If you go to New College, you are going to do an Independent Study Project (ISP), but there are as many different ISP projects as there are people. At New College, ISP is a period where you can truly explore your interests. As a transfer student, I only had to complete two projects, but both well-prepared me for my fourth-year thesis.
My first ISP
Transferring from Truman State University in Missouri, I was credited with one contract and one ISP. After bustling through a challenging and rewarding semester, and relaxing during the holiday season, I began my ISP. That fall, I had also joined the New College student newspaper the Catalyst. This paper would become a staple in my college life. Here, I learned that I had a knack for writing profiles. I could sit with someone for a long period of time and not get bored. I liked finding out about people. Asking them questions and figuring out their little quirks really interested me.
I asked the newspaper writing tutorial sponsor, Anthropology Professor Maria Vesperi, if I could interview elderly people in St. Louis, Missouri, where I went to high school, for my project. In the past, I had written a profile on Penny Rosel, a professor at New College for 34 years who had recently died.
In my research, I interviewed her neighbors and friends. These were people I would not normally come into contact with, even though they lived right by the college. On campus, we talk about how New College can be an academic bubble, and by talking with new people, I realized there was a lot I could learn from their stories. So this is what inspired and challenged me to start the project and interview people unlike myself. My subjects would be the elderly people of St. Louis; since I was young and had grown up for most of my life in Florida, not the Midwest, I knew that I would learn fascinating information about life, history and the individuals I spoke with.
An ISP can be very structured with a teacher and an official syllabus, like a class, but it can also be a self-guided study. When I approached Dr. Vesperi, I knew what I wanted to do, but I did not know what category it would be under. She gave me a reading list of sociological ethnographies. This took me by surprise, since I had considered my endeavor journalistic, but the readings such as “The Ageless Self” by Sharon R. Kaufman, “Number Our Days” by Barbra Myerhoff and Vesperi’s own book “City of Green Benches” fit perfectly. In reading these books, I learned that I could use my interviewing skills in sociological ways as well as journalistic ways. Although the rules vary, the ideas of listening and observing hold true.
In doing the project, I became closer to people that had been in the peripherals of my life. I interviewed my high school lacrosse coach. I had known he was a Vietnam War veteran, but I learned of how he wooed his wife for almost 10 years before she would marry him. I also interviewed my close friend’s grandfather. He was 84 at the time. I had know him for five years, and he had assisted my cross-country team, but I did not know that he had worked at my high school and had been a coach of multiple sports over 50 years before.
I also interviewed the mother of my mom’s work friend and learned that was the first woman in Watertown, Wisconsin, to join the Chamber of Commerce. I found these interviews so engrossing that sometimes they would take upward of two hours. This project helped teach me that every individual I interacted with, especially elderly people, had experiences I could never anticipate.
My second ISP
For my second ISP, I decided to do a project on Dance Next Generation. This is a program sponsored by the Sarasota Ballet that allows local children to take dance and ballet classes. I had already been volunteering there a few times a week, and really enjoyed it.
Getting off campus and interacting with people I would not normally be in contact with continued to be appealing to me. So, I decided to observe the program consciously. I was not sure what I was looking for, but the structure of the ISP allowed me to explore ideas.
I presented this loose plan to Sociology Professor Mecca Zabriskie. We discussed different readings having to do with race, class, teaching and performance. I was elated to find that this topic had been studied by scholars such as bell hooks, Jill Green and Paulo Freire. I also read an autobiography by the prominent black ballerina Misty Copeland. These readings lead me to think about the effects the ballet program was having on the dance students in terms of race and class. I thought about the importance of qualitative data and how personal experiences can be illuminating and academic at the same time. This gave me the confidence to delve deeper into my topic.
At the end of my second ISP, I knew I wanted my thesis to be on how the DNG ballet program affects the self-esteem of the participants. This thesis topic allowed me to incorporate what I had learned in the readings about class and race. With my second ISP, I was more focused on observing and exploring. It allowed me to consider the breadth of the topic and the complexities of writing a thesis.
In my last ISP, I found my thesis topic. I am studying the affect the DNG ballet program has on the self-esteem of the elementary-age children who participate in the DNG program. This thesis incorporates multiple elements that inspire me such as individual experience, race, class and the arts. The project entails observations, interviews and close study of articles and information about dance experienced by children, specifically minority children.
My ISP projects have taught me there is value in observing, as well as reading relevant works by others in the field. I spend a lot of time considering what the students share with me. I am conducting interviews and surveys (skills learned from my first ISP), so that I am not just assuming how they feel. I learned individuals can often tell their own stories best, so I honor that lesson by truly listening to my participants.
I think it’s also important that all of the participants in my studies benefit. While the project is for academic credit, I also work to make sure that the students feel comfortable with me by helping them with their homework and being a regular volunteer.
Independent study also requires you to learn the academic best practices for conducting research. In my thesis, I am working closer and more formally with the students, engaging in proper and appropriate experimentation. And since I am working with children, learning proper ethical practices was especially important to me. Another reason I am focused on completing this project in an ethical way is so I can share my project upon its completion.
I hope that it will shed light on what is working in the DNG program, and what could be working better. Most importantly, I feel that I want to offer something to the people involved in my thesis. So it comes full circle. ISP and my thesis showed me by studying outside of New College, I have been inspired to take part in and help the community, while furthering my academic progress.
Student writer Jasmine Respess is a thesis student concentrating in sociology.