Institutional Program Models

Knox has two unique programs which provide robust institutional support for multi-term research projects.

One particularly unique program is our Ford Fellowship program. The program is designed to identify junior-year students interested in pursuing an academic career and prepare these students for graduate study. The program spans 9 months, during which students create and carry out an original research project, practice grant-writing and research budgeting, and participate in informational seminars on graduate school and academia as a profession. The award includes funding for summer between junior and senior year, when the lion’s share of research and/or writing is to take place; however, students are expected to begin work in January already. While they primarily work with a faculty advisor on the research project, they have our Director of Undergraduate Research as a sounding board for proposals and budgets. Additionally, four faculty members are assigned to an advisory committee to serve these students. As a member of this advisory committee representing the Humanities, I aided in selecting candidates (10-12 per year of roughly 30-40 applicants), commented on applications and participated in the seminar series focused on graduate school and life in academia. The result is a real, campus-wide academic support for these students. Such research projects take lots of time, focus, energy and faculty guidance; however, we are able to divide this much needed support across many individuals and offices on campus.

Our Honors program at Knox — a year-long independent research project — is designed more like an MA or PhD project. First, student projects are vetted by a central faculty committee. Those proposals which are accepted are guided by three faculty, and have built into them a series of check-ins and progress reports. Knox even allocates a budget to professors to have meetings over lunch with the student to discuss progress at various stages. Students are provided additional library support, including study carrels and more generous lending periods. The Dean’s office sets aside funding for copying and printing costs for Honors students, ensuring economic boundaries are eliminated. Last, but not least, our Director of Undergraduate Research tracks each student and serves as an additional guide. Regular check-in emails and progress reports are forwarded to this Director as well. The Director may also suggest additional funding resources for research or travel for students. Students are also encouraged to use the writing resources offered by our Center for Teaching and Learning to aid in forming their ideas and improving their academic prose. For the two honors projects I have been involved in so far, students actively use all committee members. They receive input and coaching on their proposals, outlines and chapters, leading up to a final project which typically tops 60-80 pages (though one just defended weighed in at over 200 pages). There is also a formal defense, which includes a budget for an outside reviewer to be present for the thesis defense, providing the student with more feedback they must incorporate before turning in a final, revised version in order to be awarded Honors.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, funding and infrastructure is already present for undergraduate research, but this is often targeted at students in the sciences. Encouraging students in the Humanities to engage with research projects, and providing them with this manner of support, is still lacking. Such structured opportunities take this kind of undergraduate research project from an idealistic proposal to reality.

Could you foresee your institution creating such committees and programs? How could the intensive workload of mentoring such projects across multiple faculty and offices be carried out at your institution?

To Publish or Not? (Part 2 of 2)

In my previous post, I addressed potential downsides of trying to publish articles co-authored with undergraduate students. I noted that top journals might not recognize these articles as scholarship, damaging faculty members’ tenure and promotion bids, and that the inherent power differential between faculty mentor and student creates a risk that undergraduates will be exploited as inexpensive intellectual labor. I then outlined strategies to mitigate those risks.

With the concerns about journal recognition and student exploitation effectively addressed, I have felt confident about my decision to co-author with undergraduate students. In fact, I treat the project from the get-go as a manuscript destined for publication in a disciplinary journal. As noted before, I gain research productivity through the contributions of committed, intelligent students. Even if I assume that the manuscript will be published in a second-tier journal, the tradeoff in increased productivity is worth it: not only do these students complete some of the reading and writing that the project requires, but the dialogue with students yields insights I would not have achieved as quickly—or at all—working solo. Collaborating with undergraduates has allowed me to manage projects at a faster pace and with better results than I would achieve on my own.

Perhaps more significantly, conceiving of the research project as a co-authored manuscript fundamentally changes the student-teacher interaction and the students’ experience of the project. Although the research contract makes clear that I am the lead author, and principal researcher, it also makes clear that students are integral to the success of the project—a significance that students grasp.

To put it differently, students sense that they are making a meaningful contribution, and this sense raises levels of student motivation. As described by Susan Ambrose, there are three main factors in student motivation, each present in abundance in a well-designed co-authored research project. The first factor is a goal worth achieving. As long as the student is interested in the specific topic—and I carefully vet students to make sure—it is inspiring to work on a paper that will be published in a journal rather than a “just another term paper” that will be read only by the faculty member. (A publication is a nice addition to the student’s resume as well.)

The second factor in motivation is a perception that the goal can be achieved with appropriate effort. This one is a harder sell. Students either intuitively recognize or are told by me during the interview stage that their research and writing skills are not suitable for professional publication, and that they have to trust that I can teach them to research and write at a level sufficient to support the project. To gain this trust, I usually point to examples of the students’ recent work, highlighting basic strengths while also describing the distance between their current abilities and the ability level required by the project. I then remind students that they are not expected to write final sections of the manuscript: a significant part of my role is to iron out differences in writing style and to lend the manuscript a unified voice once it is complete. Much as with a term paper, students will write multiple drafts of “their” sections, and the whole manuscript will be cleaned up by me prior to publication. This reassurance addresses students’ fears that they will not be up to the task.

The third factor in motivation, according to Ambrose, is a supportive learning environment. Students know that the research project is meaningful to me, that their contributions are essential to the project’s moving forward, and that it is in my best interests to teach them the necessary skills. The research contract uses terminology like “co-authors” and “team members,” and I treat the students as such. In addition to the necessary, more traditional interactions (please edit this section for clarity; please read this article and write a 200-word summary), our regular meetings include investigative, critical dialogue in which my own ideas and writing are subject to critique. In recent years, my research teams have included students who have expertise in particular areas that outstrips my own, such as the Communications student who had participated in a grant-funded summer intensive research project and the Political Science major who spoke Arabic and studied in Jordan during the Arab Spring. In these instances, I learned to trust the students’ budding expertise and research-supported conclusions. In short, the sense of being on a research team, and my willingness to respect students’ expertise and submit my work to their critical review, levels the playing field somewhat and creates the supportive environment that Ambrose describes.

To conclude, the potential downsides of co-authoring with students—the worry that top journals might not accept the manuscript, and the worry that students will be (or will perceive themselves to be) exploited—can be mitigated by specific strategies and are offset by the increase in research productivity and research quality. Together with the ability to combine scholarship and high-quality mentoring into one activity, these advantages make publishing with undergraduate co-authors more than worthwhile.