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

“Train up a child in the way s/he should go”: a book on undergrad research in religious studies November 6, 2011

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.


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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