Opening a Conversation about Undergraduate Research

February 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

In my experience one of the key appeals of digital humanities at small liberal arts colleges is the opportunity for undergraduates to do applied, authentic research in the humanities. Last week at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), I had the pleasure of being part of a panel (with Daniel Chamberlain, Jeff McClurken, and Jim Proctor) showcasing undergraduate research using digital tools and methodologies both in the digital humanities and beyond.  I had actually titled the panel, “Undergraduates as Public Digital Scholars” in hopes of attracting the attention of those interested in undergraduate research, one of the high impact practices for liberal education advocated by AAC&U.

Digital Scholarship and Undergraduate Research

My titling strategy was successful; several members of the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) attended and a lively discussion followed the presentations.  Those from CUR naturally asked the faculty members if they were involved in CUR, which brought us all up short because they had to admit they weren’t. Now strictly speaking, the projects presented on this panel were examples of digital scholarship not digital humanities. We had some social sciences represented, but we also showcased digital history, and at least two of the presenters were known to me through the digital humanities community.  So, I’m going to focus largely on digital humanities for the rest of this post.

Since CUR started in the sciences the perception largely persists that it is an organization for scientists.  While CUR has an Arts and Humanities Division, that perception persists. Still, I wondered why digital humanists doing undergraduate research wouldn’t engage with an organization whose mission is “to support and promote high-quality undergraduate student-faculty collaborative research and scholarship.”  Although this is just speculation, I can imagine several reasons.

1. Actually, they are involved with CUR and don’t know it.

Many small liberal arts colleges strongly advocate for undergraduate research with structures in place like offices of undergraduate research and program directors to support these efforts.  Where undergraduate research is part of the culture, individual faculty may not realize how this effort relates to a national organization. Their institution may be a member of CUR and they may work with a local undergraduate research director without actually being aware of external groups.

2. They Are Redefining What Scholarship Means in Their Discipline

CUR defines undergraduate research as, “An inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline.” Many digital humanists find themselves in tension with the traditional modes of research in their disciplines in part because these modes are not collaborative in a way that allows undergraduate contributions.  Would this make them hesitate to engage with undergraduate research in their discipline as traditionally understood? As Chris Blackwell and Tom Martin write in “Technology, Collaboration and Undergraduate Research,”

When “undergraduate research” gets pitched on websites, mass-mailed DVDs, and glossy brochures, it invariably takes that form of chemical glassware or a string quartet. (Digital Humanities Quarterly 3:1 (2009), paragraph 2).

Blackwell and Martin go on to explain,

Undergraduate research in the Classics, as traditionally practiced, is a diluted version of professional scholarship in the field as it developed during the second half of the 20th century — and as it came to be seen by the turn of the 21st century as an absolute touchstone for appropriate professional activity. (paragraph 5)

Here’s how I typically explain it; to do the traditional scholarship in the Classics referred to by Blackwell and Martin, you need to know Greek, Latin, German, French and maybe Italian.  How many undergraduates possess those skills, much less the mastery of the scholarly literature in a particular area?  Blackwell and Martin go on to demonstrate that a reconception of that traditional mode of scholarship can help open up opportunities for undergraduate research.

3. Inward Focus of the Digital Humanities Community

CUR has seen a growth in membership in recent years, largely fueled by humanists.  I suspect that growth stems, in part, from the ways digital methodologies open up opportunities for undergraduates to engage in “undergraduate student-faculty collaborative research and scholarship.” CUR has also been making a concerted effort over the past five years to reach out to humanists; as I suggested above, a growing interest in undergraduate research among humanists has encouraged interest in digital humanities.  These two communities have been helping each other by supporting complementary efforts.  If digital humanists aren’t engaged with CUR, it is likely because they look to the digital humanities community when looking for interaction beyond their institution  and for models of doing undergraduate research. In doing so, they miss resources CUR has to offer for advocating, practicing, and assessing undergraduate research.

Opening a Conversation and Sharing Resources

In the interest of opening up a conversation, I’ve begun exchanging information about resources with the undergraduate research community represented by CUR. In particular, their resources on how to assess undergraduate research seem promising for those in the digital humanities community. One place to start is the free online publication, Characteristics of Excellence in Undergraduate Research.  I also heard from someone on twitter about this publication that addresses undergraduate research in at least one humanities discipline:

Teaching Undergraduate Research in Religious Studies. Teaching Religious Studies Series. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
On the digital humanities side, I have the following resources to offer.  Several past seminars from NITLE’s Digital Scholarship Seminar series, showcase undergraduate digital scholarship, both in and out of the classroom:
The archived recordings for each seminar should be available on the seminar page.
Other pieces helpful in this area include these videos:
For those from each community who may not have been in conversation before, I hope this post might suggest some mutually beneficial interaction.
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