All Systems Normal

Picture 9 Yesterday we had our second annual undergraduate research symposium, which featured the work of four current students — many of whom are double majors — and a grad of our Department. We instituted this event last year and held it at the university club at the same time as our senior seminar took place, inviting those students as the audience. But this year we decided to try holding it in a much larger venue and to advertise it among all of our classes, perhaps making it an extra credit opportunity. It worked really well; we had quite good attendance, the papers were all wonderful, and the event nicely modeled (for any student thinking about majoring in the study of religion) what sort of work you can do in the academic study of religion.

We tend to tweet at most of our events now (find us @StudyReligion) and one in particular caught my eye.

This is a crucial point, to which I’ll return.

I recall when undergraduate research initiatives first began making the rounds in U.S. academia, about 10 or 12 years ago, along with a host of other techniques to, as they say, engage students. (Indoor climbing walls date to about this time too, I think…) Back then it was clearly defined as something above and beyond usual course work or apart from part-time campus jobs (e.g., a student hired to work in a lab) but, since then, its been redefined and widened significantly, and now it seems merely to be defined as students carrying out their own original research.

For instance, the Council on Undergraduate Research defines it as follows:

An inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline.

If it had said “significant contribution” then I’d have grave concerns for the way those behind this national initiative understand research, for the people I know spend a lifetime working to master a very small part of a data domain, making it not something that one just picks up or dabbles in as an undergrad. But if such programs are opportunities for, say, a 20 year old to have a taste for what it means to carry out original academic work then it’s certainly more than worthwhile — and if it indeed helps to retain those students throughout their degrees and thereby encourage them to graduate on time, then all the better.

But here’s my problem with such recently invented programs: they start from the presumption that students are disengaged, which is a starting point that, in my experience at least, is more appropriate to some segments of the modern university than others.

All along I’ve assumed that such programs were linked to two inter-related factors: (1) the increased size of undergraduate classes in general (which is directly linked to declining state allocations for education budgets) and, more particularly, (2) the monological manner in which science education in particular is sometimes delivered. Ever increasing numbers of students, seated way back in large lecture halls, passively watching PowerPoint slides that keep abreast of the textbook and the learning management system the publisher produces do not make for an intellectually stimulating setting; so while we can’t do much about class size we can devise ways to supplement or enhance those impersonal classes, and thus undergraduate research (along with such other initiatives to putting multimedia systems in classrooms and getting us all to use Blackboard) was born.

So my beef, all along, has been that, apart from our own large enrollment intro course (and I don’t mean the Honors version of it), almost every one of our unit’s other classes is structured to have its students produce their own original intellectual work. Maybe we call it an essay or a research paper — not uncommon in the Humanities or Social Sciences is for syllabi to describe a project that students need to design, or a thesis they need to identify, or maybe an example that they must examine and try to understand, something that is of their own devising, requiring them to apply the tools provided by the course so as to say something new about something that we’ve all likely seen before. It’s for this reason — i.e., that all of our student carry out their own original research — that I’ve consistently pressed for others to see that if we’re required to report on so-called student engagement or the number of students in our Department who are involved in undergraduate research then my tendency has been to report every student enrolled in an upper-level course or, recognizing that our large enrollment intro courses are likely up to something else, to report everyone enrolled in any other course in our Department.

And that’s where the above tweet fro my colleague comes back in: our students routinely focus on topics of interest to themselves in their assignments, coming up with a thesis to argue, and doing their own research to make the case. Undergraduate research is therefore not some additional thing that we do, not some enticing gravy that you can get on the side with some main courses, but, instead, it’s just how things work normally — part of the what we serve with every meal. So I tend to think that, although we need to submit reports like anyone else, the engagement initiative is fixing a problem that others have, one that is mistakenly being generalized to us as well.

Which brings to mind a recent episode where I learned that some senior people from outside the Humanities and Social Sciences didn’t understand that doctoral students in our area don’t just get assigned a small part of their supervisor’s current research (thereby necessitating that their supervisors become an author on whatever they might eventually publish) but, instead, come up with their own original project — which explains why it’s their name, and theirs alone, on their first book or any publications that result from the dissertation. Failing to see this is, I think, what’s also animating efforts to increase undergraduate research opportunities — in both instances others are generalizing from the so-called hard sciences, where teaching loads are lighter, where class sizes are consistently much larger, and where the license for individual creativity on the part of the student is policed rather more tightly (in part because it is too expensive), and thus where it’s pretty likely that a student will find him/herself being among a cast of thousands. That this sometimes happens in the Humanities and Social Sciences too must be acknowledged, of course (our budgets get cut and our class sizes grow as well), but I don’t think its nearly as common, ensuring that the one size fits all remedy falls wide of the mark in many parts of the university.

So yes, we had several students present their own original work yesterday, but I’d not want to limit our number of undergraduate research opportunities merely to 4 or 5, for they’re just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, inasmuch as they’re enrolled in our classes, odds are that the members of the audience were just as involved in carrying out original research as were the presenters. That’s just the way our classes have always worked.

Picture 10

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *