Juniors "Pick Their Own Thing" With AmStud Research Paper

Veronika Valia

“What we’re trying to do is help students write the best paper they’ve ever written."

Am Stud is an infamous class at Lovett, deemed one of the hardest classes at Lovett along with Pre Calc Honors (I can attest to that) by more than a few students. From nights panicking over the Joint Assessments the next day, to feeling suffocated by all the work, lectures and homework, this class isn’t a cakewalk. 

But the term paper, something Am Stud is famous for, may rival the class itself when it comes to difficulty and a workload that hits you like a freight train. Everyone knows about the term paper. From grumbles in the hallway about the outline to long nights spent working on the draft, it's famous for being a long, hard process.

When asked what the term paper is all about, Dr. Henderson (one of the teachers in the Henderson and Turner pair) said that she thinks that “American Studies as a whole is interdisciplinary and teaches students that texts and ideas don’t happen in a vacuum. They are a reflection of what’s happening around them, and by the time we get to the paper, it's not just an exercise in teaching sound scholarship and argumentation, but it's also a process that enables students to take something that they love, something they’re interested in, and explore why it's important, why it matters and what difference it makes when we’re talking about American culture as a whole.”

According to Mrs. Gray (one of the teachers in the Gray and McCord pair), the term paper “is an individual, academic, scholarly work that is interdisciplinary in nature. It’s a cultural examination in some way of a topic in American history that is of unique interest to that student.” 

The paper has existed for a long time, says Dr. Henderson. “I want to say about maybe more than 20 years. It’s been a long time. I think about the fact that Mr. and Mrs. May-Beaver have been teaching here for over 20 years, and the research paper has been a thing since before that,” she said.

“Was there ever an Am Stud without the term paper?” Mrs. McCord asked Mrs. Gray. Mrs. Gray responded by saying “not since I’ve been here.” She thinks “it goes back to the original experiment with Dick Hall and Jim Hendricks, which was around 25 years ago.” 

When I asked who those people are, Mrs. Gray explained that Jim Hendricks was the Head of School and Dick Hall was the Assistant Head of School and they pioneered the initial experiment of combining a history and English course together.

With any assignment, there are always some that stand out. When asked about some of the best papers they’ve ever seen, Dr. Turner said one of his favorite papers was on the history of race in Georgia politics. He says that “it was a very learned examination of the role of race in Georgia politics that paralleled the rise of Republican power in the 1990s. They did a really good job.”

In Dr. Henderson’s mind, “one of my favorite papers examined Heineken beer ads during the Superbowl and how they reinforced anti-feminist stereotypes. It was just a beautifully analyzed paper. The student said that they just watched the Superbowl and those ads stood out to her as ‘really bad’.”

For Mrs. Gray, “the best papers are topics that we have never thought of. When people pick something and we’re like “I didn’t even know that was a thing.’” Mrs. Gray explains how a number of years ago, there was a paper on African American music and Reconstruction that she absolutely loved. “I cried when I read the paper because you could feel the melodies in the way the sentences were structured. And when you read the text you felt the music in your own soul-stirring as representative to the African American experience.”

Mrs. McCord jumped in saying that “one that always stuck out to me was one about the idea of grave robbers, which soon turned into a beautifully woven paper about the medical industry and folklore, and it was the kind of thing that was so ‘her’ and it came from her interest and her research, and we both learned so much from the paper. We went from not even knowing anything about the topic to that paper being one of the most memorable papers that year.”

For Dr. Turner, who has only been here a year, it’s the personally driven nature of the assignment that is so impactful, “the opportunity for students to pick their own thing.  I mean, I can’t recall the last college recommendation letter that I wrote that didn’t talk about the term paper, because it just says so much about the student. I can tell a lot about the student from an idea that they come up with and that they’ve researched with a particular interest.”

The entire term paper process lasts three and a half months. Students start when they come back from Christmas break and they end the first week of April. However, the paper is not the only thing that is time-consuming. So is the grading. “The final term paper doesn’t take long to grade,” said Dr. Henderson. However “as I have been grading outlines, I would simply say yes, it is very time-consuming. One of the reasons that it takes so long is because we recognize that we are teaching scholarship, we are teaching argumentation, and while it is their idea, they’re having to learn and we’re having to teach and our commentary has to reflect that.” 

With the term paper comes stress. Earlier on, I asked a couple students in the Gray and McCord pair how they felt about the process in general. Lauren Zelnak, a junior, explained how “the stress had gotten to me over the weekend, but since the draft is turned in, we don’t have to think about it for a few weeks (until after Spring Break) which is really nice.” 

“I definitely had a late night,” said Heyward Bost “but it hasn’t stressed me out as much as the Joint Assessments have which is really good.”

When asked what they were most dreading and looking forward to in the process, Lauren said that she was most looking forward to seeing the paper bleeding from all the red ink from Mrs. Gray. You would think that would be something that one would dread, but she explained that it meant she could fix so much. “When we turned in the paper I was so dead I didn't even know what I was looking at but seeing what she writes on it is going to be very helpful,” she said.

Heyward said she was most excited to have it turned in. To her, editing is fun and it’s not that bad of a process. However, she was dreading doing work. Ha. Aren’t we all. 

But how are they doing now? In a follow-up interview with Luca Cousins, whose topic is American intervention in Chilean affairs, he explained that he just turned in his final draft. “The hardest part was sifting through the redacted government documents and piecing together what was actually happening at that time,” he said. “However, I feel a sense of accomplishment now that I have completed the process and I have actually enjoyed it.”

In the words of Dr. Henderson, “What we’re trying to do is help students write the best paper they’ve ever written. It takes a lot of people. It’s hard but it's good. When you accomplish it and you’re able to see what was done, you’re just going wow. That was worth it.”

The Lovett School is an independent, coeducational day school where children from Kindergarten through Grade 12 find the courage to explore and the drive to discover.

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