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The Integrity and Integrality of Student Research at a Liberal Arts College
In these pages some four years ago, authors from the Council on Undergraduate Research argued that undergraduate student research “speaks to some of our most fundamental educational objectives by providing a personalized education, exemplifying engaged pedagogy, and promoting students’ intellectual independence and maturation” (Elgren and Hensel 2006). In the time since, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has championed student research as one of the “high-impact practices” that can transform students’ lives as it “involve[s] students with actively contested questions, empirical observation, cutting-edge technologies, and the sense of excitement that comes from working to answer important questions” (Kuh 2008). And, it almost goes without saying that the independent research experience adheres to the LEAP Principles of Excellence, as students learn the “arts of inquiry and innovation” to “engage the big questions” as they pursue their research principles. Student research is fundamental, exciting, and engaging.
The Role of the Student Researcher
Student research at a small liberal arts college can reflect all of those superlatives, but student research in such an institution can also be constrained by a number of factors. Since they are often “small,” relative to those at larger research universities, liberal arts college departments may lack both the breadth of coverage and the resources to respond to the variety of student research interests. At such institutions, the emphasis is on teaching, and taking on a student researcher for an independent study or an honors or senior thesis can be an unrecognized strain on a potentially heavy teaching load. As Kuh notes, student research “has been most prominently used in science disciplines,” potentially preventing whole swaths of students from engaging in research (2008). Certainly faculty in the STEM disciplines welcome student researchers into their labs to work on their projects, but faculty outside of these disciplines can find it difficult to determine how a student researcher would help them in their own research. Should their duties include simple tasks such as getting books from the library, making copies of articles, and proofreading documents? Such work hardly constitutes research as we would ideally conceive of it, and in neither context would it be considered the kind of independent research that would develop the core skills which liberal arts colleges pride themselves on imparting, like critical thinking and the ability to synthesize.
And yet the academic skills and ideals that liberal arts colleges impart are exactly why student research at such institutions can flourish. In developing a research question, establishing a framework for the project, and analyzing data or texts, students necessarily sharpen their critical thinking skills. The breadth of knowledge they gain through exposure to a variety of disciplines and approaches—and the increasing emphasis on interdisciplinarity—helps to shape a project that perhaps has more nuance and even applicability. The close student–faculty interaction that almost naturally occurs in a small college can provide students with the opportunity to see first-hand what the life of a scholar is like—and inspire them to try their hand at it. With this encouragement, the independent spirit that marks so many liberal arts colleges can empower the student to ask his or her own questions about a discipline and then translate that experience to a lifelong thirst for inquiry and learning.
For student research to succeed at a liberal arts college, it requires a strong commitment from every facet of the college community: from the administration, philosophical and monetary support that conceptually and concretely secures student research as a worthwhile endeavor for every student at the institution; from the faculty, the flexibility, openness, creativity, and even faith to believe that students can conduct independent research in any discipline, and that the benefits to both student and mentor can be surprising, transformative, and integral to the “normal” work of the college; and from the student, the diligence and bravery to ask the difficult questions and do the hard work to create something that is their own but also becomes a piece of the larger work of the academic community. Out of this network of support, students, faculty, and an entire college can be changed in surprising and enlightening ways.
Transformative Student Research at Ursinus College
In 1991, Ursinus College started a summer science research program after receiving a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) for that purpose. The end of the grant coincided with the beginning of President John Strassburger’s tenure. As one of his goals was to reaffirm Ursinus’s commitment to a liberal education, President Strassburger and Vice President of Academic Affairs Judith Levy spearheaded an effort to expand the parameters of the HHMI program to fund student research in all disciplines; thus, the Summer Fellows program was born. Using college funds supplemented by faculty grants, the program funds upward of ninety students to conduct research for eight weeks during the summer in every discipline from anthropology to theater. Students are provided with a stipend and a room on campus; their faculty mentors are also provided with a stipend for their work as guides through the research process. The summer opens with students sharing summaries of their research plans to begin the process of becoming a community of scholars; weekly talks from faculty from Ursinus and beyond provide insight into what shapes research can take—and the effects on the researcher and the outside world that such work can have. The program closes with a research symposium, during which students present the work they have accomplished in front of an audience of peers, mentors, and visitors. I could gush at length about the benefits of this program to everyone involved—how the vast majority of students in survey responses reported receiving “great” or “good” gains in their understanding of the relevance of research to coursework and the connections among disciplines, as well as confidence to do well in future courses and in their ability to contribute to their discipline. However, a recent student project will better illustrate how transformative student research can be to both students and faculty.
In the fall of her junior year, Amanda Leatherman took a course on media and society with Lynne Edwards, associate professor of media and communication studies. Amanda was perhaps a model liberal arts student: a double major in media and communication studies and neuroscience, she planned on becoming a lawyer. For her final project in media and society, she wanted to delve deeper into trying to understand the criminal mind and try to trap those out to ensnare and exploit children online by posing as a thirteen-year-old girl in online chatrooms. Impressed by her initiative, but also concerned about her safety, Edwards instead encouraged Amanda to consider pursuing a longer research project under her mentorship during Summer Fellows. During the spring, Edwards worked with Amanda to hone her project, adding a much-needed theoretical framework: using a communication theory that revealed how online predators use language to gradually lure and entrap children, they would construct a content analysis project using transcripts of online chats involving convicted online predators.
Even with this increased rigor, Edwards was concerned about the content matter that Amanda would be so closely engaging with for two months. She knew that her colleague April Kontostathis, associate professor of computer science, was always interested in practical applications for students to pursue, so she approached her about developing a software program that could be taught to code these conversations. Soon, the project took on a new focus: theory begat praxis, and they were now building a better mousetrap. Over the course of the summer, Amanda worked on both the theoretical framework undergirding the project and on the difficult work of coding these conversations according to the framework (i.e., identifying where a phrase or term fell in the cycle of entrapment constructed by the predators’ language). By summer’s end, Amanda knew she had much more work in front of her, and began planning for a year-long honors project that built upon her work; this newly formed research team also knew by summer’s end that they had a project that could be important for themselves, future students, and the world.
Kontostathis realized that this project was well-suited for funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF); or, as Edwards puts it, “as the project grew from developing a theory of online luring communication to developing a manual coding system and then developing a computer coding system that learned how to recognize illicit cyberlanguage, April recognized that we had a project that the NSF may be interested in funding.” And they were right: around the time that Amanda graduated, the NSF awarded her faculty mentors a grant to fund the continuation of the research project in order to develop an open-source software called ChatCoder that will detect online predation as it happens. The grant of course included funding for more student researchers to move the project forward. This past year, two computer science students started during Summer Fellows to upgrade ChatCoder to learn, not just code, language and illicit conversations; their work has transformed the program into something far more effective. Three media and communication studies students conducted independent studies on including victims’ language into the program to allow the program to better understand how these conversations and relationships develop. Further, first-year students coded transcripts during the Ursinus Bridge program (a program to help students from historically underrepresented groups make the transition to college), while seniors in the media and communication studies senior seminar created thirteen related independent projects that were presented at the Celebration of Student Achievement. And the work goes on: this summer four summer fellows, with the help of three assistants and two faculty mentors, will continue the work that Amanda began two years ago.
As I reflect on it, the current state of the project depends on a number of decisions and contexts that all needed to be just right—and I think all turn out to be tied to the mission and character of a liberal arts college. This project would not have existed without the persistence, passion, and creativity of a committed student who had questions about an important issue: how do online predators lure their victims and how can we stop them? Her capacity and willingness to ask those questions were supported from her first class at the college, the Common Intellectual Experience, which focuses on the “big questions” of our lives: What does it mean to be human? How should we live our lives? What is the universe and what is our place in it? Regardless of the program, every liberal arts college encourages its students to begin if not continue a life as an engaged and inquisitive citizen, and the spirit of critical inquiry that suffuses a liberal arts college curriculum and campus finds its ultimate expression in student research. Amanda’s questions may have remained unanswered were it not for a committed faculty member who encouraged those questions to be asked. Turning those questions into a productive and responsible project required a faculty member who knew the capacity and temperament of the student—such knowledge is part and parcel of a liberal arts college culture that emphasizes collegiality and the one-on-one relationship between faculty and student. Turning this project into something more ambitious required a faculty member willing to challenge a student to do more and think harder—and a student willing to do so. To me, the liberal arts emphasis on critical inquiry always has at its heart an ameliorative purpose—can we do/think/solve better?—and research is nothing if not an effort to do better.
To give Amanda and her project the time and attention required, Edwards also demonstrated an often unstated quality of faculty at liberal arts colleges: sacrifice. Though she had done some work in media coverage of adolescent crimes and the issue of online safety, Edwards’s research agenda did not include developing a systematic approach to online predators’ luring communication (and for that matter, neither was Kontostathis planning on developing a software program to track it), but she sacrificed some of her time and focus at the beginning of the process because she saw a bright student with a bright future and a bright idea—and faculty at liberal arts colleges seem to be suckers for such a student.
Indeed, in my three experiences as a Summer Fellows mentor, I have yet to work within my specialty of eighteenth-century British literature; instead, I have helped students to explore the didacticism of D. H. Lawrence’s later novels; the rhetoric of same-sex marriage in state supreme court cases; and the gender politics of Rebecca West’s 1,200-page travel narrative, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. I certainly hadn’t planned on exploring any of these areas on my own, and I sacrificed some time and energy (especially with West) because there was a student with such passion and interest that I couldn’t help but to help encourage that. That idea of sacrifice, I think, is the mark of any good teacher at any college, but given the emphasis on teaching at liberal arts colleges, it feels like I see more of it here and at similar colleges. I also think that underlying that sacrifice is a commitment to modeling behavior: if faculty aren’t willing to leap off a conceptual or disciplinary ledge, then from whom are students going to learn the pleasure, excitement, and rewards of doing so?
Amanda’s project may have remained a simple content analysis project had not Edwards engaged her colleague, Kontostathis. The character of a small liberal arts college once more made this project what it is, because without such a college’s emphasis on faculty collegiality Edwards might not have even known what Kontostathis was interested in. Further, both modeled the liberal arts college emphasis on breadth of knowledge for Amanda: willing to look beyond their disciplinary turrets, they found that their different sets of knowledge could creatively combine to form something greater than its parts.
There have been obvious benefits of this project. Amanda completed a project that challenged her and will ultimately benefit many others in and outside of the college: as she puts it, “the research I conducted at Ursinus really opened my eyes to the ‘real world’ and showed that I could make a difference.” After graduation, she matriculated into the University of Maryland School of Law. Her faculty mentors received a grant to continue this project, which also challenges them and leads their research in new directions. Current and future students have the opportunity to continue and expand on the work their fellow student began. Beyond these obvious benefits, I have seen, as administrator of the summer fellows program, the subtler and more comprehensive effects student research can have on a college. I watch as nervous students approach the dais to describe their work—and their nerves melt away as they relate their passion. I watch as two students from two completely different majors teach each other about their work with a confidence and patience seldom seen in twenty-year-olds. I watch as faculty ask questions of their own students with caring challenge, and see as they beam as the students return their sallies with confidence and aplomb. I watch as faculty chat with each other about what their students are researching—and what their own work is. Then, I watch as prospective students tentatively walk through the door of the classroom, sit down, and hear peers some three years older than them discuss how Bisphenol A may affect our health, whether ugly criminals get harsher sentences, how we can better diagnose ADHD and OCD, how to define “dignity”—and how we can better catch online predators using communication theory and software. I see in these students a realization that attending a liberal arts college means not just smaller classes or closer faculty-student interaction, but entering into an environment that encourages breadth of knowledge and in-depth study into one’s own passion and the pursuit of individual thought and persistent questioning that challenges oneself and leads to the betterment of society. Finally, I watch as a liberal arts college finds its heart as it encourages students to follow their hearts—with a lot of assistance from their minds and the hearts and minds of their faculty mentors. Student research exemplifies a liberal education and can reinvigorate and refocus the mission of a liberal arts college.
Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2007. College learning for the new global century. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Elgren, T. and N. Hensel. 2006. Undergraduate research experiences: Synergies between scholarship and teaching. Peer Review 8 (1): 4–7.
Kuh, G. High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Greg Weight is the coordinator of student fellowships and scholarships at Ursinus College.