Reading, Writing, and Undergraduate Research: Sustaining my College Education

Written by Dillon Crockett, a graduating senior and a Comparative Literature and Biology major

It is easy for me to proclaim that my experiences in research have defined my undergraduate education.

I am reminded of when Dr. Jan Koelb, one of my esteemed research advisors, expressed to me one day that “everything is education.” The all-encompassing quality of this claim initially gave me pause. How can everything be education? “That has to be an overstatement,” I thought privately at the time. However, several semesters later, not only do I now fully believe this to be true, but I even think this dictum could be modified to assert that “everything is research.” All of my experiences as an undergraduate have not only been educational, but they have also been engagements in research, formally and informally.

During my four years at Carolina, I took advantage of a wide variety of opportunities available for undergraduate research, a number of which are already advertised on the Office for Undergraduate Research website.

I took major-specific courses in research methodology: how do professionals in different disciplines go about doing what it is they do? For my comparative literature major, I took Dr. Rebecka Rutledge Fisher’s CMPL 251 course, an introduction in literary theory, and for my biology major, I took Dr. Pat Pukkila’s BIOL 211 course, an introduction to research in biology. In retrospect, I now see my experiences in each of these courses as being entirely indispensable to my undergraduate education in these two fields. Had I not explicitly explored the various approaches to reading and experiencing texts, or been specifically guided through the process of understanding experimental design and scientific literacy, I would see myself as severely lacking in my abilities to function within these disciplines. I cannot imagine myself being as satisfied with my education within these majors had I not been directly exposed to these discipline-specific research methodologies, and I am boundlessly grateful for these professors’ interests in developing and offering such curricula. Fortunately, similar courses exist in most undergraduate majors, either as their own courses within the bulletin or as special topics courses, and I imagine they would add depth of inquiry to any student’s program.

I also took research-exposure courses that were specifically structured around the generous and insightful assistance of Graduate Research Assistants (GRCs). These included Annah Lee, who served in Dr. Jan Koelb’s CMPL 260 course, Landscapes in Literature and the Arts, and Heath Sledge, who served in Dr. Donna Bickford’s ENGL 444 course, Contemporary American Women Writers. Although research is not a requirement to graduate in any particular major for undergraduates, research is a central requirement for graduate students to complete their programs. Because these skilled individuals—whose current interests lie in being thoroughly engaged in their own research—were inserted into my undergraduate courses, I received irreplaceable one-on-one guidance as I carried out my own research projects. Even more, it was my research from these two courses that I was able to present at the 2013 and 2014 Celebrations of Undergraduate Research, which the Office for Undergraduate Research hosts each spring. There is no rule stipulating that undergraduate research and graduate research are necessarily distinct from each other, or that student research must be inherently separate from faculty research. In fact, the mentorship of faculty and graduate students is important for undergraduate researchers, and the ideas of undergrads often enrich the projects of faculty and graduate students. Research is research, regardless of who is conducting it, where they are conducting it, or how they are conducting it. Collaboration is a mutually-beneficial practice essential to research on all scales and on all levels, and engaging in it early on, even through a course with a GRC, can be deeply enriching.

While these courses specifically included undergraduate research components, much actual research occurs outside of the classroom. I was chosen to participate in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute internship for Future Teachers,  which provides time and funding for undergraduates to conduct research projects over the summer. In this particular program, which is directed by the fabulous Dr. Jennifer Coble, students integrate professional research in biology with developing biology curricula at the high school and college level. The final step in the research process for any investigation—communicating your results—is the means by which any research can have broader impacts on the scholastic and public community. If you define research as the process by which an individual can expand the limits of human knowledge on a particular issue, then your research is only relevant when you devise a way to carry people through the new intellectual spaces you create. Developing curriculum modules, preparing an oral presentation, organizing a professional poster, or hosting a demonstration or performance are all valuable ways of conveying information to a broader audience.

Although there are benefits to engaging in such discipline-specific projects, I am not a staunch advocate for embedding oneself within the conventions of a single discipline. In fact I would advocate for the exact opposite; to do otherwise would be severely hypocritical considering the interdisciplinary project with which I have been working for the past year. Dr. Rachel Willis, a social scientist by training, is currently researching the effects of climate change—an (albeit, anthropogenic) natural phenomenon. She and I are not unlike in this way: I entered Carolina with the expressed purpose of majoring in a field on each side of the arts/sciences divide. Knowing that both the arts and the sciences are obligatory components of K-12 curricula, I thought each discipline must have some particularly useful skill set for me to pursue in my college education. Now that I am a graduating senior, I understand even better now how little difference there is in the methodology of these two disciplines. Sure, comparative literature and biology each ask somewhat different questions, and each goes about somewhat different means to answer those questions. However, each discipline does establish questions, study the extent to which other scholars have approached those questions, formulate hypotheses, generate a procedure to collect data, analyze their results and find a way to communicate their results to others. Indeed, I am sure that this is the intention behind the interdisciplinary design of OUR’s IDST 194 Modes of Inquiry course, and even the Celebration for Undergraduate Research, both drawing from the arts and humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.

Another feature common among the disciplines is the helpfulness of research advisors. Yet while advisors are wonderful resources to have when conducting research projects, it is ultimately up to the individual researcher to develop their independence and their own sense of confidence in their research. Although an advisor is oftentimes capable of providing suggestions for further avenues of inquiry, there is no way that they can replace the sort of lessons and character traits that an undergraduate develops on their own through the process of conducting research. Confidence is one character trait that I found essential throughout my tenure as an undergraduate. Whether I was writing an application essay, or assisting with an experiment, or exploring my own thoughts on an issue—confidence was necessary. Whether I was writing a paper (especially one not required for a course), or asking for feedback and criticism, or standing in front of complete strangers while trying to convince them that my interests and ideas are worthwhile—confidence was required. Even taking my first solo out-of-state journeys this semester to conferences in Virginia, Pittsburgh, and Ohio required confidence that I would otherwise have had no need or opportunity to develop without my undergraduate research experiences.

This characterization of research as a prime opportunity to develop confidence and independence as an undergraduate is closely tied to an understanding of research as a learning strategy. One of the theorists that Dr. Jill Hamm introduces in her EDUC 532 course on adolescent development is Lev Vygotsky, whose theory of proximal development claims that students are only capable of constructing new knowledge if they are provided instructional scaffolding for support as they build upon the knowledge they already have. Although this course is part of a teacher-preparation program, which may not seem research-intensive, it includes field-based research components, such as conducting interviews with teachers and making observations of area classrooms. These assignments were created to allow undergraduates to apply course content to the knowledge they construct for themselves as they complete those assignments, a kind of engaged learning. Any undergraduate beginning their own research project follows a similar pattern: you begin with the knowledge you already have, then you decide upon some question of interest, and then you go about answering that question. Considering Vygotsky’s constructivist view of education, undergraduate research is a fundamentally more effective pedagogy since it leverages prior understandings, abilities, and experiences for students.

Given this understanding of scaffolding, I now realize that I did not procure this confidence out of thin air. I found myself in a very difficult environment during my first semester at Carolina, one that was challenging both academically and socially, and I doubt that my experience was too unique from many of my peers. As first generation college student and a Carolina Covenant scholar, I had certain disadvantages that some other students did not have, but I also had a number of advantages that helped me tremendously. I received unfailing support from several of my professors during that semester, especially Dr. Jim O’Hara, whose help ensured that I remained a Carolina student. Since that unfortunate term, I have more than doubled my first-semester GPA and presented seven different conference papers. Neither of these feats would have been possible without the help of Carolina faculty, who are committed to assisting me in finding opportunities to become interested and involved in undergraduate research. It was not only because I spent hours scouring bibliographies in Davis or the archives in Wilson that my performance and my affect improved; it was the fact that I had established personal, relevant connections between my own interests and those of others—faculty members, fellow undergraduates, graduate students—and not just at Carolina, but at other institutions as well—even Duke (for better or for worse). For the current or future undergraduate researcher, know that despite them seeming intimidating and out-of-reach… conferences are particularly useful for making these connections and for making personal growth in your research.

Of course the avenues of undergraduate research that I have traveled are merely a sampling of the possible routes. Many students conduct senior honors theses, for example, as means of gaining professional research experience. Due to having a GPA below the minimum requirement, and due to having committed my last spring semester to student teaching, I did not complete a senior honors thesis myself. It was unfortunate that certain missteps and choices closed this door for me, but even though that particular means of undergraduate research has certain prerequisite requirements, there is fortunately no minimum GPA for conducting undergraduate research in any of the above paths that I did explore. One closed door does not mean all doors are closed. There is no one in the world with the power to tell you that your interest or your question is a project reserved for seniors with particular GPAs, or for graduate students, or for faculty members. I was able to forge my own path though the boundless world of research opportunities (with the guidance and help of all those mentors cited above, and several more) to find myself leaving Carolina with a bounty of extraordinary experiences. I am extremely fortunate to have found myself in such a positive environment here, which supports undergraduate engagement in research.

Above all, I have learned that failure is okay, and even necessary. Whether you fail an exam or maybe even a class, or whether you take a direction on a project that leads you into a counter-productive rabbit hole, the central purpose of being at an institution like Carolina is to educate yourself. If you fail introductory physics during your first semester of college, that is okay. You may not know much about rotational inertia—yet!—but you should know how to grow from that misstep. Re-take that class. Re-write that paper. Re-do that experiment. Take another look at that problem. Fix your mistakes, and do better. Learn. If I were to speak to an incoming first year student in my former position, I would say that you should know never to give up on yourself or on whatever you find most enjoyable. You should know that if you see yourself doing something, you should clear the path for yourself to do it, without question. You should know that asking is never as painful as remaining uninvolved. Research exists only because people ask questions. If you do not ask that professor to participate in their research now, you never will. Be thankful for the resources that are available to you, and take advantage of them. Know that what matters most is your own education, and it is up to you to take an active role in constructing it.

I took advantage of lots of opportunities here at Carolina. One I missed was enrolling in a class with Dr. Sharon James but, in a brief meeting I had with her one afternoon several semesters ago, I received the best advice I have ever received at Carolina. “Do what you want.” Nothing has reverberated within the decision-making space of my mind as greatly as those four words. Do what you want. Whatever you think your path at Carolina will be, I believe, whether you know it yet or not, what you really want to do is research.