Thursday, December 07, 2006

More on the Research Group

In this post I talked about how we in the humanities generally do not have research groups the way that the sciences do. I got an interesting comment from Tiruncula that I hope to follow up, and a few private emails as well. So I thought it would be worth it to discuss this further (I should do that more often, but I'm not a very good blogger, as you will have noticed).

There are now on the web very good "virtual" research groups using different kinds of content-management software. ANSAX-net used to be a quasi research group before it was first hijacked by loonies and then lost a lot of steam as many of the more senior and serious people deserted it. There are groups like the Reading Room at and Livejournal collectives, etc. I am involved in different "virtual" research groups, and they are absolutely essential to my work (my co-editors for Tolkien Studies have only gotten together about five times in four years; I never met my editors for The Tolkien Encyclopedia). But there is something very different about a physical, meatspace working group.

So I have tried to build one. I don't have graduate students at Wheaton, so I decided to treat my best undergraduates like graduate students and see what happened. I'm pretty happy with the results, which include a decent pile of publications, one of my very best research assistant just about ABD in the best medieval program in the world, another recently returned from a Fulbright to Iceland, another in grad school in Kansas, another just out of law school, etc. There is no way we could have gotten Tolkien Studies up and running without the research group, and the bibliography project and few other things that we haven't unveiled yet are all due to the group.

Let me explain how it works. About five or six years ago, Prof. of Biology Ed Tong and I went to our previous Provost and proposed the formation of Wheaton Research Partners. The Provost supported--and got the Work Study office to support--assigning about 25 positions (8 hours per week at, I think, $7 per hour) to the program. The first 25 faculty who apply with a decent proposal get a Wheaton Research Partner. I find it most effective to split the job in half (i.e., 4 hr per week) and hire two WRP students each year. These are my immediate research assistants.

Then, I recruit a few more students at the job fair. I point out that I don't actually have a paid position this year (it's already filled by the WRP person), but that if someone volunteers for an hour or two per week, he or she will certainly have the inside track for a WRP slot in the future. Then I hold a group meeting and see who shows up. I have always managed to have two to four very good students working with me.

It's really important not to assign these students monkey work, but to teach them and the trust them to do real research. This takes a while, and we definitely treat it as an apprenticeship program: students start out with basic things (entering articles into the database, filing them, reading and summarizing) and move up as they get more skills to researching bibliography, requesting materials ILL, and then actually writing and proofing the final bibliography with me. The most advanced students proof each issue of Tolkien Studies with me. I also will do independent studies with advanced students who want to, and for the very most advanced seniors, an honors thesis if appropriate. So the "career path" is:

Volunteer -- gets experience
Wheaton Research Partner -- gets paid
Independent Research -- gets course credit
Honors Thesis -- gets honors

At each stage students get intellectual credit for what they do, presenting at Academic Festival, being co-author with me on something when they earn it, getting to present at a conference (and then I hit up the Provost's office for money for them to travel), etc.

The biggest weaknesses with this system are the lack of guaranteed funding, lack of space and large time committment for both administering the project and for uncompensated teaching (but I teach a ton of Independent Studies anyway). But the rewards are very great. I have six different articles and bibliographies co-published with eight students. All the research for the Anglo-Saxon medicine project was also supported by Wheaton Research Partners, and that led to a publication in Anglo-Saxon England with an undergraduate as co-author. I'm never at a loss for things to do or people to talk to about my work, and the social environment of the group is constantly energizing.

Of course things would be even better if I had the equivalent of a laboratory in biology: if I could afford to pay a Tolkien scholar from overseas (like Marcel B├╝lles or Gergely Nagy, both of whom were part of the group, but who had other funding) to come each year, and if I had an advanced grad student or two, and a post-doc, then we would really do something. And of course the big limitation is that the group is (mostly) limited to working on Tolkien, as undergrads just aren't quite ready, linguistically, for research in Old English until they are seniors. But I guess I have years to put such a program together, and in the meanwhile I am having a great deal of fun with some pretty incredible students: the four who are working with me this year, two freshmen, a sophomore and a junior, are stellar, and I'm hoping that with their energy, we can do even more things in the spring semester.

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