the formidable challenge of tracking down rare primary sources on the Internet, only to have to translate them from Old English.

“I ended up on a lot of university databases or sketchy websites,” Elizabeth said. “I very quickly learned that Old English isn’t English. They’re lying to you. It's not the same language.”

While the program built on the skills the students developed in History and English courses, it also pushed them to engage more broadly with the academic community beyond the Hilltop, and to understand their own potential to make original and important scholarly contributions.

Part of developing a viable research question involved orienting the students to what other scholars have written. Mr. Flanigan said he encouraged the students to ask, “What are the traditions behind this stuff? There have been a lot of people who have thought about this before me. Where are we right now in terms of this discussion?”

“I think that has been tricky for the kids to understand because I think when they hear research they think ‘I go out and I get data. I get things.’ It’s much more about figuring out the landscape,” Mr. Flanigan added.

While Covid-19 has created uncertainty around next year, Mr. Davies said that moving forward he would like to help more students do true archival work and to foster more truly interdisciplinary projects. He added that some students may also develop a project that requires two years to complete.

Mr. Davies and Mr. Flanigan also said that they would like to build more connections within Hackley, helping students in the program share their work with classmates and faculty -- both in formal presentations and in the classroom with younger students. They also are actively looking at ways to forge connections with the outside academic world, including trips to university archives, organizing mentorships with university faculty, and showcasing students’ research.