Can You Really Do Humanities Research With Your Undergraduates?

Full vitae undergrad research

Mark Abramson for the Chronicle

By Mischa Willett 

Admissions brochures routinely tout the benefits of small class sizes, with pictures of lab-coated undergraduates doing beaker work alongside science professors in safety goggles. I’ve always wondered: Is the research, like the image, staged or real? And if it is real, could those of us in the humanities offer undergraduates a similar opportunity to contribute to our scholarship?

I teach English at a small liberal-arts university — i.e., I don’t have a research budget, and my department can’t spring for a teaching assistant to aid me in my scholarship. But I’m still working on articles, books, and conference presentations.

To get anything done, I knew I had two options: (1) Hole up in my turret, and teach my classes on autopilot while I do the "real" work of research, or (2) harness the brainpower and creativity of my undergraduates, and invite them in to my scholarship.

Option B seemed preferable. So in recent years, I’ve tried a variety of ways to involve my students in practical humanities research. Circumstances differ from department to department, but perhaps some of the methods will prove useful to you. I’d be keenly interested to hear (in the comments below or on social media) if people know of other approaches that will bear fruit.

Form your students into a pseudo-editorial board. This was the first approach I tried. I was working on a journal article about a relatively obscure group of poets, active in Scotland in the 1850s, called the Spasmodics. None of them has been in print for more than 100 years so, clearly, lots of background work would be necessary to write a paper.

Because my university is small and nimble, it was easy enough for me to pitch a course on Scottish literature, so that was Step No. 1. Normally, I would simply have made sure to include the Spasmodics in a larger narrative about Scottish literature’s development, but I wanted the students to make something real.

So, as a quarter-long project, I formed the class into an editorial board, and we made a mock-scholarly edition of the collected works of one of the poets, Alexander Smith. Students wrote introductions to each of his works, assembled a basic biography, scanned databases for relevant texts, worked with PDF-conversion software, read the texts, and annotated tricky passages.

We did it in eight weeks. I now have on my iPad a searchable copy of this important body of work in full text. When I need a quote, I simply search, grab, and paste. And the students? They were electrified by the feeling that they were making something useful that didn’t exist anywhere else. That course remains the most highly rated I have ever given.

Build a database as a course assignment. I needed to master the critical tradition surrounding the English poet Philip James Bailey, whose book-length poem Festus was among the best-selling British works of the 19th century but about whom scholarship is mostly silent. His book is a revision of the Faust myth, so I pitched a class called "On Devils," wherein we read Milton, Byron, Goethe, and Bailey on the diabolical.

Here, too, class discussion alone wouldn’t actually help my article, which was not an overview of the Mephistophelean theme but a concentrated look at this one neglected poem. So I introduced the class to the ProQuest database for 19th-century serials, teaching students how to find reviews of certain figures or books by year. Then I showed them Workflowy, an outlining app that can be hacked to do all kinds of fun things.

Using their findings about the poem, we made a group document of collapsible bullets. Students read reviews, identified representative passages in a bullet, summarized the review itself in another, and made searchable hashtags of any other figures mentioned in the reviews — all divided into American and British responses.

Since then, I have used the database countless times. What it gave students: a real sense that their work mattered beyond the grade.

Make research-intrigued undergrads your co-authors. Last year two exceptionally bright writers in my "Research Exposition" course asked me to coffee on the last day of class to talk shop. "What next?," they wondered. "How can we keep going?"

I had never done anything like this before, but, on the spot, I offered to take them on as co-authors of my next scholarly article — under the auspices of an independent study. The following term, we spent three weeks meeting weekly to catch them up on the academic conversation surrounding Bailey and Festus. I assigned them readings, and we worked through the poem. I told them what I had in mind for the article, and invited their contributions.

We made a long list of paragraph topics and, by committee, reduced it to a manageable load. Then we auctioned them off: "Who wants to write the paragraph about Bailey’s connections to Longfellow?," for example. Each week we met to read our paragraphs aloud and discuss how to make them better. Then we assigned three more.

The synergy was amazing as an argumentative structure began to materialize. We put our paragraphs in a group document — and pruned and pruned. The term ran out before we had quite finished, but in 10 weeks, we had written 80 percent of a journal article. I spent the next month evening out the voice and double-checking references, before submitting it to a journal. Unfortunately the journal rejected the article as too general (which makes sense). However, the students’ work now forms part of the introduction to my scholarly edition of Festus, forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press.

In the process, the students gained an inside look at academic life and their names in a published scholarly book. I got a built-in set of deadlines: Every week we had to complete three new paragraphs, no matter what. And even if most of what they wrote were versions of "my ideas," at least two of the paper’s observations were completely their own — ideas I would never have stumbled upon without them.

The point here is not that undergraduates are an untapped labor resource that we should exploit. In fact, inviting students into your actual research is daunting, and can’t always be done — certain courses need to be taught whether or not they match up with your current research concerns.

To make this intersection of teaching and research work requires a supportive department (which I’ve had). But if you’re in one, all you need is the imagination to think aloud with your students: "All right, I’ve got the goggles; you get the beaker. What can we brew up?"

Mischa Willett is an instructor of education, English, and writing at Seattle Pacific University.

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