A Continuum of Research: Assistants, Partners, and Undergraduate Researchers
by Sophia Abbot
One of the most powerful experiences of my undergraduate career was spending a summer writing and researching with Dr. Alison Cook-Sather. While the official job title was “research assistant,” I was doing much more than supporting Dr. Cook-Sather’s ongoing work (though I did have the pleasure of reading over and offering feedback on several manuscripts!). The work began because I’d spent the prior semester drawing maps of classrooms I had been observing as part of a partnership with a professor (through Students as Learners and Teachers). The maps gave my faculty partner and me significant insight into the impact of different classroom facilitation techniques on student participation. For example, in one class we saw a single student with prior experience in the subject dominating much of the discussion, and several students never speaking up or finding space to enter. After intervening with a small group activity, all the students had had time to process their thoughts on a topic and were able to share. This was something we could make sense of intellectually, but the maps showed it to us visually. The groups really did help more evenly distribute student participation in our context!
(Abbot, Cook-Sather, & Hein, 2014)
Spending a summer writing up these observations and sharing my process reinforced my sense of agency. To be seen and respected by Alison as a colleague in the research process gave me a sense that my voice and perspective mattered, and that I could positively impact my university community. We used the framework of student-faculty partnership as our explicit foundation. This meant we adopted a “reciprocal process through which all participants have the opportunity to contribute equally, although not necessarily in the same ways” (Cook-Sather, Bovill, & Felten, 2014, p. 6-7) on our shared examinations of teaching and learning. Building on the varying levels of expertise we each held, we supported each others’ work. I was essential to our shared knowledge creation, and my student voice was reflected in the subsequent work we published.
This was, perhaps, a somewhat unique way to begin an undergraduate research experience. So what happens in undergraduate research (UR) more generally? The Council on Undergraduate Research defines UR as “An inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline.” Many UR experiences, then, are not framed within the realm of partnership, but enact a number of those principles. In fact, the new research on Salient Practices in Mentoring Undergraduate Research can help faculty take the first steps in developing more reciprocal and partnered relationships by holistically recognizing students and working with students to increase their ownership and agency in the research process. However, the ultimate goal of UR is student autonomy over an idea and subsequent work. This means UR should be more student-directed than my co-inquiry experiences.
Sometimes, students are brought into a project with defined goals, and a clear and preset role doing more of a research assistantship. This doesn’t meet the definitions of Undergraduate Research, and while it can evolve into UR, the top-down and heavily directed model is really its own assistantship experience. This makes sense given faculty needs to conduct and produce research outputs for their professional goals, and this can also be an effective student-faculty relationship if there is no misunderstanding about it. But when students enter a hierarchical relationship expecting to experience the kind of partnership or UR approach I described above, that’s when troubling conflict can occur, as demonstrated in the outlier cases I explored in a recent blog post about disagreement in partnership.
Ultimately, I see all of these examples fitting on a kind of continuum of research:
At one end is faculty-directed research with student support; at the other end is student-directed research with faculty support; and in the middle is a co-constructed approach in which a professor and student work towards shared research goals and outputs. For smooth and productive research experiences, students and faculty need to be explicit about which level of the continuum they will be working, and flexible to check in as those roles shift and evolve over time. Similar continuums exist in broader UR research literature and specific to student engagement in the scholarship of teaching and learning, but have not yet been merged. For example, Nind, 2014, has a researcher-led to participant-led continuum in her exploration of inclusive research, and Moore, 2016, has a continuum from students as respondents to SoTL inquiry through to students as co-inquirers.
Ultimately, this continuum raises questions for me about power and equity: who dictates the direction of research at each level, consciously or unconsciously, and how does that affect the ultimate outputs of research? This also leads to a larger philosophical question: Who has the right to create new knowledge? In my next post, I’ll be exploring this question and its implications across the research continuum.
- Abbot, S., Cook-Sather, A., & Hein, C. (2014). Mapping classroom interactions: A spatial approach to analyzing patterns of student participation. To Improve the Academy, 33(2), 131-152.
- Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C., Felten, P. (2014). Engaging students as partners in learning and teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, p. 6-7.
- Moore, J. L. (2016). Undergraduate research in SoTL as a high-impact practice [Web log post]. Retrieved from: https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/undergraduate-research-in-sotl-as-a-high-impact-practice/
- Nind, M. (2014). What is inclusive research? London: Bloomsbury.
Sophia Abbot is the 2018-2020 Center for Engaged Learning Graduate Apprentice and a student in the Masters of Higher Education program at Elon University.