Students ford a creek during an outing with David Cantrell’s Summer Research in Humanities experience.


Critical independence and the art of questioning in NCSSM’s Summer Research in Humanities

A brick marked by a fingerprint at the Stagville Plantation. A doll once held by an enslaved child. A dress worn by an R.J. Reynolds family heir. A clay pot from the James River Valley. A letter written by a woman incarcerated in an asylum after her three sons were killed in the Civil War. 

Each of these objects is imbued with meaning based on its origin and maker. On one hand, what could be more objective than an object? It is tangible, you can experience it with all five senses. It is fact. But the students in David Cantrell’s Summer Research in Humanities experience, part of the Summer Research & Innovation Program (SRIP) at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, were being asked to think of the complicated and often subjective histories to which those objects pertain.

Cantrell’s students explored several historical sites in North Carolina’s Piedmont: The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) in Winston-Salem, and Hayti Heritage Center and Duke Homestead in Durham, to name a few. At each site, students are encouraged to maintain a critical distance as they tour the spaces and encounter the objects presented there. In a sense, they are attempting to see both the objects and the historical order, or disorder, suggested by each object’s placement in a curated space.

In a classroom discussion after visiting MESDA, one student reflects that the furniture they viewed in MESDA “isn’t just furniture. It has a story.” Another student adds her frustration with the tour guide’s description of the furniture’s acquisition by owners. “She said that the city had great relationships with Native Americans,” the student says, “but it was actually an exploitative relationship.” Cantrell nods and responds with questions: “Do colonial texts contain anything but colonial fantasies? And do the objects ostensibly explained by these texts offer another knowledge of a different history?”

Questioning is at the core of SRIP. Over these two weeks, students learn the basics of research, a process that includes identifying a compelling intellectual interest, then transforming that interest into a question which bears substantive investigations. Through site visits, trips to local archives, visits with guest lecturers, and more, students develop their questions through focused research and then present their findings to their peers and the public. The kind of questioning this class cultivates is not the kind where a student or teacher seeks the right answer. This SRIP program requires students to dig deep, to explore not just the world around them, but their own assumptions and personal histories.

Student Rory Klink points to this reflective questioning as one of the benefits of the research program. “I learn about myself when I learn about my topic,” he says.

To start, Cantrell encourages the students to find a connection to their research topic. Often, that connection is sparked by an object they view on one of their field trips, something that strikes a chord. For example, it may have been that doll at the Stagville Plantation that inspired student Isabella Lanford to deepen her interest in systemic racism in America by exploring the connection between Southern plantations and today’s U.S. prison system. Specifically, she is looking at North Carolina prisons. “I don’t think I understood the transition from plantations after the Civil War to the prison system that we have now,” she says. “Today I spent over an hour studying this one prison in Halifax County that went straight from an empty plantation after the Civil War to a farm prison. It was basically just slave labor.” 

Unlike taking an exam or writing an essay for a course during the school year, developing a question in SRIP entails a ripening of an idea, not a rush to an answer. “They have a sense of what they might discover and a desire to discover these things,” Cantrell says, “but they haven’t finished their research or come to conclusions.” Even in their presentations, students are not expected to deliver a conclusive analysis, but rather to “persuade others of the value of their work.” 

In his opening letter to students delivered just before the start of the SRIP session, Cantrell offered this passage by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke for the students to consider: “Leave to your opinions their own quiet undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be pressed or hurried by anything. Everything is gestation and then bringing forth.” Here, Rilke calls not just for courage in the face of the unknown, not just a freedom of thought, but also patience.

Anyone who has teenagers of their own or has worked with them knows that this is a big ask. But the students are showing up and seem more than fit for the job. Yes, the students in the humanities SRIP program are just regular teenagers. They smile at the mention of a pizza party and giggle at inside jokes. They’re openly vulnerable in the way only teenagers can be, but Cantrell’s teaching style is predicated on the belief that when you talk to teenagers like intelligent, capable scholars, they will respond as such. These are students discovering the power of ideas. They are motivated and focused and able to do remarkable things. They disagree without becoming disgruntled, express their ideas passionately, and listen to each other. They embrace the role of the true scholar, who seeks answers through exploration and curiosity. Perhaps most remarkably, they are willing to change their minds based on what they discover — and they are unafraid of their discoveries.

This openness is both impressive and necessary in exploring the types of questions the students are asking, questions about high art versus low art, the historical context of objects, the subjectivity of history and who is included in and excluded from that history. These are questions without clear answers, questions to which the students themselves may not find satisfactory responses, even after weeks (and possibly months, should they extend their projects into the school year) of reading, writing, and research. What students end up with in place of definitive answers are the abilities to be comfortable with ambiguity, to accept or at least consider differing points of view, and to change tack when the direction they’re headed turns out to offer more confusion than clarity. These are skills whose value does not lie exclusively within the context of the humanities. The study of any discipline the students encounter, be it in biology, computer science, or political science, is enhanced by an open mind and an ability to think critically. Hence, the intrinsic value of humanities in a STEM school like NCSSM. 

In their discussion of MESDA, one student suggested that the point of Reynolda House was to demonstrate the wealth of the owners, not to showcase the artistry or craftsmanship of the men and women who created the work within it. “It’s like the Biltmore,” she said. “All these rich people, all this money.” This leads to a discussion of the presentation of art in curated spaces, the commodification of art, and the acquisition of art by private collectors which, to some in the room, seems inherently unfair. One student chimes in: “I think they should turn Reynolda House into a homeless shelter. It would be a better use for it.”

Cantrell doesn’t agree or disagree but does ask the student to consider the value of art: “Yes, bodies must be nourished,” he says, “but so must souls.”

Freelance writer Kate Van Dis holds a bachelor’s in English and creative writing from the University of Michigan and a master’s in teaching from UNC-Chapel Hill. She is also an award-winning fiction writer.