Thursday, December 20, 2012

Transformative Undergraduate Research

Casey Dué wrote last week about the accomplishments of some undergraduates at Brown University who, given the opportunity and the “extreme academic freedom” to pursue original research using primary sources (namely, a book of Roger Williams’ containing some hitherto undeciphered handwritten notes), were able to solve a long-standing mystery. Their access to these primary sources and the freedom to work on a scholarly problem with them demonstrates the transformative nature of real undergraduate research, both for the study of these primary sources and for the students’ education.

Most of the primary sources in our discipline are not available at libraries in this country, and that is why the digital photographs of them are so important to the Homer Multitext project. The digital technologies of creating these images and making them available to all interested researchers is similarly transformative of how research in our discipline can be (and even should be) conducted. What’s more, digital technologies can change how research is shared, and therefore how undergraduate researchers can join the scholarly conversation on a topic. William Pannapacker wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education last month about how these digital technologies eliminate the “Indiana Jones Warehouse” effect that was the traditional outcome for undergraduate research. As Pannapacker put it, “There’s no guarantee that the world will beat a path to your online project, but at least it’s available, and updatable. It’s not a moribund, bound manuscript shelved in a university library’s off-site storage warehouse.” Perhaps the least expected and most gratifying part of the Homer Multitext project so far has been how it has changed how we work with students and get them involved in original research of their own within the project. Some of their initial work is already available here on the blog (search for the tag “undergraduate research” to see them all) and on the project website, but the next stages of the project will do even more to bring their work to the scholarly community.

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