A Personal Paradigm Shift
I’m now in the middle of my fifth month as the Associate Director in the Office for Undergraduate Research and am having a very fulfilling experience in learning more about the office and contributing to its work. One of the things that struck me almost immediately was how student paths into research require different navigational strategies depending on discipline. For example, many students who are interested in science disciplines need and want to work in a lab doing research. They often have to initiate contact with faculty and PIs whom they’ve never even met to ask about available positions for undergraduates. My Ph.D. is in English, and I’ve taught in both English and Women’s Studies. Students in those disciplines generally find their faculty mentors by taking classes in areas that interest them and developing relationships with faculty members who are then willing to serve as research mentors or to recommend the student to other faculty members.
I also began reflecting on my own pedagogy as it is connected with undergraduate research. Before I came to Carolina, I taught for several years at the University of Rhode Island, and I occasionally have the opportunity to teach here at UNC. Students in my classes always do research, but somehow I never framed it — for them or even in my own head — as undergraduate research. This is really unfortunate because I think it may create an environment where students are likely to think of research in my class as just writing another paper, turning it in and being done with one more thing on their to-do list.
What would I do differently if I was thinking about these assignments as undergraduate research – and what will I do differently when I have an opportunity to teach again? What I’ll expect from my students – a research project – won’t differ, but the context, framing and language will.
First, I will be more intentional in talking about the research process and in helping students think more deeply about developing their research questions. English is extremely interdisciplinary; undergraduate researchers can leverage that flexibility and openness. I will want to spend time on questions like these: What does it mean to enter a conversation in a discipline and to make a contribution to that conversation? How do you select a methodology, a theoretical perspective, or a set of critical lenses appropriate for a specific project? How do you locate and select useful and relevant sources when you’re conducting research and how is that different from looking for a source to confirm what you’ve already written?
Second, I will help make students aware of opportunities to present and/or publish their findings. In addition to the annual Celebration of Undergraduate Research at Carolina (which was on April 16 this year – check it out next April!), there are other opportunities for presentations both on and off campus. And, there are many, many journals either devoted to, or open to, publishing manuscripts written by undergrads.
I had extraordinarily generous mentors during my graduate school years. Dana Shugar (whose death at an untimely early age robbed the world of a wise and loving soul), Mary Cappello, Jean Walton, Rosa María Pegueros, Nedra Reynolds — brilliant scholars and extraordinary teachers who treated me, even at the very beginning of my scholarly journey, as an intellectual colleague and someone who could make a contribution. I look forward to the opportunity to offer that experience more consciously and consistently to undergraduate students in my courses in the future.
This personal paradigm shift also helps me better serve undergraduate researchers and the community that supports them at Carolina; I continue to be excited about all the ways I can be part of expanding undergraduate research across our campus. If you are seeking out opportunities to explore undergraduate research, OUR maintains a list of research-exposure courses that have been or are being taught. These courses include a research component and are often taught with the support of a Graduate Research Consultant. We also have a list of research-intensive courses. These are courses in which over half of the course is devoted to students conducting original research and presenting research conclusions.
Where will your curiosity lead you? Follow it down a path of discovery!