Sunday, June 04, 2006

Collaborative research issues - post 3 - crunching numbers

I'm in the throes of trying to work on two projects related to collaborative research, specifically between faculty and undergraduates. I'm doing a lot of brainstorming in these posts, and really, post 2 should logically come before post 1. But I didn't think things through in that order because I'm at the beginning of my processing about this stuff.

Thanks for all the suggestions and encouragement so far. Here's a quick review:

In Post 1, I tried to think through the differences between "gathering data" in the sciences (with biology as my example) and in the humanities (with English as my example). Sciences generally have a methodology, and the research planning includes methods for data collection and so on. In contrast, in English, mostly, we start out by reading lots of texts (more or less randomly, depending), come up with some question or idea about one or another of them, and then research in other texts of various sorts to test out our idea. If there's a clear methodology, I never learned it.

In Post 2, having thought through some questions about methodology, I realized that methodology is really a big question for me in collaborative research, and started trying to articulate what we (The Scientist and I, in our talk) mean by research: research seeks to create new knowledge. Then I talked specifically about a Peromyscus research project I'd done as an undergrad, and asked if that would have been considered collaborative research now. I came to the conclusion that an important part of research is articulating new knowledge to communicate with others.

Today, I'm thinking back on a conversation I had with a Dean here a few weeks ago now. We were coming from a meeting that had been discussing one aspect of undergraduate research, and he was talking about collaborative projects he'd been involved with as a science professor. He said he'd had a student come up with a great idea for a project, and then he'd facilitated the project.

I thought, wow, I must suck as a teacher, because I rarely have students who can initiate a good research paper in an upper level seminar. I've never had a student come in with a really good independent research idea and ask for help.

I asked The Scientist during our conversation, if the Dean's experience was also one she'd had, and she said she'd pretty much always had a different sort of experience. In her experience, a really good student, often an advisee, comes in and expresses interest in doing some research project, and she invites the student to help her with some research project she has going.

Well, now, that's a world of difference, isn't it? That could happen in my field, I imagine.

Let's imagine, for every 20 majors, you have one who's got the initiative and such to come in to an advisor or other professor and say s/he's interested in doing a research project.

How many English majors are there, The Scientist asked. I don't know off hand; we have four different majors housed in our department, and are home to another major shared between several other departments. I advise only lit majors, though I teach theory which is required for all. I told her that I have 15-20 advisees. Her eyes bugged out a bit. 15-20 advisees? How is that possible?

Here's the thing, in a field such as English, of the 11 credit hours I teach every semester, 5 are in composition. Almost half my teaching load thus goes to service the needs of the university and general education. In addition, for about half the English department faculty, 3-6 credit hours per year probably goes to courses taken primarily by general education students, rather than English majors. (Faculty who specialize in education teach fewer general education courses, while those in literature and creative writing seem to teach more.)

The fact is, compared to other departments, we have a large ratio of faculty to majors, say, 1:15. That's good on some levels because it means we can offer fairly specialized courses to our upper level students; we have specialists in American Ethnic literatures, in Shakespeare, in Romanticism, and so on. We have one of the bigger departments on campus. (Math is about as big, and Foreign Languages; both of these also have huge gen ed service components to their teaching loads.)

Most departments teach some primarily general education courses, but few contribute to the load the way English, Math, and Foreign Languages do.

The Scientist's department, in contrast, serves far fewer general education courses, has fewer faculty (who thus have to teach more introductory and intermediate level courses outside their specialty).

There's a possible downside, in terms of pure numbers, for collaborative research, though. If there's that special student (1 in 20) who decides s/he wants to do a research project, s/he has LOTS of faculty to go to; most of my colleagues are good folks, and happy to do collaborative work if it comes along. If the student wants to work with, say, someone who teaches Shakespeare, s/he has four choices here. I may be the Bardiac, but there's another Shakespeare person, and two others who teach Shakespeare fairly regularly and any of them could do good work with a student.

Then consider that most students starting out as English majors tend to lean towards American lit, and especially novels, since their previous experience heavily leans towards American novels, novels in general, and stuff written since, say, 1850. I can't assign numbers to this, but I see it as a trend. (Do other folks see the same trends?) (This is easy to see with our MA students; we have at least ten American 19th-20th century novel theses to every one in pre-1800 lit.)

So, if I want to do collaborative research with students, I have to find ways to introduce them to the idea, introduce them to my own research stuff in classes (which seems egotistical, but also seems potentially helpful in getting them interested in research in general), and then encourage them to take opportunities to do research.

Also, I have to think more about how we teach research in classes, and consider how we talk about the research students do in classes, and how we disseminate their findings (if we do). That's up for the next post, I think!

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