Most of us are familiar with the idea of publishing academic pieces with our graduate students. Although it varies by discipline and academic culture (my totally anecdotal findings are that this is a much more common practice in North America than the United Kingdom, for example), it is not uncommon for us to work with and eventually publish with research students under our supervision.
Let’s spend a few moments thinking about why this is common practice (admittedly this is an incomplete list).
- It provides much needed professional development for our graduate students. If one thinks about this relationship as a form of apprenticeship, publishing with students is one way that we train/prepare them for professional academic life. More concretely, mentoring them through joint publications leads to solid lines on their CVs, providing them with the type of experience that is most valued in our profession.
- The increased motivation and accountability that comes from working collaboratively: For both the students and for us, working together on something can push us forward in terms of productivity as one feels more accountable to meeting deadlines and is (perhaps/ideally) less likely to procrastinate. In the right circumstances collaboration can have tangible impacts on our productivity, and that of our students.
- Related to the above, there are the less tangible but no less important intellectual rewards of collaboration. Working with others can infuse our own research with new ideas, literature and methods that we might not have considered if working alone. When working with our younger colleagues, this can be particularly rejuvenating.
At this juncture, I will make a personal admission. Whilst working on the ‘teaching tenure-track’ here at UBC is incredibly rewarding in many ways, I do miss working with graduate students and all the benefits noted above that come with this. I miss mentoring and encouraging these emerging scholars. More selfishly, I miss how much working with grad students invigorated my own research and teaching agendas. It is the one major ‘gap’ I feel I have in my current career. It is upon reflecting on all of this, that I decided to see if the same benefits (for all parties) could hold true when publishing with UNDERGRADUATE students. Can I both provide and receive the above benefits, working with our most junior of colleagues?
Description of Project and Recruitment
I (stubbornly) pre-determined that the answer to the above was ‘yes’ and set about introducing a new assignment in my POLI 370 course called ‘Publish With Your Prof’. Interested students were invited to write a short personal statement as to why they wanted to take part in this project– there was a choice of 8 projects to choose from for their final assignment. I had initially thought I would work with just 3 students, but after higher than expected interest (I had close to 30 students apply!) I selected 5 students to work with me. Their personal statements were all quite different. Some had done research on non-violence and aesthetics (the broad theme for the paper that I had already decided upon) to show their intellectual interest and personal initiative in regards to informing themselves of topic. Others spoke in much more personal terms, reflecting on their own individual experiences with either non-violence or aesthetics. There was no magic formula for getting selected. I did not ask for academic writing samples. What I was looking for was students who seemed highly motivated for either professional or personal reasons to work on the topic and presented this in a detailed way. I also tried to select a range of students in this regard, believing that diversity of interests, motivations and backgrounds would make for a more enriching experience.
I wanted to be able to give students the full experience of working on a paper—from initial idea to final product. Therefore, the assignment description was quite vague and the students I worked with didn’t just slot in to a pre-prepared project/help me finish something I had already started. Although I gave them a broad theme/approach (aesthetics, images, nonviolence/pacifism), the arguments/approach, cases, methods etc all stemmed from our discussions as a group. At the end of this blog post I provide a fuller description of the project that was supplied to the students (including details on grading).
In terms of the third benefit listed above (intangible intellectual benefits), the project was a complete success. The paper I had envisioned in my own head when I created the assignment did NOT materialize. Instead, my students took the paper in a related but slightly different, more innovative direction. Their enthusiasm, discussion, personal interests all led to the creation of an argument and approach that I would have never reached on my own. The case studies they selected, though I was familiar with some of them, were not cases I would have been drawn to or have necessarily uncovered on my own. I’m now left with such rich teaching materials (both in terms of content and illustrative examples) for any presentations or classes I teach on aesthetics and/or visual politics.
From the students’ perspective- and here I am just noting the learning I myself witnessed as I don’t have permission to quote their reflective writing assignments where they discussed what they learned from the project—I also saw some amazing moments related to the first benefit (academic apprenticeship). In a short period of time I saw my undergraduates learn important lessons that I feel have been central in teaching them the difference between consuming and producing knowledge—what it means do innovative academic research (beyond the traditional literature review/argumentative style essay that we generally assign).
A key moment related to this occurred when several students noted to me (with varying degrees of stress) that ‘they couldn’t find any sources that analyzed the image they had selected using the two analytical lenses we had decided to use (aesthetics and counter-power)’. In some cases there was almost no academic literature at all on their selected photo, yet alone any using the aforementioned frames. What were they to do? Should they find new cases? This was a seminal moment in teaching them about the concept of ‘contribution to knowledge’—that dreaded term that scared the bejesus out of my younger-grad-school self and my PhD cohort. I now found myself explaining and de-mystifying this term to my undergraduate students—noting that the lack of literature was actually a good thing, that what they had done was found that elusive ‘gap in the literature’, and that now they were going to fill that gap with their own analysis. This was a clear and, I think, really effective learning moment for this students in regard to experiencing something so central to academic success. Related to this, I feel there was a fear of speaking in an authoritative voice about ‘new findings’ (something I still struggle with myself of course). However, what I saw in their final submissions revealed great steps in overcoming this important barrier as well.
What Didn’t Work
Very early on in my academic career a wise mentor warned me about collaborative projects with a refrain that I am sure is familiar to all of us: “Collaborations only go as fast as the slowest contributor”. I have (painfully) experienced this a couple of times. And, well folks, I’m ashamed to say that on this particular project, that slowest contributor was me. On this front I really feel like I let my students down. I was managing 8 projects for this class and also teaching another intro level class in another unit. I overestimated how involved I could be in many stages of the project. I let the excitement of the project overtake my rational faculties. I know that the students likely felt a bit let down by this (though they never let on), but they probably didn’t feel as frustrated about this as I did.
Even though I am proud of them and happy with the nearly finished paper, I wanted to work more closely with them. Although I wanted them to work independently, I didn’t have the same time for the intellectual back and forths that I have had on some of my other collaborative projects. Further, my responsibility was to fine tune the literature review, edit their sections, and write up the findings. We had decided on the framework together and discussed comparative findings during the semester, so this was more of a drafting rather than any intellectual heavy lifting on my part. However, I of course did not have time to do this during the term (April). I had hoped to get it done by the end of June, but life got in the way and now I’m aiming for August. This is of course ‘normal’ slippage in our world (2 months late you say! Ha, that’s nothing!), but I can’t help but feel it is less than ideal for my students who have had to wait to see the final product when I was rather (and necessarily) insistent on them getting their parts in on time!
Finally, and as noted earlier, demand to participate in this project outstripped supply by a factor of 10. With nearly 30 students applying to work with me on the project, I again feel like I had to let down a lot of good students. I’m now thinking of if/how I could increase opportunities for this, taking into account what I noted above regarding my abysmal performance time wise. Perhaps if I had fewer projects (not all 8 were successes if I’m honest) and/or got my Graduate TAs involved I could consider expanding this option.
What comes next…
This is definitely an assignment I’ll be using again. The timing problems were of my own making and now that I know what this assignment entails, I’ll plan better for the next round. In terms of the paper from this year, I’ve submitted an abstract to my professional association’s annual convention and hopefully will be able to take at least one of the students to present alongside me if it gets accepted. At the time of writing this post, I’m also about 2/3 of the way through the edits to the paper and will hopefully be submitting it for peer review at some point (and even thought the students are no longer in the class, they will be contributing to this process along the way in terms of helping me respond to reviews). Hopefully, the next ‘academic lesson’ this project teaches them isn’t about the realities of rejection and hopefully they don’t have an encounter with ‘Reviewer-2’ for their first experience of peer review!
Description of project provided to students
Guidelines and Expectations
This project seeks to give students a bit of experience regarding the life-cycle of an academic research project. Together we will produce a 7000 word paper, and, if all goes well, we will submit it for publication to an academic journal or site. This project is combining two of Dr. Peterson’s current research interests—an interest in discourses surrounding non-violence and pacifism (for which she currently has an article under review), and an interest in aesthetic approaches (for which she recently had an article accepted). She will email you both of these pieces for your reference/interest.
The aim of the article we will write together is to explore public discourses surrounding peace movements and or pacifism by exploring iconic images of peace movements/figures. This will be done by engaging in analysis that makes use of theories/concepts coming out of the ‘aesthetic and narrative turn’ in International Relations. Please note, I am seeing you all as co-authors as opposed to Research Assistants (who simply do the grunt work), so many of the important decisions regarding the article are still to be jointly made!
This will occur in the following steps
- Compilation of academic sources that will be of use to the project
- Completing a literature review around the topic to help us identify gaps in the literature, potential analytical frameworks and to narrow our research aim and analytical framework further (once we have agreed upon this, Jen will write up this section)
- The selection of 5 iconic images for each of you to analyze using the agreed upon analytical framework (to be selected as a team and each student to then write up an 1000 word max analysis of one of the images).
- Coming together to write a conclusion, answering the ‘so what?’ question
- Producing a final version to be submitted (time depending!)
How will we be graded?
Although this is a group project, Dr. Peterson has decided to give you each individual grades for the assignment. This will be based on a) the quality of your contributions to discussions about narrowing the question and analytical focus b) the quality of your analysis in the individual analysis on your assigned image c) the quality of your contributions in terms of discussion regarding the conclusion. By quality I mean the clarity of your writing/ideas and the analytical sophistication of your contributions/use of the literature/theories in all of the above.