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?