By Steven Krolak
Who am I?
The question lurks inchoate in every classroom on campus.
That is the nature of college, a place where so many people take their first big steps toward what they have chosen to be, or change direction to pursue a different path from the one they may have once plotted out.
A place where people arrive at a more accurate and comfortable sense of self through mastering an academic discipline that somehow fits them, because it gives them the tools to do what matters to them.
Tools to help their individual identities find a way to contribute to the world.
For Charlotte Tresa Reynolds, senior lecturer in English, the question is the basis of a classroom innovation that has literally changed lives, helping students figure out where they are going even as it awakens them to how they got here.
Who do you think you are?
Reynolds teaches ENG 290: Research and Writing.
The course has traditionally been a bugbear for students, who have only the introductory 131 course as preparation. It’s a daunting step up, not least because students are prone to anticipatory anxiety at the scale of independent research.
“Research is kind of a scary word for many students,” Reynolds said.
In teaching the course, she noticed that a great deal of time was being spent just getting students up to speed, choosing a topic of interest, imparting research methods, and other more logistical activities.
As she wrestled with how best to structure 290 so that it could deliver on learning outcomes while not scaring the daylights out of students, Reynolds began toying with the idea of structuring the class around her own passion: genealogy.
The centerpiece of the class and Reynolds’ key innovation is called the family history exploration project.
The nomenclature alone achieves two goals: it removes the fear of research writ with a capital R, and it makes the exercise instantly relatable.
Students select an ancestor and over the span of the term, they compile a profile.
Along the way, learning goals are met with skill building in interviewing, research, drafting, writing, revising.
Students reach out to living family members—parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents—many of whom prove to have been harboring stories for years if not generations, waiting for a chance to share.
This is treasure-troves-in-attics stuff, yielding revelations, surprises, confirmations, mind-blowers.
One student discovered Scottish ancestors who were artists, helping her to accept and take pride in her own creative bent. Another uncovered generations of soldiers in his lineage, perhaps explaining his own strong drive to serve his country. An English major traced her origins to a great-grandmother raised in an orphanage with a strong emphasis on learning, who became the president of the institution’s English club.
Who am I? The project helps students find ways to approach an answer, almost incidentally.
In academic terms, the personal focus has proven to expedite entry into the realm of research, overcoming one of the longstanding hurdles of the course. It also provides an impetus to dig beyond the surface.
“It becomes individualized very quickly because you start with what you know,” Reynolds said. “Their educational experience is connected to other parts of their lives.”
It doesn’t hurt that genealogy has become a favored American pastime, reflected in TV shows such as “Who Do You Think You Are” as well as websites such as ancestry.com, both of which Reynolds freely uses as resources.
For her, this is a broader cultural conversation that in many ways is inherent in the American experience.
“We are a new country,” Reynolds said, hinting that Jay Gatsby didn’t really come from nowhere.
The quest for identity and achievement, for all its individualistic zeal, is also conversely a quest for connection, roots, belonging. For those are the things that lend meaning to one’s own superlatives.D
Research and intuition
As engrossing and gratifying as Reynolds’ project is, this is no mere anecdotal family-tree-building exercise.
That becomes clear when unpleasant truths surface, as they often do.
“We’ve had students who found out their ancestors were either slaves, slave owners, or both,” Reynolds said. “That’s why we talk about historical context.”
Developing a critical approach to the attitudes and mores of a different time is an important outcome of the course.
“We have to learn not to superimpose our 21st century values,” Reynolds said. “We have to recognize what was valuable to them.”
It turns out that shock is highly variable; today’s students attach no stigma to children born out of wedlock but are often genuinely abashed by families with 15 kids.
Reynolds cultivates an open-minded conversation with the past. In this she sees research as less structured, more intuitive.
“We don’t force ourselves to pursue a thesis, we don’t have the answer up front,” Reynolds said. “We yield to what emerges from the exploration.”
What emerges, when all the contextual factors are added in, is more than a grid of births, marriages and deaths. It is a fleshed out narrative of lives lived amid the unfolding events of this country’s history. Students learn about culture, history, society, as well as family.
“You might discover that your person was one of the first to leave the coal mines of West Virginia and come to Kentucky,” Reynolds said.
Connecting to family means also connecting with the larger discourses going on in society, both then and now.
And this is where the very old becomes very new. Students learn to approach documentary sources critically, especially as these vary so widely in terms of availability and “legitimacy” along lines of class, ethnicity, gender. Documentation is often biased. The lives of men are enshrined in official legal and financial records, while the heroism of women, be it walking the Oregon Trail or nursing children through cholera, is less obvious, requiring more nuanced searching through records of a different order—a diary, letters, a sermon, a song.
In seeking to make the experience as real as possible, Reynolds takes the class on field trips, to cemeteries and local libraries, to expose them to public documents ranging from gravestones to census data.
To spur reflection, she requires they complete a learning log—detailing the visits and what they drew from them, intellectually and emotionally.
Reynolds is helping her students make connections from the past to the present, so that they will be able to discover themselves as a character in a longer narrative.
Some of this passion comes from seeing so many students suffer, quite literally, through research courses—and perhaps an entire college experience–that had no real connection to their lives.
She took it as her mission to rekindle the joy of learning.
“We know the desire to learn is natural—as infants, we can’t wait to learn to walk and talk,” Reynolds said. “This project takes us back to that deep stuff within us.”
That deep stuff, it turns out, is our thirst for connection, for a sense that what we do matters to the narrative of which we are a part.
On day one, Reynolds hands out a 2013 article from the New York Times, “The Stories that Bind Us” by Bruce Feiler.
The article draws on research suggesting that strong family narratives, especially those with instances of ups and downs, can help individuals overcome stress and adversity.
The family stories become lifelines.
And the project assigned by Reynolds has, in many cases, contributed directly to keep those lifelines intact.
In order to research her ancestry, one student reached out to her grandfather, who had been estranged from the family for some time. It turns out he had been waiting for that knock on the door for years. When it came, he brought forth reams of family documents that he had been keeping for just such a moment as this. Among the keepsakes was an ornate drawn family tree, with his grandchild pictured in her place, as the little girl she had been.
In some powerful way, the project produces connections between people and the world around them, and for Reynolds, that inevitably engenders curiosity, communication and caring.
“My theory is that if you are a better lifelong learner, a better writer, it might just help you become a better person.”