Undergraduate Research and German Studies

The reforms of Wilhelm von Humboldt created the modern university two centuries ago with the model of combining research and teaching. In practice, however, this two-fold focus has been concentrated on faculty and graduate students. For most of the past two hundred years, undergraduate education was frequently conceptualized as the transfer of knowledge from expert professors (or graduate students) to undergraduate students. In recent decades, this model has shifted significantly. In its place, a dynamic relationship has emerged in which the professor serves as a facilitator, guiding students through stages of skill development with the eventual goal (usually in the form of a capstone project or experience) of mastering the techniques and developing the habits required to carry out research.

Increasingly, research and knowledge creation (and not just knowledge absorption) are key goals for our undergraduate students. On the one hand, creating and encouraging opportunities for students to participate in this knowledge creation is an increasingly essential element of the evolving nature of German Studies. The sort of professionalization that used to be started in graduate school is slowly working its way down to the undergraduate level. On the other hand, training undergraduate students in the sort of critical thinking and methodological analysis of our field serves a greater purpose; namely preparing undergraduate students to finish a Bachelor’s with the ability to process and analyze information in an increasingly information-rich society.

Furthermore, recent studies have shown how hands-on research can enhance retention, build skills, and enrich the undergraduate experience. The chance to engage in research allows students to practice research techniques, source analysis, and persuasive writing. As students develop their research topics, they are also able to bring their own expertise to class discussions and analysis of assigned texts. More importantly, however, many students involved in independent research gain a new passion for their studies, a renewed sense of accomplishment, and a new understanding of the methods of their discipline.

Perhaps most importantly, the benefits for students and the excitement such research can create for undergraduates could serve as a key strategy for rebuilding German Studies. Since the 1990s, declines in undergraduate enrollments have created a series of crises within our field. Ever worried that the decline of German Studies in the US is on the horizon, our field has sought ways to stay innovative from our foreign language teaching to our highly interdisciplinary research agendas. The promotion and expansion of undergraduate research could serve as a means to reinvigorate German Studies, build enrollments and reestablish our field as one central to the educational mission we serve in our larger institutional contexts.

This forum seeks to serve faculty by sharing experiences and research regarding the incorporation of original and independent research at the undergraduate level. Its topics will range from classroom examples and studies to larger institutional and cultural changes which have – or must in the near future – take place in order to support this burgeoning educational model in American higher education. The initial contributions cover a broad swath of topics and contexts. These include institutional settings ranging from small liberal arts colleges to large state universities. The projects covered are as common as daily, in-class exercises to guide undergraduate research or as unique as an annual regional undergraduate conference on interdisciplinary research relating to German Studies.