Princeton University’s Writing Program forges bond with PUL through first-year seminar

Anna Goodman '23 provides opening remarks at the fall 2021 Mary W. George Research Conference.

What are the most important skills students learn in college? For the directors of Princeton University’s Writing Program, it’s the ability to frame compelling questions, follow their curiosity through the research process, and craft persuasive analytical arguments.  Every first-year Princeton undergraduate takes a writing seminar in either the fall or spring semester. 

Writing Program faculty nominate students from the previous semester to present their work at the Mary W. George Research Conference held each November and April. Participants have the opportunity to get advice from their professors and Writing Center Fellows as they revise their research essays into posters or presentations. 

Named for George, who was a librarian at Princeton University Library (PUL) until her unexpected passing in 2015, the conference is one of the ways students celebrate their work in the First-Year Writing Seminar, which hones multidisciplinary and transferable skills in critical inquiry, argument, and research methods. On Friday, November 19, 2021, many current and former writing seminar students gathered on the third floor of the New South Building to present their original research and learn from their student colleagues at this Mary W. George Research Conference. 

“Mary George was my first boss when I came to Princeton,” recalled Audrey Welber, the Librarian for Teaching and Research Services who now coordinates the collaboration between the Writing Program and the Library. “She was incredibly brilliant and so interested in helping patrons at all levels with their research. It didn’t matter if it was a famous scholar or a high school student, she took every question as far as it could possibly go.”

Before the beginning of the academic year, Welber pairs each writing seminar with a librarian who meets with each class two to three times per semester to teach students about the academic research process and the many research tools available through the Library. Several of our librarians, including George and Welber, were also given the opportunity to teach their own writing seminars which immersed them in the pedagogy used by Princeton’s Writing Program. 

Approximately 20 Librarians participate in the seminar each semester. Some, like Librarian for History, History of Science and African Studies Alain St. Pierre, have been involved since they started working at PUL. 

St. Pierre serves as one of the seminar’s class librarians. “I try to help students with anything library-related, including helping them find sources for their research but also guiding them through library policies and helping them navigate physical spaces,” St. Pierre said. The experience has been nothing short of fulfilling for him, noting that he originally got involved after hearing about the positive experiences his colleagues had in the seminar. 

“It's been very rewarding to be able to work with the instructors to test new ideas for Library instruction sessions and to hone the ways we go about teaching students how to use the library,” St. Pierre said. “I also really like that I get to work with students who are interested in studying topics that are so far out of my own discipline. I'm primarily a history librarian, but most writing seminar topics focus on current issues and topics. I learn so much working with these students.”

Assistant University Librarian for Research Services Anu Vedantham began instructing in the seminars in 2019 following a conversation with Welber. “My main motivation was to really understand how first-year students at Princeton take on research, so that the library could improve our services over time,” Vedantham explained.

Working with Will Penman, a Writing Seminar faculty member, has been a treat for Vedantham, who said that she feels like an equal partner in the teaching process. “Often this process includes sharing ideas for ways to deepen the engagement that students have with different parts of the library – introducing them to many library buildings, helping them feel comfortable with study spaces, connecting them with colleagues in Special Collections, DSS, and others,” Vedantham said. “It’s really creative and rewarding work.

To support the librarians who partner with the Writing Seminars, Welber created a “Teaching  Toolkit” as well as a suite of Canvas modules called “Doing Library Research at Princeton,” which can be accessed via the Canvas Commons and customized by each librarian.

“[When this collaboration started], it was the only guaranteed way that each and every Princeton student would get exposed to Library research techniques,” Welber explained. “There are of course other ways, like the specialists and subject liaisons meeting with junior or senior seminars upon faculty request. But our close collaboration with the Writing Seminars is our first chance to introduce students to what the Library has to offer and how our librarians can help them throughout their time at Princeton.”

 “Our colleagues in the Library are invaluable”

Christopher Kurpiewski has spent much of the last decade in the Writing Program. First, while studying medieval history as a graduate student, he was a  Writing Center tutor. In 2012, he became a lecturer in the Program and taught three different Writing Seminars for first-year students. Since 2017, he’s served as Associate Director for the Writing Seminars, a role in which he’s responsible for curricular development and coordinating partnerships across campus.

“Over the past two decades, the Library partnership has always been an important part of the seminar,” Kurpiewski said. “It’s more than just showcasing what can be done at the Library. It’s giving students some structured practice at discovery and putting a face to the people who can help them in that discovery.” 

Amanda Irwin Wilkins’s experience with the Writing Program and the Library dates back even further. She joined the Program in 1999 as a graduate student tutor and has served as Director since 2010. 

“I was here when Mary George first suggested to the previous director in 2001 that a Library collaboration would be a good thing,” Wilkins said. 

Though course offerings have changed and developed through the years, the constant has been the program’s dedication to student inquiry. “We help students have the experience of exploration and provide an early version of what it will be like when they go on to do their junior papers and senior thesis,” said Wilkins. “We want to introduce it to them in a way that's both exciting and authentic, but also more manageable.”

Partnering with the Library facilitates that goal with the support of the Librarians who help students with not only navigating the physical and digital collections, but also with how to think about their research topics.

“How do students transfer findings from one context to another?” Wilkins asked. “We are constantly saying, ‘you always need a question.’ But what does that question look like in a given discipline? That’s where our colleagues in the Library are invaluable.” 

Finding Research Topics

The fruits of student inquiry were on full display at this year’s conference, with topics ranging from Joe Himmelfarb '25 investigating the Japanese vocaloid Hatsune Miku and her popularity in the west despite criticism, to Manya Zhu ’25 exploring cosmopolitanism and “The Nutcracker.”  

Though not every student shared their work at the conference, there was no shortage of praise for weathering the experience of performing academic research, even for those who didn’t present. 

Dawood Virk ‘25, for example, came to Princeton to study chemical and biological engineering, but decided to follow a different interest in his seminar research. 

“I'm an avid cook, and I entered the writing seminar wanting to study food from an interdisciplinary perspective,” Virk said of his decision to research the relationship between cookbooks and national policy in Interwar America. 

He worked with both Welber and Assistant Librarian of Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology Rebecca Friedman, who served as his course librarian. Where Friedman helped him narrow his topic down, Welber assisted with finalizing one of the sources for his paper. 

He also attended one of Welber’s research clinics in Firestone Library. 

“I would highly recommend the clinic to any future Writing Seminar students, as it helped me select a source that was incredibly important to the final composition of my paper,” said Virk. 

While students like Virk dealt with finding a middle ground between their academic and personal interests in the seminar, others like Zhu, a ballet dancer, and Philip Wang ‘25 latched onto their upbringings as inspiration for their research. Wang, who is undecided on his program of study but is considering the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, wrote about martial artist, actor, director, and stuntman Jackie Chan. 

“I grew up watching Jackie Chan’s comedic fights and jaw-dropping stunts, so I was stunned when I read Chan’s recent memoir ‘Never Grow Up’, in which he confessed to many past acts of arrogance, promiscuity, and irresponsibility as a father and husband,” Wang recalled. “Chan risked losing a massive amount of ‘face’ in Chinese society, so I wanted to understand why he would confess to these private wrongdoings so publicly and voluntarily.”

Wang worked with Welber during his seminar course, entitled “Confessions.” “She was able to help me find sources that I could only describe to her,” Wang said. “She could also find new types of information based on what I asked about, which provided new insights and directions for my paper.”

And while Wang’s topic had a personal origin, the experience of researching Chan and writing his paper provided him the basis for future work at Princeton. 

“While not everything from my writing seminar directly translates into papers for other courses and specific disciplines, I definitely feel that my foundation is much stronger than when I first started at Princeton four months ago,” said Wang. “I am excited to continue polishing and enhancing my writing and research skills throughout the rest of my time at Princeton.”