Putting Our Symposium in Context

Yesterday was REL’s 6th annual undergrad research symposium, with six presenters and two of our grad students moderating. While some of the students are majors in REL, others carry out their work all across the university, though they’re all in our classes and so all of them are mulling over what it means to study religion in culture — something our Department been experimenting with and trying to model for almost 20 years.

We began our own symposium to highlight the work being done by our students, holding it on February 27, 2014. (Pictured below: our first presenters with then Prof. Eleanor Finnegan [far right], who organized it that year.) In our experience at the time, this nationally spreading category of “undergraduate research” seemed mainly to apply to students in the sciences, where faculty can sometimes easily spin out sub-projects of their own research, that an undergrad can tackle on their own or under the supervision of a grad student who might be working as part of the research team. With so many of their classes (given the lighter teaching loads and heavier emphasis on research for those faculty) being large lectures, there was then a concern that the students be engaged in research in a way that involved and inspired them, not only to continue with their studies but, perhaps, to go into a variety of fields/professions that needed their creativity and interest.

When I would talk to some friends in the sciences, back then, they were therefore often surprised to learn that in the Humanities students are usually involved in independent research just by the very nature of the way the syllabus is crafted — identifying a topic of interest to them, under the direction of a faculty member, and then doing original research on the topic and writing a paper of their own on it. In fact, I’ve sometimes even seen colleagues from other parts of the university surprised to learn that doctoral dissertations in the Humanities are independent projects of the doctoral candidate and not, as is often then case in the sciences, smaller parts of the advisor’s own research (hence those advisors usually appearing among the authors of published doctoral dissertations in the sciences). All this made apparent that the what was then a growing emphasis on undergraduate research wasn’t trying to address a problem in the Humanities.

So while REL was certainly in favor of supporting the then growing idea of promoting undergrad research the frustrating part was that’s just what had been happening all along in our classes — as I’m sure is the case in English, History, and, well, you name the other classical Humanities and even some Social Science disciplines. So along with encouraging our students to participate in campus-wide undergrad research events — ones where, predictably perhaps, science-driven poster presentations were, at least early on, the presumed norm for conveying new knowledge — we invented our own event, held it for our own majors at the University Club (a good excuse to get everyone to dress up a bit, as per below’s first audience), and, in doing so, realized we were on to something. For the quality of the papers and the arguments, in most cases developed out of prior class papers in which faculty members had offered additional comments, made it pretty evident that our students do some pretty good work.

Due to the challenges of booking space on a busy campus, we’ve sometimes held the event just for our own majors and minors but, when possible, it’s booked into as big a room as we can find, so students across our classes, whether a major or not, can attend (and, perhaps, get an extra credit point or two), to hear for themselves what their peers are up to in our classes. We’ve even seen a few moms and dads stop by over the years, as well as faculty from other Departments.

And that’s what we were able to do yesterday in Gorgas Library (pictured below and at the opening of the post): hosting about 50 students who attended throughout the morning, and featuring papers that exemplified the outstanding work being done in our classes. That we’re able now to involve our first year MA students moderating the panels, something begun last year, makes the event all the better.

Thanks to Prof. Emily Crews, who organized the event, and all who participated, mentored, and attended. Stay tuned for a post telling us a little more about each of this year’s papers and presenters.