There is no doubt that undergraduates — who are still developing research skills, the mechanics of writing, and learning interpretive and critical methodologies– find research a labor intensive process. It is similarly labor intensive for the faculty members guiding these sorts of experiences. If undergraduate education in general, and German Studies in particular, is moving toward this model, what institutional changes must be brought about to enable this? What services and resources are present on campuses for the students themselves, as well as the faculty guiding these projects? What expectations are appropriate given the constraints on time in a term or semester, the hours faculty are available to meet with students? This entry (and two subsequent entries) will explore some of these problems and solutions as have been formalized in a series of programs at Knox College.
Knox College has responded to these challenges with a few unique programs which I’ll describe in brief. We are a small liberal arts college. With roughly 1400 students, and a 12:1 faculty ratio, we are the sort of institution one expects to provide extensive mentoring and student support. But even here it can be hard to find the time to mentor a student through an independent study or similar research project and have it result in quality work. We can’t magically create more time in the week, but we have changed how students interact with faculty and with the institutional support to create and complete these projects.
One aspect is built into our very institutional identity now. About 10 years ago, in the process of updating the curriculum, Knox came to the decision that, in the spirit of the liberal arts, we should require two specializations for each student. This requirement, plus the small size of our campus, has created an environment in which interdepartmental collaboration is hard-wired into our institution. For instance: every student I send abroad has a second major or a minor in biology, history, political science, environmental studies, studio art, etc., and they often need to make progress in those majors/minors while abroad too.
This also makes for highly interdisciplinary independent study projects and senior theses. Their projects on, for example, Terrorism in Germany, Jazz in Nazi Germany, or on Auschwitz and Holocaust representation are inevitably co-mentored — officially or unofficially — by faculty from political science, music or history, respectively. Because students have two areas of study, students have relationships with faculty in both subject areas. In fact, faculty are often formally assigned as mentors in that major or minor. (I.e.: My colleagues can’t really get out of it when I send students to them! But, the same is true in reverse, too.) Even when the project is firmly rooted in German, my colleagues and I often make use of each other’s expertise and send students back and forth for input and mentoring. Students receive two, sometimes three, sets of feedback on chapters of Honors theses and independent study projects. I have encouraged these highly individualized projects at the expense of my own time, but find it worthwhile given the educational experience of the students. Students often say these projects are some of the most difficult and demanding, yet they are also the most proud of these papers and this research. It excites students to combine their interests, and serves to develop unique specialties which they can use to further themselves academically or professionally after graduation.
Does such cooperative mentoring between faculty members and across departments and disciplines sound realistic at your institution? Such cooperative mentoring takes place at the graduate level. Why has it not been more substantially introduced at the undergraduate level? Is it a matter of time and resources, or of our conception of what an undergraduate program is, and is not?