Rethinking the Senior Project in History, Part II Eric Kurlander, Stetson University

In my September 8th post, I outlined some ways of rethinking the Senior Project in History, which I hoped to test in teaching the Fall 2013 History Department Senior Research capstone course. For the Senior Project, History majors must research and write a primary-source based, historiographically-informed paper of article length (ca. 8,000 words) that makes an original scholarly argument. The changes made to previous iterations of the course included: 1) Contacting my senior research students early in the summer to discuss their topics and think of ways to combine their scholarly interests with my own areas of expertise. 2) Enhancing the structured peer review elements of the course. 3) Researching and writing an article, drawn from my own research, alongside the students, inviting their peer review at every stage of the process. With the semester over and student evaluations at hand, I can now reflect on the results of this experiment.

Trying to match student research interests to my own yielded seven projects in fourteen that tied in loosely with my geographical or methodological areas of expertise. While the three best projects fell into this group, the next four best papers were in periods or fields almost entirely unrelated to my areas of interest. Hence, it is not clear that an advisor’s familiarity with the student’s research is essential to the quality of the project. Rather, two other factors appeared crucial: peer review (see below) and the “Research Intensive” methodology classes that precede our Senior Research capstone. These seminars first introduce students in some depth to the diverse historiography and range of primary sources available on a major topic in the field (“The French Revolution”, “The Holocaust”, “The Fall of Rome”, “The Birth of Modern America”, etc.) and culminate in a significant (15-20 page) primary source-based research paper.  Students who did not take both of “Research Intensive” courses prior to the capstone were at a clear disadvantage, even where they chose topics with which I was more familiar. Moreover, the students remarked in the evaluations on the importance of taking both “Research Intensive” methodology classes prior to the Senior Capstone. Hence the student’s methodological preparation may be more important, at least in History, than the advisor’s familiarity with the project.

In respect to peer review, the core element of the class, we read and commented on each other’s work two out of every three weeks, first when presenting our next stage of research and/or writing, and then after posting our prospecti, introductions, first drafts, second drafts, and final drafts on “Blackboard” for everyone to access. One way I enhanced this process in Fall 2013 is by attempting to alternate peer review groups between students covering similar periods or geographical areas (twenieth century, Europe, North America, etc.) with groups based on similar methodology (cultural, intellectual, and art history; war and diplomacy; subaltern studies). Another way I attemped to enhance the peer review process was by researching and writing an article, drawn from my own research, alongside the students. I tried to alternate the group that reviewed my work from unit to unit, so that everyone had a chance to critque the professor. In the evaluations, students reported that the peer review process the best part of the course. Many also commented positively on working with the same group of students, whether based on similar topics or along similar methodological lines, for the entire semester. While students tended not to give much specific feedback on peer reviewing my article–– I probably should have added a specific question to that effect–– students did relate independently the value of reading my drafts as a model for their own. They also appreciated the democratc and collegial element it introduced to the classroom environment. Needless to say, I benefited from having to meet the weekly deadlines and student peer review, producing a nearly finished article as a result.

Ultimately, I found this semester to be the most rewarding Senior Project of my career. The experiment did not bear out all my “hypotheses,” notably in trying to align students’ projects with my own areas of expertise. But it might provide a few lessons for advising the Senior Project in History elsewhere. First, it reinforced the importance of regular class meetings structured around peer review, the core aspect of the class. Second, it suggested that students benefit by working in groups based on thematic interest and methodology. Third, it showed that researching and writing an article or chapter alongside the students can be a valuable pedagogical tool and useful in a faculty member’s own professional development. Finally, it reinforced the importance–– borne out by our department’s self-assessments—of requiring rigorous methodology courses prior to Senior Research. 

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Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

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 acknowledge the contributions of undergraduate students to faculty research?

I have read a number of books in which the authors praise a particular group of students, usually of a class closely tied to the subject of a book, for their thought-provoking class discussions. (These expressions of gratitude usually provoke a bit of envy for colleagues who have the treat of discussing their research topic in such depth and over the course of a semester with their students.) In such situations, students are rarely listed by name (although the class might be), and it seems more likely that class discussion inspired further thought in the author than that individuals contributed key ideas to the author’s own thesis. Another example: a student in a class of mine two years ago made an insightful observation that supported my argument in an article I was working on. I included the idea in my article and credited her in a footnote.

But what does one do when one is working with one particular student, perhaps even collaborating? What happens when the number of participants in the conversation is reduced from fifteen to two?

Some of my colleagues (who, I should mention, have had excellent experiences involving students in their research) have chosen to list their student as co-author of their articles. Others have included students as co-presenters or co-authors of conference papers. In my mind, this really represents an ideal situation: the student is so involved in the project that s/he is a true collaborator, rather than an assistant. Such projects have usually lasted more than one semester. One colleague in English worked with a student for nearly two years. Their collaboration on his article was clear; the title of co-author was certainly deserved.

Other colleagues treat their student researchers more as research assistants, i.e., students to carry out the necessary scientific trials, or they collect research materials and sources for social sciences and humanities projects. The compensation for students in such situations seems to vary from none to a footnote expressing gratitude. Perhaps such students can walk away with the pay that came with the work-study research position. Perhaps they simply take away the satisfaction of the resumé-building experience itself.

My sense, however, is that I am not alone in having had an experience that is neither one nor the other, that is more than simple grunt work but not as much as co-authorship. Working with my student Emily would likely have moved in the direction of co-authorship; the project simply wasn’t long enough. How do I acknowledge the conversations we had that energized the project and shaped the use of secondary material? How do we acknowledge it when students inspire us but in ways that are perhaps less tangible and concrete? How do you acknowledge student support of your research? Please share your comments and experiences!

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.

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.

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?

Identifying a Student

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.

One of the most challenging components of involving a student in your research is to find the right student.

In the fall 2012, I had a series of conversations with a German major and advisee of mine, Emily (name changed), about her frustration with her classwork. She felt that most course work was superficial—by necessity of coverage, the ability of her peers, etc.—and that only the rare project or paper allowed her to pursue a topic in depth. I should say that Emily is truly an exceptional student, not only in her in-class performance, but more so because of her active pursuit of learning opportunities. Three areas of interest in her academic work are immigration and minority experience, pedagogy, and feminist inquiry. They overlap with mine and also, fortuitously, with a research project I had on the back burner. So I approached her about working with me on that project. She accepted, and we are currently wrapping up a successful semester’s worth of work.

What made Emily such a great student to work with? Here are some thoughts.

  • Her academic interests overlap with mine. Her enthusiasm for the topic motivated her to read articles even when I was struggling to find the time to do it, and to try her hand at writing down some of our discussions when I had little energy to write.
  • Her coursework and intellectual activities on campus (in German, Sociology, Social Work, the Feminist Discussion Group, and volunteer activities) means that she has some familiarity with the issues at hand. While she was not familiar with the idea of intersectionality, for example, she was not new to analyzing media through a feminist lens.
  • She is responsible, reliable, and maintains regular communication with me. She attended every one of our meetings and came prepared, whether with a list of sources to consult, an article we had read, or paragraphs that I had asked her to write.
  • Perhaps most important, I enjoy her company! Her positive attitude energized me, and I genuinely looked forward to our conversations.

This makes Emily sound quite the ideal student, and I do think she was just the right fit for this project. Her upcoming graduation (next week) leaves me feeling somewhat dispirited with regard to this project. I regret that we only had a semester to work together, and that the semester was of course full of other demands on my attention and time. I am frustrated with everything else that got in the way, and I envy my colleague in English who had the forethought to involve a student in his research when she was a junior, thereby giving them a much longer and more realistic span of time.

Perhaps more than anything I am wondering when I will work with a student on my research again. When will I find another student so motivated and who shares an interest in my research topics? Will the arrival of that student on my radar coincide with the early stages of relevant project? It seems to me that the question of fit is one that can make or break student involvement in faculty research. What are your experiences in this regard? Please share your thoughts.

Choosing a Project

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.

As is the case with many colleges and universities, my university is encouraging faculty to involve students in their research projects. (In fact, it is part of our tactical plan.) While this is more common in the sciences, many of my humanities colleagues both on and off campus have expressed their reservations about the possibility of undergraduate students participating in their work for a number of reasons (some of which will be addressed on BURGS): Do undergraduates have the necessary analytical and writing skills to participate in publication-quality research? Do they have the informational and intellectual background? Will this turn into more work for the faculty member, as it runs the risk of becoming a teaching rather than research project? Is this the best use of a faculty member’s time, as research time is precious and publication demands are high? The benefit to the students is clear, but what is the benefit to the faculty?

When I approached a colleague in English, who has been working with a student on a project for nearly two years now, I had a student I wanted to work with but little sense of how to begin. He gave me excellent advice, starting with how to pick a project to work on. Not all projects lend themselves to research with an undergraduate. As my colleague pointed out, I have been researching contemporary German literature for years, and Julia Franck in particular since before beginning my dissertation in 2006. Of course it would be impossible for the student to catch up on seven years of research, and filling this student in would be a waste of my time. As a topic, then, Julia Franck was out.

The key, my colleague said, was to pick something that was relatively new to both of us. He chose a paper he had written for a conference and has been working with his student to expand it into an article. I am following his model. Last year at the GSA, I gave a talk on motherhood in the film Die Fremde (Feo Aladag, 2010), and this talk became our starting point. For our first meeting, I asked my student Emily (name changed) to read the talk and watch the film, and to prepare some ideas. I was very open to what shape the article would take, and I was curious to hear what she found interesting, didn’t understand, or responded to as we discussed the talk and my notes of the audience’s comments and suggestions. After our first meetings, we still did not have a clear sense of what the final article will be, but we had topics to investigate. It was a start!

What are your experiences with undergraduates and your research? What are your concerns about the process? Do you have projects that would lend themselves to working with an undergrad? Please share your thoughts with us!