That’s not funny!

In World History class today I brought up their final papers and began the process of brainstorming concept and research strategies. They’ve done two short papers, which I’ve suggested should be thought of as process work toward a more comprehensive final paper. With few exceptions, this way of thinking of research and writing is completely foreign and baffling to them, so in addition to detailing it in the syllabus (which they do not read) I spend quite a lot of class time workshopping it.

One student remarked that it wasn’t sure how to accomplish this mysterious alchemy from the earlier papers it had written. I began the process of pulling out themes and questions that could be linked and developed. Its first paper was on the invention and deployment of the mobile battlefield x-ray by Marie Curie during the Great War. Its second was on the first ‘successful’ plastic surgery in England, in 1814.

The student remarked that it couldn’t see enough meat left on those bones to write a 6 page paper (this is an introductory class, so that’s the ‘big’ final paper). I riffed offhand that someone could write a 6 page paper on the chemistry of snot, so with a little commitment the history of the treatment of traumatic injury would probably work out fine. It replied that my imaginary snot paper was preposterous. So naturally I doubled down, asserting confidently that such a paper had almost certainly already been written, and that a motivated researcher could find it within 5 minutes. (All of this may sound a bit confrontational, but it was actually happening in playful banter.)

I asked a Biology major in the group if my expectation was unreasonable, and it said certainly not. We spent a few moments breaking down the interesting variations on snot this paper might cover, ranging from hydration and texture to origins in atmospheric conditions, emotional states, retrieval trauma, disease, and drug use.

As we wrapped up our hypothesizing, another student chimed in. It had pulled out its personal data assistant and found us the paper we were talking about. I’d guess it took about three minutes. The paper was 5 pages long. Sweeeeeet.

Postscript: On two sides of the board I elicited from the original student the findings of its two papers, drawing lines to make connections. The history of treatment of traumatic injury popped pretty easily as a theme to develop. Somewhat less obvious was the progress bias that might creep into such an account. The soldiers helped by battlefield x-ray were being treated more efficiently and effectively so they could be sent back into battle. The ‘success’ of plastic surgery is debatable. In that first one, a fellow whose nose had been melted off by mercury treatments for a sinus infection had a new nose built by pulling a flap of his forehead down and tacking it in place with tubes through the folds. A hundred years later, these techniques had ‘advanced’ so far that lucky recipients still needed artists to create facelike masks for public wear. I suggested that what we were looking at was a history of trauma being used as an opportunity to conduct extreme experiments on desperate human subjects, with results of dubious value to those particular recipients. This is a place where telling the tale through the magnificent achievements of modern mammoplasty may significantly flatten, erm, our understanding of the historical experience.

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