Creating Unparalleled Pathways for Undergraduates to Recognize Their Own Research Potential
Danielle S. Rudes
I consider it my life’s mission to make research come to life for undergraduate students. When I was an undergraduate myself, many years ago, maybe the opportunities existed at the small state university where I went for my undergraduate degree, but I did not know about them. To me, research was something that occurred in scientific labs with beakers and microscopes and something that people far smarter than me or far more astute were able to undertake. I was just taking classes, working a part-time job waiting tables and working in the campus television station at night trying to make sure that a bachelor’s degree would eventually hang on my wall. Today, as an instructor, researcher, mentor, and professor at a major R1 institution, I am incredibly blessed with finding a pathway to academia, to research, and into a life I greatly admire and I am eternally grateful for.
What I understand most deeply about my own work now and the work that my undergraduate are currently doing with me is that it is not enough to tell them about available opportunities, it is not enough to tell them how the transferable skills they will learn through those opportunities will be great whether they become academics or not, and it is not near enough to just share my own research with them. Instead, my work is about inspiring them to believe that the research WE do, together, is important, maybe a little fun, and most of all possible.
For the last two summers, 2017 and 2018, I have been the lucky recipient of an on-campus grant program started by the Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities and Research (OSCAR) at George Mason University (GMU). The OSCAR office is remarkable! I do not mean to assume that all universities have this level of support for undergraduate research, but in this blog post, I will share the opportunities I provided undergraduate students with OSCAR’s help and I will foreshadow some ways this is possible at any institution, even where this level of support is lacking.
I applied for and received two competitive summer impact grants to fund six undergraduate students in a way that our university had never done before. The idea was to take undergraduate researchers into the field to experience a research project from start to finish over the 13 weeks of summer. My project, which I was already going to do with my graduate students and a couple colleagues from sociology and women studies, involves going inside restricted housing units / solitary confinement units at four prisons in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC) to do interviews and observations with staff and inmates. We were incredibly lucky to get this kind of access to prisons. Our access was based on a long-standing relationship I have with the PADOC. But, for this blog, access is beside the point. We hired six undergraduate students who applied for our posting. I carefully crafted the ad so that students would be interested in going inside prisons to do the work, but also to make sure that I attracted students who thought that they could physically and mentally handle prison research. I was sure to point out in the ad that no experience was necessaryand there was no mandatory minimum GPA. I do this with all of my undergraduate research assistants in the undergraduate research lab that I run year-round and have for now a decade at GMU. I want research to be accessible to anystudent who is interested. There was a time commitment for this project because the OSCAR office agreed to fund the students $4000 each but they were forbidden from working in other jobs over the summer and from taking summer classes with the exception of one class during the first summer session, but only in necessary cases.
To make the most of the experience for the undergraduates, my graduate student, Shannon Magnuson, and I worked diligently to design a 13-week research program for our undergraduate research team that included their working on our projects (my umbrella project and her dissertation research) as well as having undergraduate researchers (in teams of two) design their own research foci. Then we undertook an intense schedule that included an orientation to get them up to speed on the project and expectations, a deep dive into the literature on solitary confinement and prisons, focused workshops on writing research questions, preparing literature reviews, qualitative fieldwork, researching in prisons, coding and analysis using Atlas.ti, drafting finding sections, creating a poster/presentation and writing a research paper (See attached summer 2018 schedule for full details). The undergraduate students accompanied my larger research team into four prisons to collect data for my project, Shannon’s project, another student of mine, Taylor Hartwell’s master’s project, the questions of two colleagues of mine, Dr. Angela Hattery & Dr. Earl Smith on race/gender in prison and their own research questions (which focused on a wide-variety of topics including self-esteem, inmate coping and philosophies of punishment). We all collected data for each other so their N would be higher and so they would get the most out of the research process. Students also participated in creating a weekly video blog of their experiences learning and researching along the way. The department, OSCAR and GMU will use these to highlight student undergraduate research at GMU and to recruit new students.
Then, for weeks, they slaved away over an Atlas.ti computer screen to diligently code and analyze data related to their particular research questions. We met in groups to discuss key themes and findings, link findings to relevant literature and brainstorm the best ways of presenting their data. Each team created a final poster and presented their work at the Summer Celebration of Student Scholarship at GMU.
From there though, the work was not over…a lesson we drilled into them from day one. The research process is on-going and it was up to them to consider whether or not to stay on that path. In the fall semester, all six of the 2018 undergraduates stayed on at the ACE! undergraduate lab to work on their projects. One team completed a full research paper and will submit for publication this spring, one student abandoned her particular project, but created a new set of research questions from the existing data and received a competitive OSCAR undergraduate research scholars grant to re-analyze the data to suit her new question(s). She will complete this work over the spring 2019 semester. Three students submitted their work to the Council for Undergraduate Research (CUR) annual event, Poster on the Hill, in Washington, DC. Two students are currently applying to GMU’s doctoral program in Criminology, Law & Society to continue this work with me at ACE!. From the 2017 undergraduate group, two students presented at the CUR Undergraduate Research Conference in Oklahoma, one presented at the American Society of Criminology meetings (on a regular, not undergraduate, panel…and she rocked it!). Another 2017 undergraduate used her paper from the summer as a writing sample and was accepted into a prestigious graduate program, one won the OSCAR Undergraduate Excellence Award (only seven awarded across GMU’s campus), and one received the Social Action and Integrative Learning (SAIL) Community Engagement Medallion, in part, based on her work with the solitary confinement project. Wow…one summer and a lifetime of experiences!
But, what if you do not have internal resources like OSCAR’s at your university? The easy answer comes from the old adage, “Priorities: when someone tells you their too busy it is not about their schedule, it is about YOUR spot on their schedule.” Make undergraduate research important to you; give it a primary spot on your schedule. You can make it happen without funding and without support. You can do it! It is do-able at many levels and in many ways. Here are some preliminary suggestions:
- Start Small: work with just one or two undergraduates as you get started. Recruit them from your classes and give them a chance to do research and build their skills (and their resumes) as they learn to become your unpaid research assistant. Give them a fancy volunteer title like Undergraduate Research Assistant and see where this takes you, and them.
- Develop Course Credit Option(s):Work with your chair, dean or provost to develop a course option for research that exists separate from directed readings and/or independent studies. We have a CRIM 498: Research Practicum available to students at GMU that is renewable (providing students need the credits). This option gives you university structure to provide research experiences to undergrads while you work with them. It may not count as part of your teaching load, but there is a formal record of the work you are doing for your CV.
- You Do not Need Money: I know, funds to finance research are nice, but be real…they are a luxury. Qualitative work can be relatively cheap and even free. And, if you partner with local organizations to design research questions they want the answers to, too, you can sometimes get access in ways that are not imaginable if you just go in asking to do your own research in their organization(s). Quantitative projects can also be fairly inexpensive depending on the type of work you are doing. Chances are you already have SPSS or some other statistical software program available at your university. Work with on-campus labs to reserve time for your undergraduate research team to do data cleaning, coding and analysis for your project. Once you train them, they can do this solo and you can just be on-call for questions and answers.
- Use the Nested Mentoring Model: (see prior CULJP blog post) where you train a group of students who then mentor/train other students in subsequent semesters. This will free up a bit of your time (though you will still need to advise and provide oversight). You can even do what we do at GMU, and get one of your graduate or undergraduate students to co-design the software training for whatever program you will use (i.e., SPSS, SAS, Atlas.ti, NVivo). After the training is developed, they can add another line to their resume each time they offer a training to a new group of undergraduate researchers.
- Call on Experts: Call, email or text me! I can help you set up an undergraduate lab, find ways to work with undergraduate research assistants and learn to include undergrads in your research in new and exciting ways. I can also put you in touch with the GMU OSCAR office if you would like to try to model some of what they are doing at your university/college. And, I can connect you to my colleague and friend, Dr. Shannon Portillo at the University of Kansas who runs a similar undergraduate research program or my former students, Dr. Kimberly Meyer and Dr. Jill Viglione who both run exciting undergraduate research labs/programs within their academic departments.
The message here is simple. Do not just talk about research, do not just teach undergraduates how to do research…LET THEM DO IT! Bring them with you, engage with them as colleagues, as researchers and as skilled and thoughtful contributors. Do not set the bar high for them, release the idea of the bar and let them soar to any height possible. I know this sounds cliché, but it is how I run my lab and my life. And, the process and the results are both inspirational and amazing.
Why the Consortium Has Made Me More Reflective As A Teacher
My first teaching job was in the Political Science department at Kirorimal College, Delhi University. One had to follow a centralized syllabus catering both to an annual exam as well as to ensure uniformity across colleges. When I am asked about the difference between teaching in India and the United States, the distinction between a centralized syllabus and individually crafted syllabus is always striking for colleagues in the U.S. In reality, both systems contain flexibility and rigidities in different ways.
I recall a particularly important moment very early on in my teaching career at KM College. A new optional course was created on Women and Politics and some of us were unsure about its content and readings lists. Drawing on the incredible resources that were available to us, we invited teachers, scholars, and activists who had been long associated with the women’s movement in India (as I reflect more now- mostly Delhi based) to either submit pieces or let us reprint their published work but the decision was taken to publish the reader in Hindi given the paucity of such materials. All the pieces were then subsequently translated into Hindi only after a very interactive workshop in Daulat Ram College and subsequent discussions held on the translations. It resulted in a memorable edited reader on Feminist Politics: Struggles and Issues.(Delhi: Hindi Medium Directorate, 2001)with Nivedita Menon and Sadhna Arya that continues to be in circulation. But the experience was an excellent testament to what the teachers could initiate even in a centralized system. I learnt very quickly that the contours of knowledge set by a curriculum seldom restricted the creative possibilities of so many amazing teachers. For someone who had just started her teaching career surrounded by many such inspiring friends and colleagues (including my Dad), the system had never seemed as formally restricted. I hear of many changes in Indian higher education and in the same colleges and I keep meeting amazing students of some of the same colleagues. Yet I fear that the system may be mimicking a “liberal arts” formally from the west while losing its essence that already exists in many ways and could have just been strengthened with resources and support. Most undergraduate college teachers in India have no personal offices and little resources for the incredible work they do everyday.
But back to the U.S., where I have crafted many syllabi over the years yet Consortium conversations have made me be more self-reflexive. While some of the syllabi are easier to create because there may not be many courses on the themes that I teach in Political Science (eg Torture or Policing), I wonder if my other courses are really able to break the dominant paradigms. Sometimes limits are as much about disciplinary boundaries, departmental needs or the ease of picking a pre-existing case book for a civil liberties or constitutional law course. Recently, in a Consortium workshop, one of my colleagues said candidly- I don’t just want to know what perfect readings you get for the course. I want to know your assignments and primarily your path from taking your students from point A to point B. In some ways, the insistence on adding student learning outcomes (SLO) to our syllabi is meant to help us think about precisely that question. Yet, the bureaucratic need for SLOs to be written in assessable ways already limits the aspirational goal. Another colleague shared the ingenious way in which he uses the city as the basis of an assignment. In another consortium discussion, I learnt of the ambitious ways in which undergraduate students get involved in research projects sometimes requiring many resources and others very minimal.
In all of these conversations, the passion for teaching, mentoring, and a quest for critical engagement with social justice concerns are central. While there are many formal reasons for my institution to be a part of the consortium, for me it has resulted in a community of scholars, who above all have made teaching a central part of my academic life. Even as teaching in liberal arts setting already informs such an emphasis, the desire to centrally locate pedagogy and program building in my conversations and writing about it in conjunction with my research is what I am grateful for as a part of the Consortium. As teaching loads in many liberal arts institutions increase, and research resources decline, sometimes these conversations become unexpected source of comradely resources reminding one of the joys of sharing the process of learning and teaching. And rather than relying just on individuals, colleagues, or institutions, which may vary across different contexts, the Consortium is able (or aspires) to build a more interdisciplinary and open space for such conversations to thrive.
Research Intensive Capstone Course
See the following for a full discussion of our earlier work with undergraduate student researchers in the classroom: Portillo, Shannon, Danielle S. Rudes, Lincoln Sloas, Kirsten Hutzell and Paula Salamoun (2013). “Students as Scholars: Integrating Research into the Undergraduate Classroom Experience” Journal of Criminal Justice Education 24(1): 68-96.
Conducting Undergraduate Research
With the guidance of my research mentors Dr. Shannon Portillo and Ph.D. student Nicole Humphrey, I formulated a research question. The hardest part of formulating my question(s) was feeling like there had to be a right or wrong answer available. I would imagine these feelings stems from an educational upbringing that fostered an exploration for a correct answer, not ambiguous possibility. The vagueness of my research questions scared me because I didn’t want to fail and disappoint my mentors, even though I rationally knew that ambiguity was necessary because if there was a lack of ambiguity, what would there be to research? This is more challenging because in the physical sciences there is the possibility of a cut and dry answer, and I grew up with this being the only kind of research I would think of when the term was mentioned. Now, I find that in any academic setting I cannot help but think of some research question I would like to study (making for a distracted Sydney in the classroom).
Being a research assistant before I conducted my own research lessened the concern I would have encountered had I jumped into my own. Assisting gave me the perspective of viewing end work while understanding what needs to go into a research project. I try and imagine my research journey without the support I received from the Center for Undergraduate Research as well as my mentor and I. Just. Can’t. I would have faced such challenges writing a literature review for the first time without the advice of those who had been through the process as well as an award application for research, when I was a first-time researcher.
Looking back, it is likely because I was a first-time semi-independent researcher that I thought I would be able to handle the process alone. I planned to conduct thirty semi-structured interviews myself as well as coding and transcribing the data alone, which is slightly laughable now. Having the Law and Society major capstone class to help me conduct and think critically about my research was essential to this project, but also my confidence as a researcher. I don’t think I would have grown the way I have this semester without my research team, because they brought ideas to the table I had not thought of as well as carrying the interview load. I think if I had conducted interviews alone this semester I would have ended up burned out and discouraged by the workload. My research team kept me afloat and excited to do more research in the Fall. I never thought research would be an interest of mine, because I imagined it as: numbers, coding, being in a lab. Yet, this past year and half I have learned it’s studying what’s below the surface, why we do what we do, and gaining understanding so we can move forward and better the communities of which we belong.
Mentor Teaching/Learning is Positive and Effective:
“Learning by doing” (Takata and Lieting, 1987) is the type of learning we did this semester in this capstone class. Hands on learning approach has several benefits such as preparing us for real world experiences, how to communicate, how to gather data by having to critically think on your own; also this form of learning allows you to process data at your own speed and style, which is beneficial for everyone involved. I agree with scholars that argue that teaching and research don’t not have to be antagonistic. Rather, they should be integrated in undergraduate curriculum, particularly at research universities ( Boyer, 1990; Boyer Commission, 1998: Healey 2005) Being a student that studies at an AAU school it brings me great pride and honor to be a part of this study with Professor Portillo. There really is a kind of culture that you acquire with staff and fellow students as we see in the Bennet, Boyer, Brake and Healey Research, teach the research process enhances students’ understanding of the process and discipline, as well as promotes a university culture, which values and support scholarship, this allows faculty to benefit as well while collaborating, mentoring and aligning their research goals.
Allowing her students to learn actively has allowed for a new experience as a student. I didn’t fully understand at first what her intentions for us were, but now that I do, I love that we were the first capstone class of our department in Law and Society. I would love to see where the research direction goes for future students. Inquiry and research based teaching facilitates student learning and engagement in the classroom find that students at all achievement levels can thrive and benefit from research experience (Apedoe and Reeves, 2006: Baldock and Chanson, 2006; Matand, Wu, and Rollin, 2011; Spronken-Smith, 2010: Spronken-Smith and Walker, 2010). With more research we could get a better understanding of what other forms of teaching/learning would benefit those studying at KU in the Law and Society department, and what better way to get data then using this theory of professors working with undergrad students who attend AAU universities. This collaboration benefits science, KU, professors and students alike, and society because answers for issues in law and society are always needed to bring a level of peace in the community.
Middle-Aged Men Muddled in Middle Management:
An explorative look into frontline supervision and perceptions of power
By Collin D. Cox
This semester I participated in a capstone course designed so that each student had the opportunity to engage directly with frontline supervisors in the region to gather information regarding their positions. This analysis is based on interviews conducted with sergeants in jurisdictions in Northeast Kansas. My analysis is also informed by: (1) transcripts of other student-lead interviews with police sergeants, (2) an undergraduate research project shaped by Sydney Bannister’s Undergraduate Ressearch Award, and (3) from literature by academics such as Shannon Portillo, Kimberly Kras, Faye Taxman, Howard Risher, Janet Chan, Sally Doran, Christina Marel, and many more. This project was exploratory in nature, and is shaped by some limitations. Data collection was limited to the region. The data are also shaped by my own positionality as a young (21), white, gay man, However, the results of the research reinforce what we find in the limited academic research on frontline supervisors. My analysis below focuses on my research experience and some of the themes that emerged from my analysis.
CITI training:During the first two weeks of the course, we were asked to participate in the CITI Training course in which the Human Research Protection Program.
Academic review: Following our certification, we began exploring what literature already exists (and there isn’t much!) regarding frontline supervision. In “Managing from the Middle”, Frontline supervision is defined as: “serv[ing] in a critical role, maintaining relationships between upper management and frontline workers” (Kras, Portillo, and Taxman 2017, p. 1). This definition shaped the outlook of the Undergraduate Research Application formed by Sydney Bannister, which lead to the focus of our capstone course.
Purpose:The purpose of our research is to explore and understand how power is wielded by middle managers in local law enforcement precincts and how they manage their use of power in relation to their gender identity.
The Interviews:I conducted two interviews with local police sergeants. Before each of the interviews, the sergeants signed informed consent forms. The interviews were both semi-structured to allow for a better flow of ideas and conversation in a confidential setting. I took notes of the actions/reactions throughout our dialogue and compiled all of the information (verbal & nonverbal) via transcription. Interviews focused on broad themes related to sergeants roles as middle managers, and specifically asked for narratives of how sergeants engage with their work with subordinates and superiors.
One difficulty I faced during the process, was access to research participants. It was difficult to recruit people into the study. One of the more interesting findings from my analysis is how my identity may have shaped the data I acquired.
In one interview, I felt uncomfortable on the basis of my sexuality whereas I felt comfortable in the other. Which, in regard to the perception of power, one sergeant seemingly used my identity as platform to exert his authority over me. Some of the key indicators that I noted throughout that interview included: Frequent interruption, correction of my questions, rolling of eyes, and patronizing tones and vocal inflections. This slight difference of social identity appeared to separate me from the social status of the heteronormative sergeant. In the reading “How Race, Sex, and Age Frame the Use of Authority by Local Government Officials”, “Social status can be seen as a continuum, with middle-aged white men at one end and young women of color at the other” (Portillo, 2010 p. 608) While understanding that my identity leans heavily towards one end, even the slightest difference in social identity made me feel extremely uncomfortable as I felt my status challenged greatly (You can imagine what that could mean from identities on the other end of the spectrum). However, that same individual did not have a post-high school education and felt as though his authority was challenged as my questions were ‘academic’-based and not ‘practice’-based.
Another challenge, among the difficulty in locating sergeants in general, were locating women in those roles. When, at the beginning of the semester, we had a conversation of what it was like for women to be in these roles, many have discussed feeling as though they needed to express their title of authority to be taken seriously. As well, many felt as though they had to become accustomed to the ‘fraternization’ environment of policing. That being said, during a panel towards the beginning of the semester, one of the sergeants stated that her subordinates often found her to be “bitchy” when enforcing rules. Prokos and Padavic outline these scenarios justly, that such masculinity, “Is rendered most visible in situations where it is challenged, as when men face unemployment, enter traditionally female occupations[...], or, as in this case, when women enter jobs that traditionally had been used to confirm masculinity” (Prokos and Padavic 2002, p. 441).
The solution? I would urge for more data and research into this, especially into the day-to-day environment of middle-management as well as in interviewing sergeants from other jurisdictions and regions. This way, we can improve academia and provide sound literature to better shape policy, in training of future sergeants, and in educating the public.
This research was extraordinarily exciting in terms of being on the forefront of research. Prior to the capstone course, I knew that I was interested in continuing in some sort of higher education but having the opportunity to engage in this particular research study has reinvigorated that passion. I knew that we had a long ways to go in terms of diversifying the roles of leading figures in our society but I had no idea to what extent such intentionality, time, and effort must be taken to achieve that. This course helped me to realize that while there may be no simple solution.
Kras, K., Portillo, S. and Taxman, F. (2017). Managing from the Middle: Frontline
Supervisors and Perceptions of Their Organizational Power. Law & Policy, 39 (3), pp.215-236.
Portillo, S. (2010). How Race, Sex, and Age Frame the Use of Authority by Local Government Officials.
Law & Social Inquiry, 35 (3), 603-623. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1747-4469.2010.01197.x
Prokos, A. and Padavic, I. (2002). 'There Oughtta Be a Law Against Bitches': Masculinity Lessons in
Police Academy Training. Gender, Work and Organization, 9(4), pp.439-459.
Ground Floor Research: My Experience
Since this was something that I’ve never done before, it was kind of scary, but the more involved that I became with the first interview, the more interesting the actual interviews became and therefore it was more that I liked the actual research of people. My confidence increased with the second interview as I had more of an idea of what I wanted to as although it was that much better than the first interview.
In the end, I think that had I done more, it probably could have been even easier and maybe even become addictive if there could even be such a thing in the academic world. Being the ground breaker for research of a subject that doesn’t have much information and knowing that I had a hand in how future research can and will be done is very satisfying to know and it would be interesting to know how far research can go years down the road.