For Money or Credit?

This series of posts is based on an experience I had with integrating an undergraduate student into a research project. It is not a how-to, but one example that is intended to provide some food for thought.

How do we organize and administer student work on faculty research projects? In the form of a course? Or a part-time job? Or just something extra, a resumé-building, above-and-beyond activity? And how does this affect our students’ experience?

In involving my student, Emily (name changed), in my research, my options for structuring her participation were somewhat limited: I did not have any resources to hire a research assistant, and neither did my department. Rather than delay our collaboration while I looked for some kind of pay, I chose to move forward, aware of time passing—Emily was already a senior. For those of you who have employed a student researcher, a model that many of my math colleagues follow, I would be very interested to hear how you did it and what the faculty/employer-student/worker dynamic was like.

I do not doubt that Emily would have been glad to participate in the project simply for the sake of the experience. But I wanted to formalize her participation in part to ensure that both of us would take it seriously, stick to deadlines, and make some progress. So Emily registered for a 1-credit independent study, called “Faculty Research.” This seemingly simple choice ended up shaping the experience in ways I hadn’t anticipated—namely, in focusing our attention on what Emily would learn.

Writing the syllabus for the course made me answer many questions: What were my expectations for her performance? What would we actually do? Would I expect her to produce anything, and if so, how would I evaluate it? It was in writing the learning objectives for the course (a syllabus requirement at my university) that I had a moment of realization: in making this a course, I was foregrounding Emily’s learning experience and perhaps prioritizing it over what I was going to gain from the experience. As a result, the learning objectives had more to do with the skills and meta-knowledge that Emily would take from the semester: to learn what faculty research in German Studies is; to locate secondary material using relevant databases; to read and discuss those secondary materials; to write paragraphs of the article; to determine possible publication venues for the finished article; and to help prepare the article for submission to a journal. (The last two were optimistic.)

Reading this now, I wonder what this had to do with my research. I am happy with the learning outcomes—it is important to me that Emily take skills from this experience. But I am struck by the difficulty of preventing the student learning experience from eclipsing our research agendas. Does an employer-employee relationship change this dynamic? What are your experiences?

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2 comments on “For Money or Credit?

  1. Todd Heidt says:

    This brings up some interesting assumptions about our expectations for our undergraduate students. At my institution, there is a course code for “Teaching Assistantship,” assuming an (in my opinion) outdated notion that a significant number of our students will go on to teach German at the secondary or post-secondary level. However, there is no “Research Assistantship” course code. Given the nature of our information economy, research skills are far more likely to benefit our students.

    The “skills and meta-knowledge” approach Allie took promotes this sort of shift in thinking I believe will serve students of today better, whether they continue in German studies or in another field.

    As far as this promotes or inhibits one’s own research agenda, that is a trickier problem. Do you feel you were able to complete more research more quickly with the help? Or did you find the exercise primarily focused on your student’s progress?

  2. alliemhill says:

    Todd, this is exactly the question I am trying to answer! I don’t think that my discussions with Emily impeded my work. In fact, I can say with certainty that I did more reading related to the project in the course of that semester than I would have otherwise. But I do wonder whether I was engaging with the material at a different level–more with the intent to teach it, than with the intent to write it. I think this is a balancing act for anyone involving students in their research.

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