Rethinking the Senior Project in History, by Eric Kurlander, Stetson University

Over the past fifteen years, I’ve advised nearly fifty senior projects in History. I began by directing a handful of honors theses as a graduate student at Harvard and have since taken multiple turns as Senior Project advisor at my current institution, Stetson University. Unlike Harvard–– or Bowdoin College, which I attended as an undergraduate–– Stetson requires a senior capstone project of all students, regardless of whether they are seeking Latin Honors within the major. This means that the Senior Research advisor in any given year can find him- or herself directing fifteen different projects, one for every graduating senior, ranging from the environmental causes for the unification of Egypt’s Upper and Lower Kingdoms to Eleanor of Aquitaine’s influence on the English tradition of courtly love to the role of NGOs in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The equivalent diversity of approach rarely occurs in the Natural Sciences, where students normally investigate one strand of a faculty member’s larger research agenda. Stetson’s Biology Department, for example, is especially strong in aquatic and marine biology. Not surprisingly, the majority of senior projects in Biology focus on the habits of native snake species, local flora, and freshwater fish, as opposed, say, to molecular or cellular biology. In the Humanities and less quantitative Social Sciences at Stetson, however, the relationship between faculty and undergraduate research is much less direct. As suggested above, there are years where not a single project will touch on the Senior Project advisor’s general field of expertise, much less his or her specific area of research.

One solution, of course, is to eliminate the Senior Project Seminar and encourage students to pursue an independent study with the faculty member whose interests most closely align with theirs. This is the model at Harvard and Bowdoin as well as in the Natural Sciences at Stetson. But this approach raises a number of problems at a school that requires a senior project from all students, not merely Honors students, and has only two-thirds to one half the faculty resources of the best liberal arts colleges or research universities. For one thing, it has produced a situation where many Natural Sciences faculty at Stetson are teaching overloads, with no fair or effective way to reassign faculty time. Another problem is the unpredictability from year to year in terms of the number of theses one might be asked to advise, which makes it very difficult to plan teaching schedules.

And then there are pedagogical concerns. Especially in the Humanities and Social Sciences at a small liberal arts institution, a student may still struggle to find an advisor whose research expertise overlaps with his or her own. Eliminating the Senior Project Seminar would also take away the important collaborative elements of the research and writing process that we in History find essential in motivating all students to complete an ambitious, semester-long thesis. So going the independent study route in the Humanities and Social Sciences, at least at a place like Stetson, probably raises more issues than it resolves.

Now, one might ask: is it really a problem that the primary thesis advisor has little or no background in the projects he or she is advising? Certainly Humanities and Social Science faculty without specific expertise in a given area can bring a variety of skills to mentoring undergraduates, from familiarity with finding sources and employing cutting edge methodologies to conceiving, researching, and writing an article-length project of peer-review quality. Mentoring undergraduate research projects unrelated to one’s own can have beneficial spinoff effects for the faculty advisor as well, helping one to rethink his or her own approaches to research and writing.

For the most part, however, the advisor-student relationship in the Humanities and less quantitative Social Sciences, at least at Stetson, remains both less collaborative and, I would contend, less mutually beneficial than in the Natural Sciences. My goal in teaching the History Department’s Senior Research sequence this semester is to experiment with a more collaborative approach that falls somewhere between the open-ended nature of most senior projects in the Humanities and the closely directed nature of senior research in the Natural Sciences.

With this enriched experience in mind, I contacted my senior research students over the summer to discuss their topics and think of ways to combine their scholarly interests with my own areas of expertise, whether geographical, methodological, or chronological. Where students felt little or no affinity for these common areas of interest, I have encouraged them to pursue their own independent line of inquiry (and of course seek outside advice from my colleagues in related fields). Although we have only met once so far, this approach seems to have yielded seven projects–– half the class–– that tie in loosely with my broader areas of research expertise, namely Modern Germany and Europe between 1890 and 1945, including my current research project, Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich, 1919-1945.

In order to facilitate collaborative and experiential learning, I have likewise committed to researching and writing a an article, drawn from my research project, alongside the students, inviting their peer review at every stage of the process. Over the course of the semester, we will explicitly peer review each other’s work two out of every three weeks, first when we outline our next stage of research and writing, and second when we post respectively our prospecti, introductions, first drafts, second drafts, and rough drafts for everyone to access.

As the first few posts suggest, the purpose of BURG/es is to help faculty working in German and European Studies “involve students in faculty research” and “(re)shape undergraduate research experiences” in German and European Studies, which, coincidentally, tends to represent faculty in the Humanities and less quantitative Social Sciences. I hope to take advantage of this invitation to participate, in a collaborative venue, by reflecting and reporting on my experiences two more times over the course of the semester.