Why Publish with Undergrads?

This post and the series of posts that follows over the next few weeks were originally written in 2012 on my first blog.  I’ve kept them mostly intact while updating some of the links. I hope these posts will help you think about writing and publishing with undergrads in the future!

The idea of co-presenting at a conference or co-authoring a research article with a graduate student makes total sense to anyone who has ever worked with a graduate student. Faculty have ongoing research agendas; graduate students can participate in that work as a way to learn the ropes of research, collaborate with other researchers, manage time and data, figure out exactly what the data says, and share those results…because that’s what faculty do – build on and share knowledge.

This apprenticeship model, especially true in the sciences, allows grad students develop skills that will help them succeed in their own research and dissertation projects. The more we write in academic genres, the more feedback we get through peer-review, the more we become contributing members of the field. Realistically, that apprenticeship might come with a lot more indentured labor that actual mentorship, but most grad students know what they are getting into (we hope, and I’m blatantly ignoring the idea of courtesy citations and “you wrote it in my lab, so I get first author credit” silliness).

But what about undergraduate students? Many will not go on to graduate school and are not necessarily budding scholars or academics. As undergrads they may have limited experience with primary research and limited confidence in their abilities to create new knowledge in a field they have barely entered (frankly, I wasn’t sure I had anything original to contribute to my field until the 4th year of my PhD program). Why might a faculty member invest the time it would take to mentor an undergraduate student through the process of a collaborative research article at all?

Because it’s fun, and because they always surprise me with their enthusiasm for the opportunity, dedication to the project, and personal growth. They may grow as students and future professionals (here’s a cool story about an undergraduate who was included as a co-author on a Nature paper published by a Nobel laureate). But I also become a better teacher, mentor, and researcher when I co-author with my undergraduate students (which is consistent with the findings of this study of grad students who both teach and research). I have published one article with three of my students in 2011 and am in the process writing a second targeting Business and Professional Communication Quarterly with another set of three students (the article was ultimately published in 2014 here). Both of these articles were inspired by classes that I taught and that the students took, and both include original research after the conclusion of the classes.

In the weekly series of posts that follows, we’ll explore the “student voices” movement in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), which provides theoretical and methodological grounding for writing about teaching and learning with your students (I co-edited an issue of the ISSoTL journal Teaching and Learning Inquiry on this subject in 2016). After that we’ll examine different aspects of the process such as choosing a project, choosing the student co-authors and thinking about credit, managing the time and project through active mentorship, strategies for avoiding awkward voice issues in the manuscript, and journals that support such scholarship to target. Yes, I am lucky enough to teach at an institution that highly values SoTL and faculty-student engagement, but I’m hopeful this series will encourage some of you not in that type of environment to consider giving your undergraduate students, and yourselves, this opportunity.

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I teach Professional Writing and Rhetoric in the Department of English at Elon University. Specifically, I teach courses in professional communication and rhetorical theory, publishing, project management, and workplace research methods. My research interests include collaboration strategies in the classroom and workplace, written artifacts that mediate collaboration, and Agile project management strategies. @RPR_Elon on Twitter

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