Firsthand: Students Dig Deeper for Research Project

By Cassy Cochrun

Students learn in Dr. Greg Renoff’s fall 2013 class, “The Vietnam War and American Society,” how the Vietnam War era changed lives across the United States in the ‘60s and ’70s. Photographs from the era preserve life as it was, and Renoff created an assignment to analyze the photographs and find out the stories behind them. “I’ve taught this class since 2005, but this was the first time I’ve incorporated a blog component into the assignment,” Renoff said. “I wanted the students engaged in their research, and I also wanted to demystify blogging for them and show them that they can do it.” Students formed groups and each member of the group researched and wrote about a different aspect of the photograph assigned to them. What was already an interesting project morphed into a once-in-a-lifetime experience for several students who had the opportunity to find out about their assigned photographs firsthand from the photographers and subjects.


Olivia Willoughby, a first year education major, was drawn toward the photograph of a young girl placing daisies in a soldier’s bayonet. “I liked the look of the photo,” Willoughby says, “it struck me how different the girl was from the soldiers.”

Willoughby’s initial research helped her discover that the girl in the photo was Jan Rose Kasmir. A quick Internet search led Willoughby to Kasmir’s blog and Facebook page, and with this discovery, Willoughby found her contact information.

With Renoff’s encouragement, Willoughby contacted Kasmir, introduced herself and asked if Kasmir might explain what she was thinking and feeling on the day she put flowers in a soldier’s gun during a war protest. Kasmir responded promptly and explained her experience that day in vivid detail. The most surprising discovery: Kasmir didn’t feel so different from the soldier; in fact, quite the opposite was true. Willoughby was surprised to learn that Kasmir n was even speaking with the soldiers, some of whom were quite young, just like Kasmir. “She saw herself as one with those soldiers,” Willoughby explains. “I respected her even more after I learned that.”

“I think [Kasmir] appreciated that Willoughby was contacting her not only for an academic paper, but because Willoughby really wanted to know about her and about the day of the protest, what was going on there,” Dr. Renoff says, crediting Kasmir’s thorough response to Willoughby’s questions with Willoughby’s genuine interest in Kasmir’s life.

Alec Presley’s assignment was the famous heart-wrenching photograph of a student shot at the Kent State massacre in 1970. During his first year at Drury, Presley was looking forward to the course that might help him decide whether to add a political science major to his English major, so he knew that this would be an important assignment that might aide his decision.


“When Dr. Renoff told me to try to get in touch with the photographer, I was excited to get first-person information,” Presley says. “It was pretty amazing to talk to a Pulitzer Prize winner.” Presley’s attempts at locating John Filo, the photographer who took the photo, weren’t always smooth, but eventually he was able to set up a conference call between Filo and his entire group.

Presley discovered that the woman screaming in the photograph was only fourteen years old at the time – and that she seemed more concerned about the shooting than the college students, at least from Filo’s perspective.

Both Willoughby and Presley were intimidated by Dr. Renoff’s 10 page paper assignment at first. “I’d never written 10 pages before,” Presley said. Willoughby concedes, “I’ve never gone into as much depth as we were supposed to for the assignment.” But neither student had difficulty finding words after their extraordinary research experience. “I had no problem filling the 10 pages,” Willoughby found.

“This assignment was successful in getting students to realize the connections between the photographs and the Vietnam War era, and that the people in the photographs, or taking the photographs, weren’t that different from them,” Dr. Renoff said. “I wanted the students to be able to step back from the photograph and realize what was going on around these people.”

So what will they take away from the project? Willoughby discovered new possibilities for researching anything: “I can just contact somebody if I need to find something out,” she says, “my mind is more open to different research methods.” As for Presley: “I found out that going the extra mile when doing research is beneficial,” he says. “I would definitely try to get first person sources, if possible, for future projects.”

“I’ll definitely use this assignment again,” Renoff says. “I like that it helps the students see that they’re responsible for their own learning. The old-media-meets-new-media dynamic was especially helpful. Getting the students to look at old microfilm to help them with their research was an accomplishment.”

Willoughby has continued correspondence with Kasmir via email. She says that Kasmir is impressed with how easy it is to connect with people around the world with the Internet. “Isn’t this great?” Kasmir wrote in an email to Willoughby, “We’re new best friends!”

*Historical photos used under Fair Use guidelines