With course selection coming around the corner, the sheer number of opportunities can be overwhelming. Choosing courses can be doubly challenging for rising sophomores who are finishing up their prerequisite courses and trying to figure out what they even want to major in. I wanted to take this opportunity to introduce a new and exciting opportunity for students interested in research—the Sophomore Research Seminars.
I recently sat down with Professor Emma Ljung to discuss the new year-long course. For the Fall 2023 semester, there will be two seminars offered: WRI 220/221: The Writing’s on the Wall and WRI 230/231: Is Talk Cheap?, taught by Professor Emma Ljung and Professor Alex Davis respectively. Both instructors have active research agendas—Alex Davis has a PhD in Sociology and Emma Ljung has a PhD in Classical Archaeology (Art & Archaeology). Both have been faculty members in the Writing Program for roughly a decade.
Alexis Wu (A): If you were to distill the course description down to 2-3 sentences, how would you introduce the Sophomore Research Seminars?
Emma Ljung (E): It’s a student-centered, skill-developing research experience. Students get to craft the curriculum around their own interests, learning about a multitude of research methods.
Most importantly, it’s not Writing Seminar 2.0; it’s not a content or writing class, but a thinking class where you learn the many ways in which disciplines approach problems.
A: How did the idea for a Sophomore Research Seminar come about?
E: We recognized that there’s a cavernous hole in the curriculum. Sophomore skills need attention and they need a dedicated space to be developed. All research and writing beyond the first year is supposed to build on skills developed through Writing Seminar. The Sophomore Research Seminar focuses on learning methodologies and techniques (such as curating and cleaning up data) that are crucial for success with independent work but not really taught. It’s a response to the shock when students get into the JP; even though they’ve taken so many content-courses, they haven’t done any research in the field.
A: What are some of the goals you and Professor Davis have as professors of this new course?
E: Our goals, both as members of this community and as teachers of the next generation of scholars, are to facilitate a transition from content-driven consumption to higher levels of critical thinking. We want students to develop the research skills that allow them to do the cutting-edge research that Princeton prides itself on.
An intermediate goal is to help students translate the experiences they had their first year and build their more confident selves. It takes time to build confidence and a skill set that you feel comfortable using, which is something a lot of juniors feel absent from their scholarly personas. There’s an anxiety that hinders rather than enables them, and it shouldn’t have to be that way.
A: You have a fascinating approach to instructional time that I haven’t seen in many other Princeton courses. There’s only one lecture and one precept per week, but during high workload weeks like midterms, the course may only meet for precepts. What was your thought process when coming up with this structure?
E: With this structure, around crunch times when students have midterms or papers for other courses, they will have very little work for this class. As a year-long course, we can spread one “regular” week’s material over two weeks, allowing us to be flexible toward students’ other needs. The year-long schedule also allows students to spread their five-course semester over two semesters—it’s like taking 4.5 classes for two semesters.
A: What do you plan for the classroom experience to look like?
E: This is a course where we shape the classroom around the students’ desires. We intentionally don’t know what the lesson plans look like as of now, since we want to figure out what skills the students think they need to develop. There is an application for each seminar, but it isn’t to determine who gets in and who doesn’t—we just want to know what the students’ backgrounds are and what they are interested in learning from this seminar.
Alex’s seminar focuses on interviewing techniques, which isn’t really something that is taught but is fundamental to research design. It is a skill students need to learn, because without understanding this skill, there’s the worry of misrepresenting the data and people that research is built upon.
For my seminar, I’ve thought for a really long time about how these physical vestiges on campus (like the YES! in the walkway of Hargadon Hall and the golden lions in Butler) are quiet, but profound. The transition of coming to Princeton and seeing the symbols on campus is multi-layered, and it can be transformative for students to unpack these symbols (both as scholars and as people, or “original scholars” making sense of their home). What do these symbols say to you and how does it make you view yourself as a Princeton student? There is honestly no better-suited group of people than sophomores who are beginning to be influenced by others on campus but who also notice what people aren’t talking about.
I’m hoping that on some days, my seminar can begin over a late breakfast together in the Whitman dining hall and then transition to “fieldwork,” like walking around campus, talking and looking at the material culture. We will also be working with different resources on campus (librarians, archivists, data scientists in Firestone, the Center for Digital Humanities) and other experts and scholars. Our goal is to help students understand how research is conducted and how it can be done with the extraordinary capital on campus.
Introductions to WRI 220/221 and WRI 230/231
A: wWhat do you envision as the future of course?
E: I hope there are other departments that will follow suit, offering slower-paced courses to get students up to certain skill-levels. We want this initiative to be campus-wide, since there are strong selling points for really teaching skills and really teaching research, but we also recognize that it takes a lot of time to develop, so it might be a few years before it multiplies.
As professors, we also want to learn as much through the students as the students will learn from these experiences. These seminars can enrich the scholarly skills and experiences of everyone in the classroom, including the professors. The Sophomore Research Seminars aren’t just for sociology or humanities concentrators—we want to see all of Princeton represented!
Professor Emma Ljung with four Princeton undergraduates at an excavation site
(Keely Toledo ’22, Amelia Koblentz ’25, Annie Phun ’23, and Travis Chai Andrade ’24)
Interview responses have been edited for clarity and length.
I hope this interview was as exciting to read as it was for me to conduct! For students interested in applying to the seminars, please visit the website here. If you have any questions, please reach out to Emma Ljung (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Alex Davis (email@example.com)—they’d love to hear from you!
– Alexis Wu, Engineering Correspondent