By Beth Black and Tim O'Neil
Student engagement librarian Beth Black recently interviewed Tim O’Neil, assistant director of Special Undergraduate Enrichment Programs at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Their conversation centers around the process of helping undergraduates see themselves as scholars, and how libraries can work with undergraduate research offices as partners and collaborators. The first installment of this two-part blog series looks at one of the questions at the heart of so many discussions about the nature of research in higher education.
Beth Black: Research is a word we use a lot in libraries, but I think sometimes the research we are talking about is different from the research students are engaging in through undergraduate research programs. Have you encountered this? How do you explain research to students and colleagues?
Tim O’Neil: I frequently encounter the cognitive dissonance students experience as they negotiate the discourse about university research, scholarly, and creative work, which can lead undergraduates to crises of confidence that are routinely articulated in paralytic terms of uncertainty: “I don’t know what to do”—an unfortunate consequence to the definition dilemma in our conversations about undergraduate engagement in the academic and creative life of the university. I believe this dissonance is due, in part, to overlapping (and occasionally competing) approaches to defining undergraduate research—namely, those that organize around project outcomes and others that focus on learning outcomes.
The Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) primarily employs a project-oriented definition and sets the threshold for “undergraduate research” at making “an original contribution to the discipline,” which can exclude what we often refer to as “library research” and other models, such as some course-based experiences or arts and humanities work. Considering learning outcomes, such as those highlighted in work on high-impact practices (HIPs), the differences are less distinct—if not irrelevant. The Association of American Colleges & Universities (AACU) declares the goal of undergraduate research is to “involve students with actively contested questions, empirical observation, cutting-edge technologies, and the sense of excitement that comes from working to answer important questions.” While still project-oriented, the AACU’s definition points to learning outcomes and sets the threshold for inquiry at “important” rather than “original”—an open door for “library research.”
Given the wide range of experiences possible and the myriad learning outcomes that can result from active participation in the academic and creative life of the university, it seems problematic to draw boundaries around “undergraduate research” based solely on project outcomes. CUR’s recent White Paper No. 1 (2019) frames these learning outcomes as workforce development, noting students develop “perseverance, communication within groups, and ability to collaborate with others in ways that help them work confidently with peers and supervisors in the workforce” (4). Students can acquire these and other widely transferable skills by participating in a spectrum of inquiry-based activities. The context, duration, and publishable outcomes of these experiences are, to me, less important than the conceptual pathways these experiences open for students to see themselves as participants in a community of professionals—to find belonging. The common ground is inquiry—for both an inclusive definition of undergraduate research and, more importantly, student-faculty partnerships.
In my experience, undergraduates tend to matriculate with the expectation that their education will follow a familiar paradigm in which they will be asked to learn, synthesize, and recall information to answer questions on an exam. And many experiences confirm this expectation. But as students encounter new pedagogical models (e.g. inquiry-based learning), they must find ways to negotiate the often difficult psychological development from “student” who answers questions to “scholar” who asks them—a developmental process that requires new ways of thinking about the self. The shift can be paradigmatic: from students working independently with collective knowledge to scholars thinking independently while working collaboratively to create new knowledge.
As I talk about undergraduate research, I often cite Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar” to provide a functional definition of research by way of the “scholar”—a shift from “What is research?” to “Who does research?” Emerson says a scholar is one who “takes up all the ability of the time, all the contributions of the past, and all the hopes of the future to become universities of knowledges.” I explain these three components as aspects of the academic life of the university: “all the ability of the time” is everyone around them (peers, faculty, etc.), “all the contributions of the past” is our cumulative knowledge (e.g. the stuff in the library), and “all the hopes of the future” is everything they bring to the conversation. The threshold of becoming “universities of knowledges” seems out of reach—as research often does to students—until we return to the first part of the definition: a scholar “takes up.” I talk about the activity of taking something up as both a process of inquiry that engages an expansive community of experts and a singularly personal experience in that to take something up is to take ownership of it. When viewed through the lens of scholar development, the difference between “library research” and “undergraduate research” is semantics.
Tim O’Neil is the Assistant Director of Special Undergraduate Enrichment Programs at the University of Colorado Boulder. He helps nurture students’ personal and professional growth with contemplative, inquiry-based practices and funding opportunities that engage students in questions among academic, professional, public, and global contexts. Tim facilitates the Curiosity Lab, which foregrounds creativity, empathy, and play to expand information literacy and cultivate a deeper sense of interconnectedness and social awareness. With the Lightbulb Moment video series, he promotes narrative thinking to provide conceptual pathways into undergraduate research, scholarly and creative work by focusing on the personal stories behind project outcomes.