Department of History
University of Washington, Seattle Campus
Involving Undergraduates in Research Projects
Tired of having excellent and innovative student research papers sitting in the bottom of his file cabinet after a class was over, James Gregory, associate professor of History at UW-Seattle, decided to do something about it. He realized that his undergraduate students could make important contributions to the field through their class research projects.
So when Gregory taught History 498, Labor and Social Movements in the Pacific Northwest, in Spring quarter 1999, he recognized an opportunity to help his undergraduate students share their research with others. He thus designed the course to showcase student research. His students, all upper-level undergraduates, wrote papers
about the Seattle General Strike of 1919, a relatively little-studied local event. Gregory then created the Seattle General Strike Project Web page which showcased student research projects from the class. Gregory timed the release of the Web page with the 80th anniversary of the strike and found that the project generated a lot of excitement in the academic community. In addition, Gregory discovered, the quality of student papers was much higher, and the students were especially enthusiastic about the Web publishing aspect of the course.
Technology and Sharing Student Research
The success of the Seattle General Strike page inspired Gregory to try incorporating Web publishing projects into his other classes. Gregory taught an evening class, History 450, Class and Labor in American History, in Spring 2001. As part of this class, he designed another student research project--this time on the Labor Press--to be displayed on the Web. Gregory wrote and organized the index page for the class research Web site, and at the end of the quarter he spent two solid weeks editing all of the content. Brian Grijalva, his TA, used Microsoft Frontpage to format all the pages. The result--the Labor Press Project Web site--was once again wildly successful. The students turned in higher quality papers than usual, and Gregory found that posting papers on the Web "gave the class a higher sense of purpose to student projects". Students were "jazzed" by the idea that their work is "sharable and usable by others"--this "adds another dimension to the course". It changes the structure of the course so rather than just "consuming information, students are able to contribute to the production of knowledge." Students also learned from each other, comparing the relationships to each other's projects and occasionally sharing information on the class listserv. Gregory also found that the students in this class earned higher grades than usual, suggesting in yet another way that they learned more from the course.
In the winter of 2002, the Seattle headquarters of Washington State Communist Party closed its doors, contacting the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies for the disposition of collected newspapers and historical documents. This surfeit of new information gave Professor Gregory the idea for a new focus to his Winter History 498 class. Following the same template that had garnered his students' recognition for past work, Gregory and his students authored a new Web site, Communism and Washington State--History and Memory Project. This innovative new compilation of labor history combines many mediums to create a comprehensive resource of the Washington State Communist Party; sources include woodcuts from influential Communist newspapers such as The Voice of Action and The New Dealer, photos from an extensive collection, detailed student research papers examining the chronological history of the party in Washington state, as well as student-conducted interviews of surviving party members. In addition there is a timeline, a Who's Who, and dozens of leads and links for further research into the history of this important movement. This Web project has gathered a great deal of interest as it's the largest collection of Washington state's Communist history ever assembled.
More recently, the Pacific Northwest Labor History projects page was created to be a gateway to all of the class projects.
Planning for Success
Gregory attributes some of the success of his student research Web projects to the willingness of organizations to collaborate with him. University of Washington Libraries, for instance, pleased to have their microfiche information available online, scanned the newspaper samples for Gregory. The Museum of History and Industry was happy to have Gregory create a page organizing their labor-related pictures. Gregory presented the Seattle General Strike Web page to the North American Labor Conference, and the Labor Press Project was featured in a University Week article. Both were highlighted in an article in the Chronicle for Higher Education. The course Web sites are featured on the University of Washington's Center for Labor Studies Web site.
Gregory feels that a careful choice of project topic has contributed to the projects' success as well: he chose topics where the undergraduates' research would add value to relatively understudied subjects, which could be divided into realistically-sized projects, and which had many sources of information available locally. Although organizing the class Web projects involves careful planning and lots of editing work, Gregory feels that the benefits to the students from these projects are clear. In his work to create and stream the student's interviews of Communist Party members, Gregory cites the collaboration of the CTLT consultants and the hard work of his students as the real reason this innovative use of technology was a success. He looks forward to trying similar projects in the future.
By Laura Baldwin and Emily Jones, August 2001
Updated August 2002 by Shelly Martin and August 2003.