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The Challenge of Undergraduate Research
Undergraduate research is a discussion topic at academic administrators’ conferences these days for a number of excellent reasons. Often lost in these discussions, however, are the challenges professors face as they try to integrate the mentoring of undergraduate students who engage in scholarship, research, and creative projects with their traditional duties of teaching, service, and their own research agendas.
Engaging undergraduates in serious academic activities that a generation ago would have been the province of graduate students is surely an effective way to enhance their learning. Even students who are unlikely to pursue an advanced degree benefit from the skills they develop in intellectual discipline, information gathering and evaluation, research methodology, presentation development, and other areas cultivated by extended independent inquiry into a scholarly topic, or by producing a substantial body of creative work.
However, faculty members feel strongly obligated to their own research, scholarship, or creative activity as well, and this work, and their consequent disciplinary expertise, are key resources they bring to mentoring undergraduate projects. Colleges and universities have generally not yet managed to find fair, appropriate ways to value mentoring of undergraduate research in the tenure and promotion process. Even more challenging, many faculty see a clash between the demands of personal scholarship and an institutional urge to promote undergraduate research. Even at small, teaching-oriented undergraduate institutions, evolving faculty roles have pushed professors to be more productive scholars, which can conflict with an increased role supervising undergraduates who are developing serious, large-scale projects of their own.
Ironically, small colleges are ideally positioned to develop distinguished undergraduate research programs, as they have been built on the principle of close student–faculty relationships that are foundational to helping undergraduates succeed as scholars. At the same time, though, small-college faculty are often faced with high teaching loads, broad curricular responsibilities, significant service demands, and the panoply of activities that bear a vague but real relationship with professional success in the small-college setting.
Excellent mentorship of undergraduate research is immensely time-consuming. Undergraduates are by definition not disciplinary experts, and their laboratory, library, fieldwork, or studio techniques are rarely mature. Developing those skills is part of the point, of course, but doing so requires a serious commitment of faculty time and energy. The rewards brought by this commitment can be huge—I know many colleagues who have seen their students find prestigious and competitive internships, gain entry into outstanding graduate and professional programs, or simply blossom as scholars and people as a result of their research work. These faculty simultaneously worry, though, that their work with these students will be relegated to the “teaching” category of their evaluations, and will not meet, or will even detract from, their evaluation as scholars.
The currency of the profession is research productivity, and helping undergraduates with their research, while calling upon many of the same skills and inclinations, is for many faculty an opting out of the academic economy. It requires them to gamble that their institutions will recognize the worthiness of such work when it comes to tenure, promotion, and merit evaluation, and (undoubtedly and unfortunately) willingly to reduce their value on the market for other positions. While no individual institution can do much about the external market, institutions that truly value faculty support for undergraduate research will have to articulate that value, and recognize and reward faculty participation. An institution’s resources flow through channels defined by its values, and if colleges and universities are serious about undergraduate research, they must be equally serious about supporting it financially and in other, less tangible ways.
David R. Evans is the vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty at Buena Vista University.