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Collaborative Research Drives Classroom Learning in Grad Students’ Innovative Courses

Tom Cinq-Mars and Ashton Merck are Ph.D. students in Duke’s History Department. As they advanced through their doctoral training, they took part in research projects through Duke’s Bass Connections program, working with faculty and other students to tackle complex challenges such as regulating and managing ocean energy and animal waste.

Last year, Cinq-Mars and Merck received Bass Instructional Fellowships, which support graduate students to design and teach their own courses and build knowledge in digital instruction. As Bass Instructors of Record, they chose to integrate the Bass Connections model of collaborative, interdisciplinary research into their undergraduate courses.

Extractive Economies

Students in Tom Cinq-Mars’s Fall 2018 undergraduate seminar analyzed the development of large-scale natural resource recovery from prehistory through the present. Employing a modular structure, Cinq-Mars divided the course into three units: a survey of extractive industry writ large; Dutch disease; and pollution.

“Most importantly,” he said, “the course revolved around a collaborative research project. Rather than write an individual term paper aimed solely at the instructor, students worked together in teams to design community college courses. Each team crafted a detailed encyclopedia entry, a literature review, and a case study on their own about a single extractive industry.”

In the process, students incorporated material from the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library as well as insights from Professor Barak Richman, an expert on the diamond trade.

Students drew up a team charter to clarify their direction, set expectations, and establish boundaries. At the end, each person submitted a personal and peer review; Cinq-Mars encouraged critical reflection by offering bonus points for thorough and introspective reviews.

For Cinq-Mars, teaching this course “represented a watershed moment in my personal and professional development.” He praised the fellowship for improving his preparation for a career as an academic historian.

“Designing the course enabled me to hone a distinct pedagogical style early in my career,” he said. “Planning the component classes enhanced my research capabilities, and sharing material with colleagues reinforced the benefits of interdisciplinary collaboration.”

Two students went on to apply what they learned in the course to summer internships in the energy sector. Economics major Charlie Daniel ’20 consulted on oil and gas projects, and Computer Science major Heeya Sen ’21 worked for a startup company that builds solar-powered shelters for displaced persons.

The Modern Regulatory State

Drawing on her experience with two prior Bass Connections project teams, Ashton Merck used her Bass Instructional Fellowship to integrate team-based research into her undergraduate course in Spring 2019.

“My Bass Connections experience showed me that students are very interested in ‘research’ but often don’t know how to craft a research question, how to find sources, or how to use the sources they find,” said Merck. “When I had an opportunity to teach my own course, I structured the final paper with the goal of fostering these crucial research skills.”

Students worked in pairs or small groups to investigate solutions to an emerging regulatory problem of their choice, drawing on historical case studies. “Because the class is heavily cross-listed, students inadvertently found themselves in groups where they had to talk across disciplines or areas of expertise,” Merck said. The students addressed such timely issues as dockless bikes in cities, antitrust actions against large technology firms, legalization of cannabis products, assault weapons bans, and policing content on social media.

“I asked students to work in groups for the final paper because I had experienced first-hand the value of collaborative research and writing as part of a Bass Connections team. It can be enormously challenging to coordinate research findings and writing with other people, but as several students told me later in the semester, it was far more rewarding than a standard term paper.”

Before finalizing their papers, the teams presented their research in a workshop format and received feedback from a dozen graduate students and faculty members from Law, Business, History, Economics, Public Policy, and Philosophy.

Professor Lawrence Baxter congratulated the class on their thought-provoking presentations. “This got me thinking about some elements of regulation that I haven’t thought about before,” he said, “and I teach this stuff.”

Apply for a Bass Instructional Fellowship

Created through an endowment gift from the family of Anne T. and Robert M. Bass, the Bass Instructional Fellowship Program supports high-quality teaching experiences for Ph.D. students where normal means of funding are unavailable. It also helps students become more knowledgeable in digital teaching and learning. The program offers fellowships for instructors of record, instructional teaching assistants, and digital education fellows. The application opens on October 1 and closes on November 18.

Propose a Bass Connections Project

Named in honor of founding donors Anne T. and Robert M. Bass, the Bass Connections program exemplifies Duke’s commitment to interdisciplinary, collaborative inquiry. Graduate students may propose year-long projects for the 2020-2021 academic year in collaboration with at least one faculty team leader. The deadline is November 4.