To Publish or Not? (Part 1 of 2)

In an earlier post, I stated that I rarely mentor students’ independent research projects. Instead, I have begun involving students in my own research, a collaboration that increases my research productivity and provides students a highly engaged learning environment. For these same reasons, I answer the question “to publish or not?” with a decisive yes. With few exceptions, every research project I undertake with an undergraduate is targeted for publication, usually with a specific journal in mind.

Before I elaborate the benefits of this approach, it might be useful to consider the potential downsides.

First, there is the risk that top journals will not recognize scholarship that is co-authored with an undergraduate. Although I have no direct evidence that this is the case, let’s assume for the moment that it is true. At many of the institutions where German Studies or European Studies professors work, journal status—often defined through a combination of selectiveness, reach or influence, and related criteria—is a factor in tenure and promotion decisions. An untenured assistant professor might therefore lean towards publishing solo in a top journal rather than publishing with a student in a second-tier journal (assuming that this top-tier bias against undergraduate scholarship is real, and that it does not exist among second-tier journals). Another, potentially more fruitful approach would be to begin a dialogue with one’s department chair and dean about how the institution values undergraduate research. It could be that the institution already values publications co-authored with students, or that it is ready to move in that direction.

As a tenured associate professor at a teaching institution, my decision is easier. Although my institution does weigh journal quality in tenure and promotion decisions, teaching and mentoring are weighted more heavily, with the result that I don’t have to worry too much about publishing in first-tier versus second-tier journals. A solid track record of scholarship generated through sustained undergraduate mentoring will pass muster in my promotion application. To put it coarsely, the fact that I co-authored with undergraduate students would offset the fact that I might have published in less selective journals.

Second, there is the concern that the undergraduate research arrangement exploits students in order to promote the faculty member’s career—that students are treated as cheap intellectual labor. I address this risk by drawing up a contract outlining roles and responsibilities of students and the faculty mentor, which I then file with the undergraduate research office. That contract states that although I am the lead researcher and primary author, students’ contributions are valued and recognized. Ideally, this recognition is achieved by listing students as co-authors. (The institutional review board at my institution holds that anyone who is significantly involved in project design, data collection, or writing should be considered a co-author.) In cases where it is not possible to list students as co-authors, the contract states that students will be recognized in a footnote on the first page. Treating the students as co-authors shifts the nature of the student-teacher relationship towards a more collaborative, team-oriented, mentor-mentee relationship, mitigating concerns about exploitation.

In short, when deciding whether to publish work that is co-authored with undergraduates, faculty members must think about potential downsides, including journals’ recognition of such work and the risk of unfair exploitation of students. With appropriate steps, however, these concerns can be satisfactorily addressed. In my next post, I’ll speak to the advantages of trying to publish together with undergraduate students.


Undergraduate Conferences as a Tool to Stop the Decline of German Studies

By Heikki Lempa, Moravian College


The decline of German language and the German Studies in the United States is a reality. It is also a reality in such a heavily Germanic region as the Lehigh Valley. Lafayette College and Moravian College belong to a consortium of six independent colleges in the area, called LVAIC.  One of our partner institutions, Muhlenberg College recently lost its German major. Currently a German major is offered only at three out of six institutions.  The administrators are looking for “efficiencies” and one of the ideas is increasing the co-operation between consortium language departments and, at the same time, potentially downsizing individual departments if necessary.

We know that the number of German majors is in decline nationally.  Many leading  research universities have hardly any majors in German. PhD programs in Germanic Languages have been closed.  The undergraduate conferences in German Studies can be an antidote to this decline. Here are some of the ways this antidote has worked. Individual professors reach out. As a result of the Undergraduate Conferences interdisciplinary contacts have increased. At Moravian after the first conference we have started to pool the German resources. There is now lively co-operation between Music, History, Economics, Religion, Judaic Studies, and German. The director of the Moravian Archives, one of the largest German-related archives in the country and conveniently located on Moravian campus, has been an active partner in the revived German Studies program. We also have potential to expand it to Political Science and Art History.  The Undergraduate conference has increased the visibility of German studies on our campuses. Posters, web pages, and regular announcements have served as a reminder of our continuing existence.

Undergraduate conferences are not the only but they can be an effective way of saving the future of German studies. We should think creatively about pooling our campus resources. Active contacts among colleagues from different disciplines are a must. Recently colleagues in our science departments have discovered the German resources for scientists: DAAD, Rise Program, and Alexander von Humboldt Foundation are exceptional and generous resources in the world of increasing scarcity in funding for research and academic education. We should use those resources much more effectively. We should also discover our local and regional resources. Many communities and cities have archives and museums with significant German collections. Cities could be seen as labs where German culture, history, and heritage can be studied. We are currently working with a local consortium of museums, the Historic Bethlehem Partnership to provide research-oriented internships. One of the neighboring institutions, Kutztown University has a lively German Studies program that benefits tremendously from its location in Kutztown, the “German Capital” in America.

Finally, we should create a system of regional undergraduate conferences in German studies. In the Mid-Atlantic Region we have the Lafayette-Moravian Conference and in the Mid-West we have the conferences of the  Illinois Wesleyan University and  Indiana University, Bloomington. There should be coordination between undergraduate conferences in German Studies. And new regional conferences should be launched.  The decline of German Studies at graduate level is inevitable and now the next line of defense is at the undergraduate level. Undergraduate research and undergraduate conferences are an effective way of fighting back.

An Undergraduate Research Conference in German Studies

Undergraduate Conference in German Studies. Experiences of an Institutional Collaboration    

by Heikki Lempa, Moravian College

In March 2011, Moravian College and Lafayette College, two small liberal arts colleges from Eastern Pennsylvania, organized an undergraduate conference in German Studies.  The second conference took place on March 24, 2012 and the third on April 6, 2013. For the most recent conferences we accepted 24 papers out of 30 applications from 11 institutions mainly from Pennsylvania but also institutions from Texas, Michigan, Ohio, and Virginia.  The organizers were Margarete Lamb-Faffelberger from Lafayette College, Axel Hildebrandt from Moravian College and I, also from Moravian College.

The conferences have challenged us to move beyond the customary boundaries of teaching German language, culture, politics, philosophy, music, and arts.  In this first blog I will point out how we have started to understand undergraduate research and become aware of the many ways these conferences impact the lives of  individual students, faculty members, and institutions. In the second blog I will discuss how these conferences can have a sustained impact on regional resources for the study of German language and culture by enhancing networking and how they can even help keeping German Studies alive nationwide.

The idea of an undergraduate conference in German Studies was not to foster a narrowly defined concept of undergraduate research. As Todd Heidt has pointed out, we in the humanities have to be somewhat creative and broad in our understanding of the concept. We therefore opened the field to proposals for all students from freshmen to seniors who had written an essay or a research paper related to German literature, culture or politics. At our first conference most of the papers were in German literature but some were delivered by history and political science students. To my surprise a fairly large number of papers were given in German.  Since the students were struggling with the language the papers were often descriptive and topically confined to an author and were only seldom driven by a thesis.  As a result we changed the proposal requirements for the second conference. There had to be an abstract including a thesis and a bibliography. Now most papers were thesis driven and an increasing number had a good discussion of scholarship.  I would still like to see more papers that understand their topics as contested fields of scholarly interpretations.

For me the most important lesson of these three first conferences has been the new working definition of undergraduate research. At its most elementary level, starting from a freshman seminar, research is a thesis-driven activity that explores a topic as a contested field of scholarly interpretations. I think that the fundamental meaning of a simple thesis has come to us as a surprise — after all these years — and perhaps not least because of disciplinary differences in understanding it.  This, once again, has started to change the ways we teach our introductory courses —and not only in German literature but in other disciplines as well. Undergraduate research, once it becomes more widely practiced, might have its most profound impact at the introductory level and not at senior seminars or honors thesis.