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Next semester I will be on sabbatical. Instead of teaching five classes, I will dive headfirst into a research project that has been taking shape for three years now. A new research project is a great big unknown, which is a little bit terrifying. This week’s blog will be the first in an occasional series that focuses on historical research and writing.


The last major research project I undertook was my doctoral dissertation. While dissertations in themselves are fraught with anxiety and roadblocks, completing my degree was enough to motivate me to push through the challenges. This time around the experience will be completely different: no academic advisor, no semester-based deadlines, and the flexibility to follow the questions and evidence wherever they may lead.


I’m hoping that if I use this blog as my one-woman Research Seminar I will keep my project on a forward-moving track the way Dissertation Seminar helped me through my dissertation all those years ago. So this week I’ll start at the beginning:


My project -- broadly conceived -- is a study of care of the mentally ill in Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the early twentieth century. In the aftermath of my own medical crisis in 2004 I became increasingly curious about the history of women’s healthcare. I began to search for narratives to satisfy my curiosities and was introduced to the works of Gerald Grob and others whose studies examined the way that mental illness was addressed by American society as far back as the colonial period.


For nearly two years, while teaching full time, I read everything I could find on care of the mentally ill in the US. In addition to narratives histories that encompassed expansive periods of time and documented the evolving roles of asylums and hospitals, doctors and psychiatrists, I also read regional histories about places like Boston’s famed McLean Hospital and New York’s Willard Psychiatric Center. These studies evaluated the specific challenges addressed by patients, families, community organizations and state legislatures. They shed light on the value of local history in the study of healthcare.


Ultimately what I discovered is that I’m most interested in the period from the turn of the century until the start of World War II. And, I want to specifically learn about the communities in which I live and teach. I want to be able to share stories of local people and institutions with my students when my sabbatical concludes.


I’m hopeful that the archival work I will begin this January will uncover the lives of women who struggled with mental health problems in this era and lead me to some bigger questions. Laws protecting the privacy of patients in state hospitals will likely have a major on my work and the stories that are available. I’m excited, nonetheless, to engage in the detective work necessary to bring these stories to life. Stay tuned!

Instead of class discussions, lectures, or assignments, this week I’m thinking a lot about students and time management.


We are five weeks into our fall semester and several of my classes are currently working on short (4-6 page) research papers. For many of my students this assignment is the first time they have conducted research at a college library. Some arrived in September well-prepared for the challenge while others are finding the assignment quite overwhelming. In a previous blog I described the short assignment I developed for my US I and II students as an introduction to secondary-source research. Thanks in part to the fabulous librarians at my college, I’ve had great success with this assignment. Students learn to use the articles and journals databases at the library, they critically analyze an historic image and they consider what it means for something to be “in historical context.”


After ten years of tweaking, the assignment is a well-oiled machine. The students get started with two class periods in the library classroom and have three weeks to complete the their work.


After eighteen years of college teaching, however, I still cannot figure out how to convey to my students the absolute necessity of managing their time effectively.


I know I’m not the only college professor who struggles against her students’ habit of procrastination. It’s a human quality that nearly all of us possess on some level. When I have a stack of exams to grade and the sun is shining brightly I too engage in an internal struggle over what needs to be done versus what I would like to be doing. Hats off to those super humans who can procrastinate and then do amazing work.


The time-management stakes are high for students. On average they are taking three to five courses concurrently, which means they have a lot of work to complete. At the community college where I teach students are acutely aware that maintaining a strong GPA will make the transfer process easier. Unlike myself who can plan course syllabi so that all of my grading does not have to be done at the same time, students have no say as to when assignments are due. On top of academics they are often juggling family and work responsibilities. Time management, then, is of the utmost importance.


And yet, I have no idea how to “teach” this life skill. I’m not convinced that it is even my responsibility to do so.


Each time I assign a research project I implore my students: “make a plan,” “come to my office hours for help,” “bring a draft to the Writing Center.” And I hear crickets.


As much as I have tried to impress upon them that I’m willing and available to help, almost no one asks me a single question until we are within 48 hours of the due date. How do I convince them that waiting till the last possible moment to start a research project is a recipe for disaster? Are there techniques that I could incorporate into my assignments that would force students to be better planners? And, how much time can I afford to spend away from content if I decide that time management must be a learning outcome for US History I or II? Is a lousy grade the most effective remedy for students who need to stop procrastinating?


I’m tossing these questions out to the Macmillan Community this week because I’m quite certain that everyone of us who teaches has spent considerable time thinking about how to solve the problem of student procrastination. Thoughts? Suggestions?


No crickets, please.