Watching a Project Grow

Over the last several years, I have watched the Adulthood Project grow from a curious question (“Why do the college students I teach seem so anxiously committed to a single path to adulthood?”) to a sprawling research agenda involving over a dozen students, hundreds of interviews, and still more archived media reports. I am very excited to see us develop this new web presence, made possible through the expertise and enthusiasm of Nick Jordan (Lake Forest College ’14). Nick’s contribution to the project goes beyond his computer savvy, and he has been one of many undergraduates who spent hours pushing this project to new levels.

The shape of the Adulthood Project emerged from two factors: my desire to explore the question of how American culture (as seen in adulthood) is changing in the 21st century and my need to make my research agenda fit with my responsibilities as a professor at a small liberal arts college. It didn’t take long to realize that the question of how Americans become adult is of interest to undergraduates, and they have a perspective on the question that is very different from mine. In the first exploratory stages of the project, I had students like Alyssa (Huff) Gibbs (Lake Forest College X’09) and Michelle Seabury (Lake Forest College ’11) exploring what kinds of interview questions would be successful for eliciting coming of age stories from older Americans. Hayley Wolfcale (Lake Forest College ’08), Emilie Vrbancic (Lake Forest College ’10), and Emily Thomas (Lake Forest College ’13) spent many hours helping me track down research leads, discussing what was happening in the literature, and investigating historical ideas of U.S. adulthood. Emily Thomas also joined Gil Munoz (Lake Forest College ’12) and Maddie Sarad (Lake Forest College ’14) in collecting our first field data in the summer of 2011. The four of us used our first collection of 243 street interviews and 115 online questionnaire responses to develop codes to aid in our analysis of a wide variety of responses we had received.

The wild variety of responses we got in our field season made us aware of the tiger that we had by the tail. Our preliminary field data sent us back to the lab, where Nick Jordan, Gabriela Santiago (Lake Forest College ’13), and Asha Walker (Lake Forest College ’15) helped code the data, dig deeper into the archive and into theoretical perspectives, and explore grant possibilities. This team worked to create a new team protocol that we first put into practice in 2013.

The spring and summer of 2013 was a breakthrough for the project. Six students worked together to code an archive of media reports collected over the previous five years, conducted and coded hundreds of street interviews, and continued to build the project bibliography of scholarly and historical sources. Those students, Richard Fordwor (Lake Forest College ’16), Nick Jordan, Danielle Leonardo (Lake Forest College ’14), Elizabeth Mescher (Lake Forest College ’15), Samantha Molinaro (Lake Forest College ’14), and Audrey Patterson (Lake Forest College ’14) created the model that we think can eventually be shared with other institutions to teach qualitative research methods using a live project. With their diverse interests, they explored the questions ranging from the importance of national economic security to the fortunes of young people to how the 1960s counter-culture established expectations for youth of subsequent generations. In a few weeks, Samantha Molinaro will be defending the first thesis born of the Adulthood Project, in which she is examining how the decline in youth driving reflects how the hegemonic hold of the car on American culture has been shaken.

Through the Adulthood Project, I have learned a great deal about what my college students are capable of and I have discovered new ways of thinking about my scholarly agenda. To be able to share what we are doing more publicly is exciting, and I look forward to returning to this blog periodically to share developments as they unfold.