It sometimes feels like our teaching and research goals compete for our time and energy. We all want to offer undergraduates more opportunities for hands-on research experiences, but we might not have the time or flexibility to develop a research-oriented course. However, integrating hands-on, meaningful research experiences doesn’t have to be complicated .

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Integrating Teaching and Research: Make it Simple

May 8, 2024 • Amy Quark

It sometimes feels like our teaching and research goals compete for our time and energy. We all want to offer undergraduates more opportunities for hands-on research experiences, but we might  not have the time or flexibility to develop a research-oriented course. However, integrating hands-on, meaningful research experiences doesn’t have to be complicated .

Over the past year, I have worked on a community-produced documentary film focused on the displacement of Black communities in Williamsburg, VA. The project is exciting, inspiring, and collaborative, involving community partners in The Village Initiative, undergraduate researchers, an interdisciplinary group of faculty and staff, and partners at STLI. It  seemed obvious  to involve students enrolled in my courses in this project. Yet, the project was already highly ambitious, and  I didn’t have much  time to revise my course. I was committed to teaching a required course for our major—Sociological Theory—that didn’t immediately lend itself to integrating hands-on, community-engaged research.

This raised three questions:

1. How could a course tracing the historical development of Sociology’s classical canon be reoriented toward a hands-on community-engaged research project? 

2. Would this undermine broader learning goals for the course: introducing majors to foundational theoretical debates in the discipline? 

3. And could it be done simply, given other demands on my time?

My solution: reorient broad course goals but not course content. This involved three steps.

Step 1: Theory with a Purpose

I revised the first two classes to set a  broad collective goal: we were here to learn theory, but we would use that theory to support community-engaged research on Black community displacement. We toured downtown Williamsburg, led by displaced families, which immediately engaged students as they learned about Black homes and businesses that once stood where familiar landmarks, like the W&M Bookstore, are now. 

Step 2: Keep Content the Same!

As a required course for the major, much of the content could not be changed – so I didn’t change it! I presented key theoretical perspectives and debates much as I typically do –  Marx on economic and political power, DuBois on the color line, Weber on bureaucratic rationality, Cooper on Black women’s activism, and so on. It became students’ task to consider what leverage these theories provided to understand the displacement.

Step 3: Refocus Assignments

In a typical semester, students write three short papers grappling with theoretical issues in relation to a topic I assign or they choose. In this research-oriented version of the course, I maintained the same assignment; however, I provided background material and a sampling of primary sources (e.g. oral history excerpts, city planning documents, etc.) for students to analyze. Because I was deeply involved in this research, these materials were at my fingertips. I reserved a class period before each paper was due to introduce the primary material and have students work in groups to consider the strengths and limits of using the different theories to understand the displacement. 

Step 4: Make Student Work Meaningful

In a typical semester, students write a theoretical paper to demonstrate course knowledge. To make their work meaningful and relevant to community-engaged research, I tasked students with writing an opinion-editorial that communicated their theoretical analysis of Black community displacement in Williamsburg to a broader audience. On my end, this required adding a one-class workshop on the op-ed writing style. For students it included a challenge: strong student work would be submitted to a newspaper leading up to the  film’s release.

Keep It Simple

In all, changes to the course required minimal work on my end, but the payoffs were substantial. I was energized—my passion for the film project could bubble over into my teaching. The students were motivated—many of them knew little of this history and were eager to learn more. And this model might  have achieved the course goals better than traditional models. Students learned different theoretical perspectives in the classical canon, as the course requires. However, by focusing on a specific case, they not only applied the theories but also theorized— bringing different theoretical perspectives together in innovative ways to develop new understandings of the world. Students’ qualitative evaluations reinforce my own evaluation of the course: small changes can have big impacts.

Hear from a few students in their own words below.

“By weaving in a real–world context (events that occurred within the Black community of Williamsburg), I was able to not only apply theorists to the real world but also become the theorist.”

“The opportunity she provided for us to get involved with Williamsburg as a community was really something special that I haven’t seen before. Being able to write op–eds that could potentially be used in a documentary about the Black community in Williamsburg helped me see how I could use what I’ve learned in sociology and apply it to the real world.”

“I loved how we were able to dissect Williamsburg through the theorists we learned about in the course; it felt like we were mini–sociologists using content analysis to study Williamsburg as a system.”

“When I originally registered for this class, I honestly expected it to be pretty boring…centering the class around Williamsburg far exceeded my expectations and made learning the difficult parts of theory much more interesting and relevant.”

“Having the overarching theme of West Williamsburg I felt was very helpful in understanding the different concepts covered in this class. Using one focus point or example allowed for me to understand how one topic can be viewed the same way but from different lenses. I felt that this allowed me to truly understand each theorist’s goal in their work.”

© 2024 Amy Quark. ORCID iD 0000-0002-4956-2392
The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.

Meet the Author

Amy Quark

Professor of Sociology

Amy Quark is a Professor of Sociology at William & Mary. She is the W&M lead for The Local Black Histories Project, a community-university research collaboration with The Village Initiative. Learn more about Amy at amyquark.gs.wm.edu

 

Amy Quark