In late January, the Tang Institute sent a team of teachers to California to reflect on the pedagogical value of promoting independent student research and to explore innovative approaches to teaching, mentoring, and implementing such opportunities and programs. After an inspiring visit to San Mateo’s Nueva School, a pioneer in project-based learning, the team participated in the first-ever Bringing Out Their Best: A One-Day Course on Mentoring.” Led by award-winning researchers Christopher Rea and Tom Mullaney, the team had much to get excited about. Following are their reflections:

Corrie Martin, instructor in English and senior fellow in engaged pedagogy at the Tang Institute: As the coordinator of the CAMD [Community and Multicultural Development] Scholars, an independent student research program, I have come to realize that the young scholars I mentor who have the most meaningful and impactful experience are often not the ones who come into the program with a clearly defined topic or area of research. Rather, the students who are uncertain turn out to be more open to looking inward, to frankly asking themselves, what do I care about and why?

These students grow into researchers whose capacity for introspection generates the creativity and energy to propel them for a lifetime of meaningful work. Rea and Mullaney, authors of the groundbreaking book Where Research Begins: Choosing a Research Project that Matters to You (and the World), argue that research is much more than a tried-and-true set of investigative techniques and fact-finding procedures. For them, research at its most robust and fruitful activates our individual creativity and engages our capacity for self-reflection, beginning with the researcher discovering for themselves what they want to research and, more importantly, why they want to do it.

Even accomplished scholars may not realize that they have not explicitly articulated to themselves why a particular topic or issue matters to them. Without knowing it, they assume their subject matters because others think so, or the external rewards for pursuing it are reason enough. In their book and in the fantastic workshop we attended, Rea and Mullaney show us that engaging in genuine introspection, devoting time and space to understanding your passions and personal values, is essential to the research process no matter how new or experienced one may be to rigorous research.

That process is, to state the obvious, a process, and the tools and skills employed along the way to genuine introspection are not provided in most research guides. As mentors, we are not trained or equipped to help students at this point where research actually begins. Instead, we fret a lot about helping students through the early stages of a research project, encouraging them to narrow their topic, develop sound questions, and dig deeper into, or cast a wider net for, potential sources. That is all well and good, but in getting students so efficiently down the procedural road, we have likely leapt over the most valuable stage in the whole process: where research actually begins.

Rea and Mullaney, our mentors on mentoring, were graduate students when they were serendipitously assigned to co-teach a course on research methods. They did their best then to teach their students how” to conduct scholarly research, all the while realizing something was missing. Years later as accomplished researchers themselves, they have identified that gap and developed tools and a philosophy of research to address it. Mentors, help your students connect with themselves first. That is where research begins!

Miriam Villanueva, instructor in history and social science: I found the workshop enriching. I have often seen students struggle to complete a research project or even start one because they feel stuck from the jump. We have a robust scaffolded system for working on a research project/​paper, but when embarking on a project, we don’t often sit with the initial questions of why we are doing this and what problem matters to us. I found that the exercises we learned can be implemented early into our history classrooms as a way to navigate how to interrogate primary sources and discern what students are really gravitating toward.

Gene Hughes, instructor in French: The Bringing Out Their Best” course showed the power of such tools for all walks of life, not just for academics. This will help us express this to our Workshop students, giving them tools for life, not just for research papers in academic settings. Finally, just collaborating with folks in varied fields/​disciplines really ignites passion for this type of work.

Ellen Greenberg, instructor in mathematics, statistics, and computer science: Four days away to examine, stretch, think, reimagine, and consider research and mentoring, all while looking ahead to the Workshop in the spring term. What a luxury to have time to do so during the winter term! I am thankful for colleagues covering my classes, thankful to the Tang Institute for supporting the trip, and thankful for my fellow travelers for their companionship and insight.

The primary object was attending a one-day mentoring workshop, Bringing Out Their Best, led by Tom Mullaney and Chris Rea, authors of Where Research Begins. To meet Tom and Chris in person after years of a zoom partnership was awesome. To feel their enthusiasm for developing our skills for mentoring students at all levels was empowering. To hear the challenges of other participants gave rise to a collective vision of the importance of this work. I left feeling energized and excited for the Workshop to begin again.

In addition, we visited the upper school campus of the Nueva School in San Mateo, Calif., meeting faculty and administrators who facilitate student projects, summer internships, writing and research, environmental citizenship, and a design curriculum. This small school, just 10 years old, is a living and breathing hub for change, creative forces, student engagement, and exciting initiatives. To compare approaches and soak in the experiences of Nueva teachers was a great learning experience.

Mentoring in high school, college, graduate school, and even in industry takes many forms, as evidenced by the diverse participants in the Mullaney and Rea workshop. How best can we encourage students to unlearn performative objectives and embrace ambiguity, not knowing, and a don’t try to impress — feel free to digress” mindset? We have work to do this spring to help students discover a personal research problem that will take them down rabbit holes and into their selves. I can’t wait!

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