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Going Deeper

When I was a junior in college, I spent every day for six months in an archive in Lisbon, Portugal, reading newspapers of the early 1900’s, looking for evidence of the activities of various political elites prior to a revolution. It was empirically-based history, in a way. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. I learned that I didn’t want to spend my life in archives; I learned that there was something about very concentrated attention to a single matter that gave me pleasure.

In some ways, it was the beginning of my career, in my case a life as an academic researcher. Looking back on that time and imagining alternative outcomes of my life, the skills I learned at that time are applicable to any profession I would have pursued.

I’ve written several times about the thirst that Georgetown students have to do deep study, guided by a mentor, but semi-independent of the mentor, exploring questions with no current answers. I’ve argued that research can arm students with skills useful to them when events outside their control force them to retool, to acquire new knowledge to prepare them for a changed world.

As part of designing the future(s) of the university, we’re wondering whether we can invent ways to assure that every Georgetown student can have those experiences (See: Experiments). We’ve used the nomenclature of “mentored” research or “immersive” learning. We’re seeking creative solutions to scaling up the successful programs of research experience that we have already made part of Georgetown.

Some of the ideas involve bringing new players into the context of research experience. Some faculty have talked about building a research pyramid, with undergraduate students, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty all participating in teams tackling the same problem. Here the mentoring and guidance takes place at various levels simultaneously. The faculty set the overall framework of the research enterprise and directly interact most frequently with postdocs and graduate students. The undergraduates meet in groups with faculty, postdocs, and graduate students. Direct mentoring of undergraduates is given by graduate students.

Another set of ideas concerns new collaborations with DC institutions, based on alliances with Georgetown. Students are interns with pre-organized activities, coordinated to be academically-valued experiences worthy of academic credit. Much of the mentoring is given by senior staff of the institutions. Faculty are consultants to the work of the institution and liaisons with the students to aid their development within the institution.

Another set of ideas uses alumni as mentors of students, teamed with faculty members. Students work with alumni in academically-relevant activities. Real products are produced of value to the alumni’s organization. The students might work in groups or teams, tackling a problem of the organization, requiring original research to solve.

The goal would be that original research experiences are built into each program, that faculty research productivity is enhanced through the new ways of approaching student involvement, and that sustainable programs be created.

We already have the ingredients of this on campus. The Business School uses group consultative projects as part of its program. The new Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation is organized with experiential learning in building organizations to tackle real problems. The community-based learning opportunities connected to the Center for Social Justice are another example.

The goal would be more formal integration of such experiences into many programs, tailored to the scholarly goals of the faculty.

How can we scale up these types of experiences to serve all students?

7 thoughts on “Going Deeper

  1. These are more like the right questions to ask. Here are some concrete ideas from other university systems:
    1) tutorial system at Cambridge UK
    2) formal and informal academic advisors (one appointed, one similar to a college-master that you can just talk to)
    3) a system, carefully supervised (with feedback), to put each undergrad with a single faculty member…this seems hardest bc do faculty have the time/desire/projects and there could be a bottleneck with numbers… so small groups might be more feasible.

    good luck with this though. learning to “deep study, guided by a mentor” seems, to me at least, to be a laudable goal with great potential for transforming someone’s education

  2. The systematic, sustained and successful programs of the Georgetown University Library provide additional examples of mentored research. One of the Library’s long-held goals is to develop, in collaboration with faculty, staff and students, a research opportunity for every undergraduate. The existing programs and mentorship of our Librarians with, for example, the Carroll Fellows Initiative or the Art History Department, can provide the basis for scale. In addition, the librarians’ hundreds of yearly research consultations offer in-depth guidance ranging from understanding primary source materials to manipulation of data sets. The Faculty Library Advisory Committee has spent much of this year assessing the possibilities for research and recognizing the Library’s role. As we design the future, we will advance more rapidly if we can collaborate more closely. The provost’s delightful story of his own undergraduate experience with archives is actually a perfect example of what the library already offers at Georgetown—with the added mentoring, guidance and passion that actually have persuaded people to enter our field. Just today a recent alumnus, who curated one of our fine prints collections for his senior thesis, wrote to us: “I wanted to share with you the ad card for my first museum show. As I have told everyone that I’ve come across in the field–this could not have happened without the exceptional experience working with…all of Special Collections. That job made me want to pursue curatorial work and be involved with the arts and humanities.” –Artemis Kirk, University Librarian

  3. I think the opportunity to do research – particularly “mentored” research is so important for undergraduates. Students receiving the Pell Grant can also get funding for such research, therefore not having to forgo the opportunity simply to earn an hourly wage elsewhere. These opportunities are available through the GOFAR Office, led by John Glavin’s team.

  4. Another important blog, many thanks for posting.

    The business school, the Beeck Center, and CSJ are no doubt doing great and innovative things, but we should not forget natural scientists. We like to think that we might have even invented many of the more productive approaches to research, and deep immersion into the scientific method used in a natural science laboratory is arguably one of more intense research experiences that any student can have. You don’t need to be a scientist or a science major to benefit from immersion in the scientific method. Overall, breeding an enhanced research culture at any University is strongly enhanced with participation from natural scientists.

    Indeed, for nearly two decades, undergraduates, doctoral students, M.D./Ph.D students, postdoctorals and even a few sporadic visiting scientists have worked side by side in my laboratory. Those of us with successful laboratories on the main campus willingly embrace the notion that undergraduates should be an integral part of our research and have endeavored to perfect the “research pyramids” that are mentioned. They are enormously powerful, and something that we can do exceptionally well. Why are there not more of them ? Why do they not grow ? I can speak only for the natural sciences, but in a nutshell, there are many reasons, two that can be explained quickly. The first is that there is little to no real financial support for undergraduate research. In spite of many similar discussions over a long time, the College does not contribute any financial support for the supplies, equipment costs, etc that any undergraduate might incur in a “real” scientific research setting. What is contributed in other schools or departments, I do not know. A few hundred dollars a semester would go a long way in supporting undergraduate activities in a research laboratory, but scientists that choose to sponsor undergraduate research typically must come up with these funds from their own peer reviewed grant support, or through cajoling limited discretionary funds from departmental budgets that do not contain explicit allocations for undergraduate research. If he or she chooses to allocate peer reviewed grant support to undergraduate research activities, the successful scientist needs to be exceedingly careful. Among other reasons for this, some federal grant mechanisms are not too keen on the practice, unless the grant mechanism explicitly states that there should be an undergraduate component … unfortunately grant mechanisms in this category tend to award considerably smaller sums that, in these times, are insufficient for running the rest of what constitutes a competitive laboratory. Regardless, even under the best of circumstances, when that laboratory is also supporting doctoral and postdoctoral students’ research, the funds (and space) available for undergraduate research within the research pyramid are limited.

    Leading to the second major reason; we have neglected increasing our science faculty ranks for a very long time. Overall College faculty ranks have more than doubled since 1980 (from 387 to well over 800), staff has also increased significantly, but the number of tenure track (research active) faculty added collectively to both the Biology and Chemistry departments was zero for well over half a century. We may now finally be attempting to reverse this trend, but it is a very slow process, and at our current pace we will not “catch up” to our peer institutions for another several decades. 400 + faculty in all other departments is terrific, and appropriate for a University of our stature reaching for global prominence, but neglecting the nuts and bolts of what makes scientific research productive has held us back, and not just in research specific to the natural sciences. The low faculty numbers greatly impede our ability to capitalize on numerous “cross disciplinary” research opportunities that are now around every corner but that require some degree of the research expertise that tends to be found in “research pyramids” within productive science departments.


  5. This is very inspiring and exciting. I can envision ways in which Georgetown as a global community can come together and remain connected inter generationally as long life learners and mentors/partners with students and researchers in the pursuit and creation of knowledge.

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