“Train up a child in the way s/he should go”: a book on undergrad research in religious studies

Teaching Undergraduate Research in Religious Studies is a collection of essays from sixteen faculty members trying to formulate better approaches for undergraduate research in Religious Studies. I’m pretty sure it is the first book which tackles the idea of directed undergrad research specifically in the field of religious studies. Interestingly, they drew on earlier efforts to design useful undergraduate research programs, specifically the “apprenticeship model of education” first defined  in the field of chemistry (3). But Religious Studies isn’t a hard science, so there’s plenty of room for disagreement about how an apprenticeship model should work.

The main objective, according to the authors, is to help certain undergrads conduct a specific inquiry or investigation which makes “an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline” (6). Needless to say, they had difficulty defining exactly what might constitute such a contribution! Part II of the book examines a few ways undergraduates might contribute by exploring archival material, doing fieldwork (ethnography, etc.) and working with texts.

But Part I is what really caught my attention. It consists of several essays regarding two points of criteria crucial for their model of undergrad research: “selectivity” and “collaboration.” Regarding the former, they believe an undergrad research project “is intended for those students with a certain curiosity and capability” (7-8). Regarding the latter, faculty and student “work together” in a “unique relationship,” a “collegial relationship,” toward a coauthored, hopefully published, product (8). Several essays explore the ways such projects can help students, and acknowledge obstacles which stand in the way of such an idealized picture.

I’m interested to hear from people currently working in the academy regarding the feasibility of successful collaboration with undergraduates. The book’s contributors recognize institutional, financial, and temporal considerations which stand in the way of such projects, and they also talk about the ways many undergraduates lack sufficient ground knowledge in order to formulate appropriate questions for research to begin with. Despite these and other problems, they see Undergraduate Research as an important way to prepare students for graduate work. My undergraduate work was in mass communications, and my professors all had large classes and many responsibilities. I don’t know how possible it would have been for any of them to take a few students aside for a specific research project, and I don’t know how they would successfully identify people who would benefit from such attention. I benefited from a few part-time mentors who responded to emails or spent some time on the phone with me, but I didn’t have the close attention that this book prescribes.

It seems to me that the book has some useful ideas for professors teaching undergraduates in Religious Studies. It includes a “Working Statement on Undergraduate Research in Religious Studies” and a sample “Learning Contract” which professors might use on specific research projects with students to set deadlines, goals, and expectations. It seems to me that the two biggest obstacles to such research projects, aside from finding students ready to engage, are time and money.

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Bernadette McNary-Zak and Rebecca Todd Peters, ed., Teaching Undergraduate Research in Religious Studies, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 193 pages. ISBN13: 9780199732869.
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  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    This sounds like a fascinating book. Though I am not in a situation to comment directly on this, I would say that at least in some disciplines, facility with the languages is a serious limitation for collaborate undergraduate research.
    I’d also say that it is my impression that collaboration in the humanities in general is pretty rare, even with equal colleagues, so with undergrads that might pose an even bigger problem.
    At the same time, I understand that many BYU professors routinely collaborate with undergraduate researches (both to whom they given explicit credit and those that they don’t) for some of their published work. Their work is overwhelmingly targeted at general LDS readers, rather than other specialists, which may account for the different reliance upon such work. Nevertheless, perhaps they might provide a model for this kind of thing.

  • http://www.lifeongoldplates.com BHodges

    TT, it basically seems like they advocate for professors to take promising up-and-comers under their wings to bring them up right. The book contains a few dialogue boxes featuring students who benefited from undergrad research projects, which they feel prepared them to be accepted in great programs, etc. It made me jealous to know some people were given such a leg up in what seems like a more competitive academic environment than I’d anticipated.

    Right on about humanities collab. being rare. In this book they give a few examples, like a student who assisted in gathering oral histories from a particular group of people, the histories went on the inform the larger product of the professor, with the student assisting on the side.

  • SmallAxe

    To me, much of the “undergraduate research” talk is borrowed from the hard (and sometimes social) sciences where the kinds of projects that professors are working on allow for more collaboration.

    In my case, producing original research usually involves close reading of primary sources (in languages other than English), extensive reading of secondary sources (mostly in English), and then engagement with primary and secondary sources in producing a written document. Collaborating with someone, IMO, would entail engaging in these activities together; and undergraduates might offer a limited kind of collaboration–summarizing secondary scholarship, editing the written document, etc. Rarely, an undergraduate might be able to engage the material in a way that produces publishable scholarship at the professional level.

    I am interested in training undergraduates for graduate school, but I don’t think the best way to do this is to have them publish original research either on their own, or in collaboration with a professor in the humanities.

    That said, if there are other kinds of “research” projects that they can take an equal amount of initiative on (say creating an online archive of images of Brigham Young), then I’m all for it.

  • http://www.lifeongoldplates.com BHodges

    SmallAxe, they try to anticipate those concerns, in fact one or two contributors essentially point to the same problems you point to, as the book isn’t strictly consensus on this stuff. How do you feel generally about the idea of professors working closely with a few undergrads to help them prepare generally? Your research project (online archive etc.) idea might quickly become outsourcing busy work too.

  • SmallAxe

    BHodges, could you rephrase your question? Help undergraduates prepare generally for what?

    I’m interested as to how the authors might resolve my concerns.

  • http://www.lifeongoldplates.com BHodges

    Basically, I’m wondering if you see any advantage in professors working directly with a few undergrad students beyond what they assign their classes generally in order to help prepare them for grad school. Can you envision any such work which wouldn’t amount to extra busy work?

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Bhodges,
    My guess is that at many schools, most of that work in terms of preparation for grad school comes in the form of a senior thesis project or some other kind of independent research. This may not be collaborative, or with publication in sight (I’m actually pretty skeptical of the need and value of publishing undergraduate work), but I think it does a pretty good job. Having no immediate experience, I’m wondering how widespread this practice is, especially at large state schools, though.

  • SmallAxe

    I’ll add a bit to what TT is saying.

    Preparing an undergraduate for graduate school is different from collaborating with an undergraduate on a publishable work.

    Busy work, as far as grad school prep is concerned, is not the most helpful kind of prep (although it is often beneficial in allowing a potential letter writer to get to know you better, in cultivating clerical skills, etc.). Most prep can be done in taking advanced level classes (perhaps even graduate level classes), and doing well in those classes. I know a lot of professors who are willing to meet for extra hours to discuss a text in greater detail, do an indepdenent study course, critique a paper more thoroughly, etc. I’d say that if an undergraduate is serious about grad school (in religious studies), finding a prof who is willing to do these things is important.

  • http://www.lifeongoldplates.com BHodges

    Excellent, I’m really glad to read your replies. Your perspectives mean a lot because you’ve seen a lot more in regards to on the ground logistics, so to speak, than I have. I should add, I’d like to see more undergraduate opportunities to engage in theory and intellectual history. Rather than taking an intro course on “World Religions” (with all the problems inherent to that subject) it would be cool to take a class on Views of World Religions, covering various approaches to “religion,” etc. Better preparation in regards to theory would be an important way to help undergrads, imo, which this book didn’t really talk about.

  • SmallAxe

    There are actually quite a few places where the introductory course (usually a 100 level course titled “An Introduction to Religion”) answers questions such as what it means to study religion (here’s an example: http://religion.ua.edu/rel100mccutch.html). Student experience in these courses vary since many of them want some kind of introduction to various religions around the world and the course they end up taking isn’t what they thought it would be.

    Additionally, if you major in religious studies there should be some kind of soph/jr/sr seminar series that takes a more theoretical approach to the topic.