From the Teaching column in the January 2001 Perspectives

A Novelist's Background Briefing Paper

Jeanine Graham, January 2001

"You recently responded to a 'Situations Vacant' advertisement placed by a well-known novelist who is seeking short-term research assistance from a student with proven competence in New Zealand history. Your application and accompanying c.v. obviously made a favorable impression because this week you received the following letter . . . ."

So began the instructions for the most rewarding assignment that I have ever devised for an introductory New Zealand history course. There were four basic teaching objectives:

  • overcoming new student apprehensions about using the university library and approaching librarians for assistance;
  • requiring students to explore a range of primary and secondary sources that are fundamental for the study of New Zealand history;
  • encouraging first-year students to develop as independent learners; and
  • creating an awareness from the start of their degree that development of the skills involved in locating and processing resource material could enhance their employment prospects.

I also wanted to give the 80 plus students a project that they would find both challenging and fun and which I might enjoy assessing.1 On balance, all of these goals were attained. Librarian and student feedback was overwhelmingly positive, as was the subsequent response of three prominent New Zealand writers. Moreover, the idea can easily be adapted for any course, from first year to graduate, where the content and resource materials have potential relevance for a historical novelist.

The "letter" proceeded to explain that short-listed applicants were being asked to undertake a trial investigative exercise, to be completed within a 15-hour research timeframe, presented according to certain specifications, and submitted within four weeks. The time allowance corresponded with the value of the assignment, 15 percent of the internally assessed component (50 percent) of the course; in retrospect, 20 percent and a guideline of 20 hours for research would have been fairer, given the effort that all but a handful of students made.

Detailed instructions, printed on colored paper that served as an instant point of recognition between students when working in the university library's New Zealand collection, gave both direction and example wherever this seemed to be appropriate. Students were forewarned that they should allow one hour for reading the guidelines, feeling overwhelmed, and then registering that no individual was expected to follow up on all of the ideas outlined. The following extracts indicate how the scope and process were introduced:

Context

The historical novel will be set in both rural and urban New Zealand during the period 1896–1936. Male and female characters will be included, ranging from elderly (70 plus) to young adult (16 plus). Ethnic and socioeconomic diversity will be two strong themes in the story. Occupations and lifestyles include manual, clerical, domestic, and professional. Accurate references must accompany all details cited.

Your task is to provide the writer with a comprehensive set of summary statements (all fully referenced) on the basis of which a fictional character can be created, clothed, fed, occupied, transported, housed, and entertained, for example. Consistency and appropriateness of information will be essential. [Illustrative examples were given here.]

So how do you proceed?

a) Select an occupation that is listed in two census returns that are at least 10 years apart. [Census years for the period 1896–1936 were listed.]

b) In making your selection, think about age, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic class, values, education, religion, marital status, housing and living conditions, food, clothing, working conditions, equipment used, income, nature of work performed, occupational hazards, health, life expectancy, insurance, personal networks, leisure pursuits, hobbies, books, newspapers, community involvement, legal status, means of transport, shopping patterns, access and attitude to new technology such as bicycles, telephones, typewriters, cars, and "wireless." [Students were reminded that this list was just an aid to lateral thinking. It was not prescriptive. Some of the suggestions would be inappropriate for occupations chosen.]

Students were advised to organize their material carefully, perhaps envisaging a daily or weekly routine for their chosen individual. They were urged to share their growing familiarity with the source materials. Since everyone needed to find information on dress, wage rates, and food prices, for example, I would ask at lectures who had found a useful source on these and other topics as a way of encouraging a more collaborative approach. For Maori and Pacific Island students, who are generally more accustomed to communal rather than competitive endeavor, this emphasis on cooperation was particularly important.

Presentation details stated that research findings should be submitted in summary form, under headings and subheadings, and should be fully referenced in accordance with the guidelines given in the departmental handbook, Making the Grade. As an aid to applying the assignment specifications, I devised a sample briefing paper on an unmarried 25-year-old female Wellington office worker, set out under such headings as identifying information (occupation, age, marital status, and chosen time period); living conditions (location and type of residence, and household cooking and bathroom facilities); working life (conditions, hours, income, nature of work performed, type of equipment used, and occupational hazards); clothing (under and outer wear, fabrics, accessories, footwear, Sunday best, home garb); leisure; food; personal health; transport; and contextual information (national and world events, visiting entertainers, sporting or other special occasions, industrial action, or natural disasters). Under each heading I suggested basic reference sources. Extracts from five such works were also distributed as a preliminary information package, in part to help the students to get started but also to save some pressure on the librarians. Two sample briefing papers, one urban, female, Pakeha, and one rural, male, Maori, may have been more effective in assisting a small group of male students who were initially reluctant to begin work on the project. Alternatively, the second example could be developed through discussion in lecture time. Students later reported that my guide was useful but no one followed it slavishly. Most included photographs and other illustrations, especially contemporary advertisements. As an additional "source" for the novelist, one mature student compiled a police constable's weekly diary, typed in a font that approximated copperplate handwriting. (While the 15-hour research time had clearly been exceeded in this instance, the student concerned subsequently changed her degree major to history and is now one of our top students.)

No separate bibliography was required, since that would have involved excessive and unnecessary duplication of effort. Instead, students were asked to note lines of inquiry that had led nowhere. This strategy gave them the opportunity to indicate where they felt that they had "wasted" some of their allocated research time. And there was one final task—a thumbnail sketch of the individual who had gradually been taking shape in each student's mind. Limited to a maximum of 10 lines, these pen portraits—of a jockey, journalist, bookbinder, barmaid, lawyer, housewife, teacher, doctor, hotelier, miner, sheepshearer, lighthouse keeper, and asylum attendant, for example—included comments on personality, mannerisms, physical appearance, fashion sense, personal beliefs, and hobbies. In many cases, the characters came alive for their creators.

Assessment criteria, included in the printed instructions and discussed in lectures, were qualitative. These covered the range of resource material consulted; the appropriateness, extent, and consistency of information provided for the occupation selected; the standard of referencing, expression, and presentation; the observation of assignment specifications; and the potential use of the briefing paper for a novelist. Accuracy of information was implicit in the final criterion. Future possibilities include having students working in pairs to check—and sign—a sample of each other's references on a duplicate copy of the final assignment; or running an in-class exercise whereby each course member is given a photocopied page from a completed assignment (minus any identifying name) and the class, divided in two for logistical reasons, spends an hour in the New Zealand collection checking and confirming or correcting the accuracy of a range of references cited.

Two initiatives clearly influenced student attitudes toward the briefing paper. I have long adopted the policy of providing assignment details in advance to the library staff and inviting the New Zealand Collection librarians to contribute their expertise during lecture times. Usually they do so for each of the three internally assessed tasks in the course. Students were informed when the library staff would come to the class to discuss resources for the background briefing paper. Instead of five familiar librarians, however, in came five personalities from the time period, each dressed in clothing appropriate to the character adopted, each with a collection of resources relevant to that occupation. The 1920s socialite was a devotee of the Ladies Mirror; the 1930s public librarian shared his enthusiasm for the newspapers and novels of that era. The domestic servant explored statistical data and volumes on household management; the war bride reminded students of the value of family histories and autobiographies; while the actress showed course members how they could find both textual and visual materials for stage and screen in the postwar years. In the space of 30 minutes, even the most reluctant of library users was reassured that the New Zealand Collection was a student-friendly place where staff enjoyed helping them to respond to the challenges which the assignments posed. And attendance at these early morning classes rose exponentially.

The second initiative was less direct in impact but also important. While the students were working on the project, I sent the specifications to the one novelist whom I knew well enough to approach. (Ideally, this contact should have been made weeks before the course commenced, but the briefing paper idea only occurred to me a few days before teaching began.) Feedback from this author and the fellow writer to whom she showed the material confirmed that the students were researching the type of information that would be of assistance to a novelist. Passing these replies around in class apparently gave many students a sense that the briefing paper really was something other than just an academic exercise to fulfill course requirements. I outlined why it would be useful to send a sample of the completed assignments to these writers for their reactions. Students could decline permission for their assignment to be photocopied, but none did so.

Although I managed to mark and return the briefing papers before the end-of-course examination (sessional assistance would be helpful for checking a random number of the references and correcting footnoting errors), only at the end of the semester was I able to dispatch the sample copies to three writers for comment. Their reactions were gratifying. One even suggested that repeats of the exercise, obviously varying the time periods, could lead to a useful database that, if advertised through a literary newsletter, writers might ask to access. Moreover, the novelist who had herself undertaken a great deal of historical research for the early 20th century, sent me a detailed list of additional suggestions, noting, for example, that the next group of students might be encouraged to mention wider national and international contextual information, not just local events; include reference to contemporary music, smells, and sounds; and give more thought to personal relationships, since many of the characters depicted in the briefing papers appeared to be leading somewhat solitary lives. Such a response has been invaluable as I revise the task for future use.

Previous strategies for bridging a perceived library/lecture divide have included library-based worksheets; compiling an annotated bibliography on a maritime or settlement theme; choosing photographs or paintings and researching their historical context; and undertaking a Great Source Search, whereby students used microfilm copies of newspapers to select an advertisement on some aspect of social history and then proceeded to locate, reference, and describe primary and secondary sources relevant to that topic. While all of these have been successful in the past, the novelist's background briefing paper has achieved the best results so far.

—Jeanine Graham teaches in the history department of the University of Waikato in New Zealand. She wishes to thank Kathryn Parsons, New Zealand Collection librarian; Jenny Bryan, Maori Liaison librarian; Ruth Ivey, John Robson, Megan Symes, and Lesley Wilson for their assistance, and the New Zealand writers, Fleur Beale, Paula Boock, and Maurice Gee, for the generosity of their responses.

Note

1. The class averages between 80–100 students, the majority of whom have no New Zealand history background. Approximately 25 percent are mature students; Maori, Asian or Pacific Islanders; or exchange students, usually from the United States or Germany. Twice a week over a 12-week semester, students meet for a two-hour interactive teaching block during which assignments, skills, and sources are discussed. I also hold three optional study groups per week in the library, using a small tutorial room in close proximity to the New Zealand collection.