Engaging in Academic Research about Popular Culture and Practicing Interleaving

“In a dark place we find ourselves, and a little more knowledge lights our way.” –Yoda

The celebration of Star Wars Day this week was well-timed as I’m having my seniors work on a research project that gets them to explore some area of popular culture through the lens of at least one serious academic discipline that they would not typically study in high school. “Star Wars and engineering” might be the sort of topic that they explore with the help of a source such as “Best Star Wars engineering tech explained.” Students have been sending emails this week to check in on topics such as “soccer, economy, and civil rights” or “computer games, psychology, and computer science.” The students are building knowledge and new connections while revisiting their previous practices of social science research. This end-of-the-year research project process includes elements of interleaving, and it is a good way to start to wrap up our time together (at a distance) this year. It also invites argument about the potential value of popular culture.

In the last few years, I have found that interleaving is an apt term for my tendency to have students return over time to conceptual reading, writing, and research tasks. Interleaving is recommended as an effective strategy for effectively reviewing knowledge through specifically focused study and practice, and it also can work more generally as a way that “forces students to retrieve information and make new connections between the topics: for example, how is this topic in biology related to what was just studied in chemistry?” as noted by the University of Arizona. With our research project, students do some interleaving as they review and reapply their previous knowledge of academic research elements while exploring self-selected topics.

Many students who have taken my junior and senior English courses, have shared how helpful they found my social science research projects in preparing them for college level assignments. Each year, I typically have a fall and spring project in which students work through a four-stage research *APA/social science process. In recent years, I’ve worked in a popular culture and academic discipline focus (*APA stands for American Psychological Association style).

This social science research project grew out of an original stand-alone, semester-long course that I taught many years ago called Writing Across the Disciplines (WAD). With the social science/APA projects, I find ways to connect topics to our AP and honors themes and have students work through this four-stage research process:

  • Discovery and invention: This is in the classical “inventory” sense of exploring and critically reading research sources that students also reflect on with their annotated bibliography entries.
  • Development and arrangement: Students then develop and arrange their growing understanding of the sources and guiding concepts into a literature review. I have found that it is helpful to coach the literature review as a form of synthesis essay as we practice for the Advanced Placement exam. Here, students are working on a sort of synthesis argument about what the most important concepts are to think about when considering the significance of their popular culture focus and their academic lenses of choice. The practice of just these two stages of the project work well as an illustration of Jennifer Gonzalez’s recommendation “To Boost Higher-Order Thinking Skills. Try Curation.” She explains how the act of working through sources with a museum curator’s mindset can get students working through Bloom’s higher levels of thinking, and she notes literature reviews as one of products students can develop.
  • Applied research: In a typical year, I have students develop an applied research stage in which they develop methodologies and survey questions for gathering data from younger students, analyze the results, and conclude with an argument for the value of their research as well as for some potential follow-up research. Due to time constraints and social distancing this year, we will not get to this stage of the process.
  • Finalizing structure and formatting: I have students finalize structure and formatting for presentation. Students tend to develop a sense of pride and efficacy as they assemble the final, lengthy research paper with a cover page, abstract, research sections, and bibliography. We also work through some practical and technical formatting challenges in the process. We enjoy a symposium in which students briefly present what they learned in the process. With the limitations of this year, we will likely finish the project by sharing what they discovered via their literature review, using Flipgrid to make a brief presentation to their classmates.

Sometimes teachers wonder about whether students get confused by switching between Modern Language Association (MLA) and APA style expectations. At times they do, but that confusion can be an opportunity for getting them to clarify their knowledge of the different disciplines and style expectations of the humanities and social science fields. Working through those difficulties fits with the nature of good interleaving practices.

Having students work at different times in the year with an APA/social science approach as well as a MLA/humanities approach to writing and research also gives students experience with different rhetorical situations. As we work through the phases, strategies, and style for the project work, I make many provisional generalizations (e.g. social sciences tend do x differently than we have with the previous parts of the course), and I let them know that there will probably be many variations and complexities in their future writing assignments in different disciplines. Realistically, I do not quite get all students to the more excellent and complex research-directing questions recommended in The Craft of Research, but students do seem well equipped to pursue such questions in their research experiences as they head off to further study in college.  

In closing, I should mention a few expectations that seem to make these projects interesting and academically worthwhile. First, the sources that students find should be rich in complex and credible concepts that they would not have thought of before engaging in the research. I have students foreground and explain the complex terminology that reflects these complex and credible concepts. Secondly, students should be entering into a discussion, or a field of discourse, that is relatively new to them. This is related to the idea of “argument as conversation,” which invites some further discussion in future posts. Students learn to listen to knowledge-rich conversations through their work with background research and annotated bibliographies. They learn to communicate what seems most important to those conversations through the literature review stage, and they learn to invite others into the conversation through their work with the applied section of the project. 

That should do for now because I have some of those interesting annotated bibliography entries to check on from my students.  

Invitation to Reflect: 

  1. Has popular culture become smarter? Can it make us smarter or does it tend to dumb us down with trivia and distraction? How so? 
  2. What popular culture topics might be interesting to intellectualize through academic lenses?  
  3. What academic classics do we now honor that we might consider as once being part of popular culture?

For Further Reading and Reflection: 

Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, by Steven Johnson

The Literature Review: Six Steps for Success, by Lawrence Machi and Brenda McEvoy 

Writing Research Papers: A Complete Guide, by James Lester and James Lester, Jr. 

The Craft of Research, by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams

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