May/June 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 5

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Making our Students Count:
Fostering Undergraduate Research

Jeneve R. Brooks, Troy University

Alabama\Mississippi Sociological Association Conference on Feb. 17th in Montgomery, AL. (Left to Right:) Jeneve Brooks (Troy University-Dothan), Kady Smith (University of Mississippi), Alex Durham (Troy University-Dothan), Helen Lee (Troy University-Dothan), Stacy Amos (Troy University-Dothan)

Alabama\Mississippi Sociological Association
Conference on Feb. 17th in Montgomery, AL.
(Left to Right:) Jeneve Brooks (Troy University-Dothan),
Kady Smith (University of Mississippi),
Alex Durham (Troy University-Dothan),
Helen Lee (Troy University-Dothan),
Stacy Amos (Troy University-Dothan)

The scenario seemed an unlikely one. Three of my undergraduate students presented full academic papers of original research at a regional sociology conference this February. Their presence was notable because most of the full papers presented at this conference were given by tenure-track professors and graduate students. In addition, only a handful of undergraduates from other institutions actively participated in the conference. Yet, my undergraduate students, hailing from our predominantly teaching-oriented institution (Troy University in Dothan, AL), demonstrated that they, indeed, had what it took to engage in high-quality research and to deliver well-developed research papers. And I am proud that I overcame some initial resistance to provide these students with this challenging, yet ultimately rewarding experience. This essay reflects on some of what transpired in my mentoring journey of undergraduate research and the lessons I learned.

When I originally expressed my desire with colleagues to attend the Alabama/Mississippi Sociological Association (AMSA) conference and to organize a panel of student papers, I encountered a variety of naysayers. Although supportive of my enthusiasm and while they liked the idea, my colleagues had reservations. Some professors said that as a new assistant professor I might be expecting too much from our student body at this non-residential campus. They argued that the cards were stacked against our undergraduates who are non-traditional (i.e., generally older than the stereotypical 18-23-year-old college students), typically lower income, and often saddled with familial demands that preclude them from fully applying themselves to their studies. It was also explained to me that many of the students were ex-military and that they were mainly using their GI education benefits to attain a college degree. The implicit message was clear: our students were generally not the kind of the students that would consider going on to graduate school and were thus not interested in pursuing rigorous research.

Furthermore, I was warned that it was just too much of a time eater to mentor undergraduate students in serious research. After all, we have to teach four courses each semester as well as fulfill time-consuming administrative duties. We also now have to factor in more publishing requirements to achieve tenure than was required a decade ago.

Institutionally I found resistance when I asked what funds were available for my students to participate in the AMSA conference. The Interim Chair of my department informed me that there was no money available for reimbursing the students’ lodging and travel costs.

In facing this variety of pushback, I was initially—and understandably—a bit discouraged. But I still strongly believed that providing undergraduate students with an opportunity to engage in real research was important, and so I decided to proceed with organizing the panel of student papers for the AMSA conference, even if I had to dip into my own pocket. Here are the three main lessons I learned from this mentoring journey:

1. Do Not Underestimate Undergraduate Students – Including Those Who are “Non-Traditional”

The first lesson that I learned is that it is vitally important to not reify the elitism that is seemingly inherent in academia (i.e., the notion that “real” research is only accomplished with other faculty or with graduate students). We should strive to provide opportunities for research collaboration to promising undergraduate students as well. In short, we need to make our undergraduate students count.

Certainly, it is important to choose your students well, and as a professor, one usually has a “sixth sense” about which students are hard workers and would be most appropriate for a research project. However, I was amazed that the three undergraduate students I worked with were even more engaged than I had anticipated. They actually were more reliable as research partners than some PhDs I have worked with as well as graduate students. And this was evident even among the two undergraduate students I would classify as non-traditional (i.e., older women who returned to college after time off for work and family commitments). And interestingly enough, all of the students expressed interest in doing future graduate work.

2. Choose Manageable, Collaborative Projects that Do Not Require IRB Approval and that You Can Move Toward Publication

The second lesson I learned is that you need to save yourself time by choosing manageable, collaborative projects that do not require Institutional Review Board approval. I focus here on manageable projects, because—as my colleagues rightfully warned—American professors are operating at a severe time deficit in today’s academic climate. Our research projects with undergraduates need to be circumscribed enough in their scope so that we can accomplish them within a few weeks. This means that it would be best to choose research projects that do not use human subjects, as gaining IRB approval usually takes a few weeks.

Ideally, the projects should be collaborative so that you can move your personal research agenda forward (i.e., towards publishable papers especially if you are pre-tenure) while helping undergraduate students with a possible publication if you make them your co-authors. This will certainly enhance their chances for graduate school admission. Although using undergraduate students as co-authors on papers in the social sciences is not as common practice as it is in the natural sciences, I believe that as sociologists we need to challenge exclusionary practices that keep up-and-coming researchers from the academic table.

3. Seek More Institutional Support

The final lesson that I learned is that it is important to advocate for our institutions to support undergraduate research. April 11, 2011 marked the Inaugural National Undergraduate Research Week, based on the U.S. House of Representatives’ Resolution 1654 that passed on November 16, 2010. This resolution focuses on the importance of undergraduate research but also asks institutions of higher education to support undergraduate researchers.

I leave in an hour or so to attend a kick-off event to celebrate this first National Undergraduate Research Week. And through a quick Google search, I found that similar events are going on at other college and universities all across the country. Increasingly, our administrators are accepting the call of H.Res. 1654 to make our students count and to foster undergraduate research. I may not get the couple of hundred bucks back that I spent taking my students to the AMSA Conference this year. But I am certainly going to ask for funding next year and you should too.

Jeneve R. Brooks invites you to e-mail her and continue the dialogue about fostering undergraduate research at jrbrooks@troy.edu.

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