Sunday, February 04, 2018

Student Research Assistants?

We have a small MA program, and one of the ways the department tries to help these folks financially is with research assistantships.  Faculty apply for help, and get a student assigned for so many hours.

I've tried in the past, but I don't really know how to use student time well.  When I was a grad student, I had a research assistantship, and my task was to independently find everything written on a given text (which I also read), make photocopies, read and annotate/summarize them, and then prioritize them for my supervisor so that he'd know which I thought were most important or interesting for his work.  Then I'd hand over the hard copies.  I also read his works in progress and gave feedback.  I learned a TON doing the research, because it was in my field and his work is really interesting.

I tried to have past students do that sort of work, but it didn't really work out.  They had a harder time finding appropriate resources, and they don't want to take time to read original texts, aren't interested in the field, so don't really feel a benefit to themselves.

I'm thinking of applying for a research assistant this year, and hoping you folks can give me ideas for using their time wisely and well.



  1. I have had research assistants for the last year. It’s been very helpful. But I also selected people who were very interested in my field, and so that made it doubly good. If you’re able to pick someone who loves the topic you’re working in, it can make a huge difference.

    I had them organize research I’d already gathered, putting it all in an annotated bibliography. At first I had them gather, read, and report to me, but it was clear they didn’t have enough experience to know what was relevant and worthwhile. So instead, I had them type notes I’d already written in margins of books/PDFs, to help train their eye for significance. Underlined passages needed to be summarized. Starred passages needed to be quoted in their entirety. Notes in margins needed to be summarized. It’s been super helpful — both for them to understand what I want, and for me to get organized.

    After that bit of false start, I didn’t have them doing the research gathering for me. They’re undergrads. They don’t have enough deep research experience. But I introduced them to things like the WSB, the concordance, EEBO, and Mendeley (for keeping track of notes and PDFs). Having them work on a research project of their own in tandem with what I was doing, also gave them a reason to be “bought in.” (They were working on thesis projects last fall.)

    The students also have to have had Shakespeare with me, so I know how they work and whether or not they’re equal to the task of working for me.

    Now that one has been with me for a while, I’m starting to trust him to do more gathering and reading on his own. But he’s graduating in a couple of months, and I’ll be on my own again. The woman who was working for me is already gone —overseas for study abroad. I have another guy who is going to be working with me. But he’s had the flu the majority of the semester already. So he hasn’t done anything yet. Ugh.

    Anyway - I think having RAs is super useful if you can find the right people. They won’t necessarily be great at what you want from the beginning, but if you train them up, they can be awesome.

  2. Anonymous4:37 PM

    Do you use a reference management software package? If not you can get them to investigate and recommend a free/low cost package to help you manage your citations/references and organise your bibliographies.

    If you already use one, getting them to enter/update and add the fulltext/pdf to the references could be helpful.

    This activity could hep both you, and them in the short and long term.

  3. Interesting that you notice that students are having a difficult time finding research; they have low information literacy skills. Have you connected them with your liaison librarian? Perhaps requiring a session with the librarian will improve their skills, not only for the assistance-ship, but for future research as well.