TRAC Fellows seminar explores research about research

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TRAC Fellow seminar presentation

When the new group of TRAC Writing Fellows for fall 2018 were introduced to the group research project assignment that would be a major part of their fall seminar course, student reactions ranged from trepidation to enthusiasm. Sophia Mayone ‘21 remembers that she felt “excited but not surprised.TRAC does some pretty unique things, and I really bought into the idea.” Another new TRAC fellow spoke about their hesitance: “I really wasn’t sure what to expect. It seemed so broad.”

The unifying topic for these projects? Research about research.

At first sight, the task of doing a group “research about research” project sounds not only difficult, but a likely tedious enterprise. Why is research itself worth investigating? What exactly does “research about research” mean? And most importantly, what is the benefit of learning about such a topic to Lehigh students? But the newly-minted TRAC fellows of the TRAC 100 seminar took this assignment head-on, resulting in a rich and diverse array of projects that fully engaged with the challenges and possibilities of digital inquiry in the information era and that are likely to have a far-reaching impact at Lehigh.

Founded in 2008 by Writing Across the Curriculum Director Greg Skutches, Lehigh’s TRAC program is a writing-focused peer tutoring program. The program is distinct from a writing center in that the fellows are embedded into individual courses, working side by side with the students in these courses throughout the semester, not only to help them develop drafts into polished final papers, but to help them become better writers.

A cornerstone of TRAC fellow development is the fall TRAC 100 seminar course required of all new fellows. After a competitive application and interview process in the spring semester, followed by a half-day orientation in May and a summer reading assignment that includes two books, the newly selected fellows begin to learn the theory and practice of peer-learning throughout their time in the 4-credit seminar. This community of practice engendered by the seminar is a highlight of the initial TRAC experience for many fellows because of the inclusive, thought-provoking, encouraging, and supportive space created by Greg, the mentor fellows who lead the seminar, and the new fellows themselves. The students come from programs across the university, creating what Mayone describes as “one of the most interesting, diverse, and creative groups on campus,” further stating that “the fact that we all come from different majors and class years brings a certain level of variety into the group, and it's really cool to see how so many different people can come together under one common goal.” Additionally, the seminar serves a pragmatic purpose in that the fellows are also simultaneously TRAC-ing their first course in the fall, working as full-fledged tutors while shaping their practice, talking through questions, and learning from each other and veteran fellows over the course of the seminar.

While writing remains a key focus throughout, the seminar is also designed to engage the new group of fellows in discussions around the inextricably interrelated concepts represented in the letters of the TRAC acronym: Technology, Research, and Communication. In particular, the seminar group research project has been an opportunity for students to research a topic related to TRAC work and apply their findings to a TRAC context. The results of these projects have been remarkable, creating culture changes that have impacted future generations of fellows and Lehigh students. Recent examples of TRAC projects that have grown into TRAC initiatives include public speaking fellows, faculty development workshops on assignment creation, TRAC-facilitated digital video-based peer learning, and the integration of mindfulness into TRAC practice (an activity that has become a signature component of the program).

For Fall 2018’s “research about research” projects, fellows presented to an open audience on topics related to learning in the Information Age:

  • Lehigh's Path to being an R1 Institution
  • Undergraduate Research and the Digital Age
  • The Psychology of Research Habits
  • Intellectual Property: Cultural and Generational Differences
  • Fake News in the Era of Post Truth

Through their investigation of these topics and their application to TRAC work, fellows cultivated valuable research skills, forged stronger relationships with Lehigh’s librarians, and reflected on their own academic and personal research habits. Mayone, a member of the Psychology of Research Habits group, notes that “Until [this project], I had never really thought about looking into what it takes to do research.” Another new fellow, Will Peracchio '21, researched R1 Status and found that his group’s research project provided context that helped him “gather a better understanding of how the Path to Prominence is affecting research, and the costs and benefits of transitioning Lehigh to an R1 institution.”

Each summer the incoming Mentor TRAC Fellows work hard to improve the seminar for new cohorts of fellows, drawing on recent fellow experience as well as workshop activities specifically designed to create an ethos of innovation, experimentation, and a growth mindset for the entire program. According to Skutches, “It was Jasmine Woodson who suggested the idea of focusing the group research projects for the seminar on research and the research process itself, and I was immediately excited by that idea.” He added, “But when I saw how well the two incoming Seminar Mentor Fellows collaborated with Jasmine in planning and designing that part of the seminar, I began to hope that in fall 2018 we might have the best TRAC 100 Seminar to date. Turns out I was right.”

Over the course of the semester, this group of students grew as critical thinkers and information consumers and producers, and their work last semester will form the basis of new innovative TRAC-led activities moving forward, continuing the program’s tremendous legacy.