Sunday, June 29, 2014

Undergraduate Research, Part One

“It’s easier to collaborate dance-science than dance-dance.” -- Liz Lerman

I’m at the Council for Undergraduate Research (CUR) conference in Washington, D.C.  It’s devoted to faculty at colleges and universities across the country who find ways to include their undergraduate students in their own scholarly research.  And it’s a fascinating bunch.

I noticed a distinct character immediately.  The opening plenary on Saturday was held in a huge ballroom, with restricted access.  When they started shepherding people in, I heard a lot of “excuse me” and “after you,” none of it apparently sarcastic.  People were largely welcoming, and the general feel of the place was that people were just happy to be there.  At the League for Innovation or the AACC, the ratio of Alpha egos is much higher.  At APSA, there was always plenty of nametag-checking to see if you were important enough to bother talking to.  Here, people just seem happy to be able to share what they’re doing and learn from each other.

The group appears to be primarily faculty from four-year colleges, and mostly from STEM fields.  I was invited to speak on a panel of administrators on Monday to discuss ways that faculty can speak to administrators so the admins will actually hear what they’re saying.  That gave me Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday morning to do see what people are up to.

The opening plenary was by Liz Lerman, a choreographer, who discussed the research process as a form of creativity, and placed it in the context of other forms of creativity, such as dance.  In both cases, the idea is to bring something new into the world.  She focused on the productive collisions between different ways of seeing the world, such as a dance she put together based on the concept of “protein folding.”  When you bring entirely different frameworks into contact, you can generate questions like “how does the universe clean itself?”  Being clearly out of your element gives you license to ask basic questions; as she put it, you could be humble without being humiliated.  That’s part of the payoff of including undergrads in creative work; they haven’t been completely inculcated into a field yet, so they still see with fresh eyes and ask basic questions.  

Sunday morning kicked off with a speech by Muriel Howard, who is the president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.  She’s an experienced college president, and it showed; she gave a speech that managed to include a lot of potentially dispiriting information while still being basically upbeat.  The core of it was a list of the challenges that presidents and chancellors face, to give some context for how they hear the arguments that come to them.  She noted, I think correctly, the increasing trend towards centralization in many state systems, and the consequent shift in presidents’ roles from strategy and vision to implementation.  She also acknowledged the very real enrollment pressures faced by many colleges in the Northeast and Midwest, noting that “[f]or the first time, [she’s] seeing vice presidents of enrollment management become college presidents.”  In that context, faculty who are able to couch undergraduate research projects as retention and completion initiatives are more likely to garner administrative support.

The rest of the day was devoted to hearing faculty -- and in one case, their students -- discuss undergraduate research projects they’ve done.  One was a “digital humanities” class in American history led by Jeff McClurken, from the University of Mary Washington, and a colleague whose name I didn’t catch.  They had thirteen students from nine colleges around the country working on a history of American life during the First World War.  (You can see their work at  The students did archival research in their various locations, and put together a collaborative website sharing their findings.  They reported that it was far more work than a regular class, and the logistical challenges were real, but they loved what they did.  Prof. McClurken mentioned later that some of the issues arose simply from having nine different academic calendars running alongside each other; so many different Spring Breaks made coordinated discussion difficult.  It’s one of those things that you wouldn’t think about until you suddenly had to.

A set of faculty from several Maryland community colleges, along with an outreach person from UMBC, presented on ways to use UGR to encourage students to transfer to four-year schools.  I learned a whole bunch of new acronyms in that one -- REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates); NIST (Naitonal Institute of Science and Technology); and CURE (Classroom-Embedded Research Experience) seemed among the most useful -- and quickly realized that an entire discourse has developed around this stuff.  The moment that seemed familiar came when two faculty from Carroll College mentioned a wonderfully innovative, intensive two-credit summer UGR course they developed that “unfortunately doesn’t transfer.”  Yup.  If we want to see undergraduate research projects flourish in community colleges, four-year colleges will have to accept them in transfer.

After a social-science panel that didn’t particularly work, I caught a couple of lifetime achievement award speeches.  The highlight there was a challenge thrown by a chemist, Mitchell Malachowski, who declared that faculty who do research and don’t include students in its production are actively harming the learning environment of their students.  So we have a need for a labor-intensive intervention, a difficult funding climate, serious logistical challenges, and a transfer issue.  I hope the administrators on the Monday panel are smart...