Teaching and Learning Through Student/Faculty Research Collaboration

Roger Clark, Tara Gurka and Lisa Middleton

Two students (Tara and Lisa) and one faculty member (Roger) discuss their apprehensions about, motivations for, frustrations and satisfactions with doing research together. They suggest that, on balance, the teaching and learning opportunities of such collaborations can outweigh the problems.

Apprehensions

Tara: One of the more daunting aspects of working with a professor is the feeling that there are expectations being placed upon you, even when there aren’t any. I was not sure if I would be able to do an adequate job or what the project required of me. I felt that working with an intelligent group of students and a well-respected professor as well as an experienced publisher that I had a lot of pressure to do well. Mind you that none of this pressure was from the professor, but all my own. I wanted to do the job correctly and perform at my best, yet not make it look as if I was trying too hard.

The only other apprehension I felt prior to the start of the project was the time requirement. I held a summer job and also had other responsibilities at home and was not sure how many hours and how many days a week would be necessary. I was relieved when time turned out to be a non-factor throughout the completion of the project, meeting only a couple of hours a day maybe once a week, if that.

Lisa: Overall, I was very excited by the prospect of working on a professor-student research project. It afforded me and the other students a number of opportunities, but also created some anxieties. Previously, I had only read about research approaches and strategies, but had never really applied them in a setting outside of the classroom. At the time, I was in my second year of college. I was also nervous about working with an experienced professor on something I wasn’t very familiar with. Dr. Clark had completed two studies on our topic and we were going to contribute updated research. I was concerned that our research would not yield significant results. These anxieties, however, paled in comparison when presented with the prospect of having to do the research during the coveted college “summer break.” Luckily, the other students and I overcame this and other concerns and were able to participate.

Roger: We’d like to tell a story about faculty/student collaboration on a research project. It is a story of apprehension, opportunity, frustration and satisfaction. Lisa and Tara have already told you a little of their apprehensions about doing joint research with a faculty member and other students. I’d like to share with you some of my anxieties. I should, perhaps, confess that working with Tara, Lisa and another student, Monica Almeida (who is away this summer and so can’t join us in our conversation) was probably the least anxiety-provoking project I’ve engaged in with students. I’d already co-authored 12 papers with nine students in the previous 13 years or so and “knew,” if I ever knew, that this project would work out. The three main sources of anxiety in the faculty/student collaborations I’d worked on before—the nature of the faculty-student relationship, the feasibility of the project, and the likelihood of finding a venue for the finished work—had all been pretty much optimized going into this one. Lisa and Tara (and Monica) had been students in an honors section of my Core 4 course, “Where in the World is Gender Inequality,” in the spring of 2001. And, while I’d asked the whole class for volunteers on my summer project, I was very pleased when the three of them volunteered. Each had proven to be a fine writer and researcher in her own right already. I’d talked with each about individual projects they’d done for the course and found them all pleasant, smart and responsive. Consequently, I shared none of Tara’s apprehensions that she might not be up to the task. I knew she (and Lisa and Monica) would be.

The project was a ten-year follow-up of a study (Clark, Lennon and Morris, 1993) I’d done earlier with two other students, and involved a content analysis of recent children’s picture books, all of which I knew were available at local libraries. Because I intended to use essentially the same approach I’d employed in the earlier study (with each of us, in this case, reading the same 20 children’s books and comparing our findings, based on an instrument I’d help create 10 years earlier), I was pretty sure the project was doable. So I didn’t share Lisa’s concern about working on something basically unfamiliar, as I usually do at the beginning of such projects.

Moreover, I’d been asked by my own editors to do the follow-up as part of the revision of a textbook (Adler and Clark, 1999) that Emily Stier Adler and I would be working on that summer. The text, a research methods book, has, as one of its distinguishing features, “focal research” articles around which Emily and I build our discussion of various methods used in the social sciences. We’d used the earlier piece (Clark, Lennon and Morris, 1993) as the basis for a focal research piece for the chapter on content analysis in the first edition, but had been told that an update was in order for the new edition. Since Emily and I were to be the main arbiters of what got into our book, I thought the chances of finding a venue for the new piece were pretty good. Under the circumstances, I was less concerned than Lisa was that we might not achieve significant research findings. I was pretty sure that whether or not our update told us that there was nothing really different about the current generation of children’s books, we’d get this piece past the “gatekeepers,” as long as the next edition of the book passed muster with our editors.

Even still, I did not enter this project anxiety-free. For one thing, while I am sometimes uncertain, going in, about whether the amounts of student energy and time will admit of successful collaboration, this time I was more than usually unsure about my own energy and time. Emily and I weren’t sure whether we’d be able to make the deadline for the book even without my working on a project with the students. Could I really do both during the summer? So much for my security about the faculty/student relationship: whatever my confidence in Lisa, Tara and Monica, I wasn’t so sure about me. I find it interesting to find that both Lisa and Tara had time concerns of their own about the project.

For another thing, I knew I was capable of misjudging the feasibility of a project. My record for completing projects with students, either through publication or presentation at a professional conference, had been pretty good, but it hadn’t been perfect. Just three years earlier, for instance, I’d involved one of the best students I’d ever had in a project that I’d thought was quite feasible—the replication of a colleague/friend’s study of dual-career families. The project had failed, largely because I’d underestimated how much more difficult it was to survey couples than it is to survey individuals. Such a “failure” should, I admit, be as educational as collaborative “successes” with students, but somehow they feel worse than similar failures with faculty colleagues. I feel so much more as if I’ve led someone down a flowerless garden path.

Finally, I wondered whether the students might find this particular research too pat, too formulaic, to be of interest. I realized, not for the first time but perhaps more acutely than before, that I was in jeopardy of merely exploiting the students’ time and energy, without an adequate payback in educational value or interest. There’d been a time (and there may be again) when I’d ask for and received from the Faculty Research Committee funds to pay (usually at minimum wage) students to work on such collaborations. But I hadn’t done so this time. (I hadn’t even thought of the project until it was too late to do so.)

Perceived Opportunities

Tara: One of my primary motivations in deciding whether or not I wanted to be a part of this project was whom I would be working with. I was happy to work with Dr. Clark, whom I had had the previous semester in an Honors class, entitled “Where In the World is Gender Inequality?” I found that I liked and respected his style of teaching and found him approachable and easygoing with an appreciation of hard work and student participation. This was, then, the perfect opportunity to take part in such a project. I would also be working alongside a student who had been in previous classes (Monica) and a co-worker who also happened to be my best friend (Lisa). This, therefore, made it a fairly easy decision to take part in the project.

The idea of being published and, being a lover of children, reading children’s books was also a motivational factor. Not many students can say they have published a piece or writing prior to graduation from college and I felt that this was an extremely appealing idea. Jointly authoring a project alongside people I liked and respected was a great idea.

Lisa: As a Women’s Studies and Psychology major, this project provided me with a tremendous opportunity to advance my research experience and participate in a feminist project. As someone who is interested in partaking in more feminist research during my educational career and (hopefully) my career as a college professor, this research was a great experience to have. I am also a feminist and was thrilled to see more female-friendly studies being completed. Another motivation was the prospect of getting the research published in a scholarly journal or textbook. Getting published is a tremendous privilege and opportunity, especially for someone who is still an undergraduate student.

Despite my reservations about my lack of experience in research, I did look forward to learning from a skilled professor and gaining a great deal of knowledge about the research process. I knew that I could apply what I learned to aspects of my future academic career. As part of the research, we were all required to read about 20 children’s books. Being required to read children’s books is a benefit in itself, especially after completing a semester’s worth of college-level reading and writing.

Roger: Why was I attracted to collaborative work with Tara and Lisa (and Monica)? Why, in fact, with any student? To answer these questions I’m tempted to suggest that there are both selfish and altruistic reasons, just as there are in any teaching endeavor, but that I tend, perhaps out of personality defect, to focus mainly on the selfish ones. I’ve never worked collaboratively with a student I didn’t like. Tara and Lisa (and Monica) had all proven, in class, to be very likable: friendly, courteous and funny. They were also eager learners. Just the kind of students I like to have in class. So part of my motivation for working with Tara and Lisa was the faculty counterpart of their interest in working with an “experienced” researcher: I expected to be “juiced” by energetic research partners.

Just as important, though, is that the project fell into one of the three categories of projects I find work best with students: projects initiated by the student but for which the faculty member has a useful skill or knowledge set; projects in which a teaching technique or approach is evaluated; and projects in which an extra set of eyes is important. It also had that most important of qualities for a student/faculty collaboration: a projected duration that was short. (Students, unlike some colleagues, don’t last forever.)

I’ve worked on four projects (Hanna and Clark, 1988; Clark and Hanna, 1989; Clifford and Clark, 1995; Clark and Clifford, 1996) that were initiated by students, two each with two students. The students had been graduate students in the MSW program. Both students had taken my data analysis course for MSW students, had collected data from their “home” institutions, and had, perhaps fortunately for me, not been so well instructed in my data analysis course as to feel they could do their own data analyses, alone, after the course. They both asked if I’d help and then both asked if I’d be willing to share authorship. I’ve heard of such collaborations developing in humanities courses, where students have done some original analysis, but needed a faculty member to provide a theoretical framework to make the work work.

I’d never really thought of the second genre of student/faculty collaboration (projects in which a teaching and learning technique is evaluated by both a faculty member and a student) until a couple of years ago, but it’s clearly the one that’s most generalizable across disciplines at the College (or any college). I’d just come off a difficult spring semester and sat down to grade some term papers that students had turned in for a data analysis course. And, lo! They were all much better than I expected them to be. In any case, I got to thinking about differences in the way I’d taught the section of the course that was “tested” by the papers and I realized I might have chanced upon a sensible strategy for dealing with what had been a difficult topic for me to teach (qualitative data analysis). I talked about this with one of the students in the course and realized she’d found it unusually effective too. (She’d taken other of my courses before, and so knew my “usual” standard pretty well.) And, so, Angela Lang and I jointly wrote a paper (Clark and Lang, 2002) about the teaching and learning effects of this new strategy. I suppose the current paper is also an example of this genre.

The third genre is one that I’ve self-consciously ripped off from natural scientists and bears passing resemblance to the apprenticeship model they frequently employ. In any case, this is the kind of thing I wanted to do with Tara, Lisa and Monica when I wanted them to provide reliability checks on my reading of various texts (in this case, children’s books). I’ve done this sort of thing in eight papers (Clark, Almeida, Gurka, and Middleton, 2003; Clark and Fink, 2002; Clark, Kulkin and Clancy, 1999, Clark, Lennon and Morris, 1999; Clark and Carvalho, 1996; Clark and Kulkin, 1996, Clark and Morris, 1995; Clark, Lennon and Morris, 1993; Guilman, Clark, Saucier, Tavares, 2002), with only the texts, the research questions and the methodologies differing by paper. One of these studies (Clark, Kulkin and Clancy, 1999) was a content analysis of what feminist social scientists had done with children’s books and I think provided a pretty nice literature review, something (a literature review, that is) that many of us could do with students in virtually any discipline.

Finally, I have to admit that I shared Tara and Lisa’s pleasure at the prospect of reading children’s books on the pretext that it counted as work.

Frustrations

Tara: The project required deciding precisely whether book characters had (or did not have certain characteristics (e.g., were they aggressive, emotional, nurturant, etc.?). I found that I sometimes became frustrated with the constraints of this approach. It didn’t allow for variations in interpretation. There were times when I felt I was forced, because of the methodology, to place characters into boxes that I didn’t feel adequately described them.

The definitions of the characteristics led to my other frustration with the project. These were my own personal beliefs about gender and the role that gender plays within society. Realizing that my own personal beliefs had to be put aside so that I could provide the most honest, yet fair answers, I tried to do the best I could to be non-judgmental about the characters and what I perceived them to be.

Lisa: At the early stages of our research, I quickly discovered that I had a lot to learn about research techniques. It was very helpful to practically apply what I had learned in class, however, and what I had learned did aid in a rapid assimilation of information. Towards the end of our research, I felt very comfortable with the methods Dr. Clark had employed. It was also frustrating to reach a deadlock between the researchers and nullify certain research findings. With a total of four researchers required to rate characteristics of protagonists in each of the books, we would occasionally be split during the rating process. Despite each rater’s attempts to change the dissenters’ opinion, we would sometimes come to a 2-2 decision and have to disregard that particular result. Luckily, this happened infrequently.

Roger: This collaboration involved very few frustrations, so I’m tempted to jump right over this topic and get right to the satisfactions. Yes, we all had to get ourselves onto campus for meetings at odd times during the summer. But, from my point of view, the meetings themselves were adequate compensation for the trouble. Yes, we all occasionally experienced the disappointment of finding out that we hadn’t read a particular book or character the same way the others had. That was something we knew would happen going in, but I think it has something to do with Tara and Lisa’s frustration with a methodology that sometimes compelled us to disagree with one another and sometimes, indeed, to make decisions that no one was particularly satisfied with. And, yes, we all had to expose ourselves by writing up a section of the paper. But, since we were merely updating a previous paper, the writing was relatively formulaic. (Co-writing papers is never truly formulaic, is it? Finding a common voice, as well as a common point of view, always takes more time, even with colleagues, than one expects. With students, who are less familiar than colleagues with the specialized genre that each of our disciplinary literatures is, even more time can be needed.)

There were none of the problems that had plagued those “failures” I’d had with student collaboration before. No discoveries, as I’d made on that project involving dual-career couples, that it’s much, much harder than twice as hard to get a couple to agree to interviews than it is to get individuals to agree. No finding, as I had for one paper, that collecting and computer-preparing “available” data would take so much longer than I’d expected that the student would have graduated and moved to another state before we got to analyze them (the data, that is). (Frustration is probably the wrong word for describing my feelings about these projects, even years afterwards. Mortification may be closer to the truth.)

Satisfactions

Tara: The outcome of the project was the ultimate satisfaction. To see that hard work really does pay off gave me a source of pride, especially when I told other people about the project and what it was about. To see that my effort contributed to a product that professors and students alike would read and respect gave me a source of satisfaction as well. To be able to tell people that I am a published author is enjoyable, to say the least, and I have found that I like doing this type of research and would in fact be eager to do it again.

Also, in line with my desire to work with people I liked, I enjoyed the process of working on the project. I happily met with the group and benefited from their input and suggestions of others. I would gladly work with those particular people again, knowing that the work is fun, in and of itself.

Lisa: Almost all of the motivating factors I had for working on this project manifested themselves in satisfactions once the project was completed. It is a great privilege to have the article published, and I gained a tremendous amount of knowledge of research methods and techniques. We were also able to establish a good relationship with an experienced and respected professor, and met other professors in the Sociology department as well. It was rewarding to find significant differences between past and present research. The most satisfying aspect of this project for me, however, was the fact that we were able to contribute feminist research to the textbook. It was a tremendous experience and opportunity, and I had a great time!

Roger: I definitely was energized by Tara and Lisa (and Monica). I never would have done research, in addition to textbook writing, that summer if it hadn’t been for them. More than being inspirational, though, the team effort was a source of genuine pleasure and even recreation for me. The project unfolded remarkably well. The key research question, whether female characters were more or less visible in late-90s award-winning picture books than they’d been in late-80s and late-60s models and whether there was more or less gender stereotyping, was pretty clearly answered. (Females are more visible in the more recent books and there is less stereotyping.) But I don’t think any of us saw this answer coming in the months of reasonably intense, if sometimes hilarious, weekly meetings we spent coming to it. So there was suspense. The meetings were unusually pleasant. Tara frequently adopted a particularly funny persona—what was it? perhaps of the indignant school teacher (“Well, I NEVER!”)--when her interpretations differed from the rest, though she was equally capable of adopting the one I tended to employ on such occasions—that of the moping, unappreciated sibling. Lisa was something more like the cool, poker-faced college professor, amusedly admitting that the view of a particularly vocal student might have some validity. (I am delighted to hear that she’d actually like to become a college professor.) Rarely had Craig-Lee 460 (the Sociology Department’s meeting room that we used for our meetings) held such pleasures for me.

I’m glad to hear that Tara and Lisa feel they learned something from working on the project. I guess what I’d hope to teach was a sense of the care that should go into even the “quickest and dirtiest” of research projects, as well as the fun and drama. So I’m pleased to hear Lisa say she learned something about research techniques and Tara say that she’s proud of a job well done. I’m pretty sure, based on what they say, that both have been pleased to see their paper go through the production process: they seemed to be eager to see the proofs that came out last month and I’m hoping they will get as much pleasure from seeing it in print next month (two months ago, for you) as I will. I’m delighted to see Lisa write that the research was “female-friendly” and “feminist.”

I’d hope that they’d come away with a sense of confidence in their ability to discover things that others might have an interest in, as well as a desire to do more of the same in the future. So I was encouraged when they told me of their intention to take a course with Sandra Enos this summer (last summer, to you), a course that promises to focus on original research of documents from a public orphanage that was once situated where RIC is today. (I even fantasize that they may be tempted to apply the content analytic skills they learned while working with me while working on this project.) And I suppose their willingness to work on the current paper indicates that, in any case, they haven’t been completely put off projects that might end up with something in print.

References

Adler, Emily Stier and Roger Clark. How It’s Done: An Invitation to Social Research. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 1999.

Clark, Roger, Monica Almeida, Tara Gurka and Lisa Middleton. “Engendering Tots with Caldecotts: An Updated Update.” How It’s Done: An Invitation to Social Research.

2nd edition. Emily Stier Adler and Roger Clark. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 2003, 379-385.

Clark, Roger and Jeffrey Carvalho. “Female Revolt Revisited.” International Review of Modern of Sociology. 26. 1996. 27-42.

Clark, Roger and Terry Clifford. “Toward a Resources and Stressors Model: The Psychological Adjustment of Adult Children of Divorce.” Journal of Divorce and Remarriage. 25, 1996. 106-136.

Clark, Roger and Heather Fink. “Picture This: A Multicultural Feminist Analysis Of Picture Books for Children.” Paper presented at the Eastern Sociological Society Meetings. Boston. 2002.

Clark, Roger and Heidi Kulkin. “Toward a Multicultural Feminist Perspective on Fiction for Young Adults.” Youth & Society 27 (1996): 291-312.

Clark, Roger, Heidi Kulkin and Liam Clancy. “The Liberal Feminist Bias in Feminist Social Science Research on Children’s Books.” Girls, Boys, Books, Toys: Gender in Children’s Literature and Culture. Ed. Beverly Lyon Clark and Margaret R. Higonnet. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1999. 71-82.

Clark, Roger and Angela Lang. “Balancing Yin and Yang: Teaching and Learning Qualitative Data Analysis in an Undergraduate Quantitative Data Analysis Course.” Teaching Sociology, forthcoming, July, 2002.

Clark, Roger and Mary-Ellen Hanna. “Effective Short-Term Treatment Modalities For Primary Users and Significant Others in Outpatient Treatment.” Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly. 6. 1989.

Clark, Roger, Rachel Lennon and Leanna Morris. “Engendering Junior: Changing Images in Children’s Books.” How It’s Done. An Invitation to Social Research. Emily Stier Adler and Roger Clark. 1999. 335-341.

Clark, Roger, Rachel Lennon and Leanna Morris. “Of Caldecotts and Kings: Gendered Images in Recent American Children’s Books by Black and Non-Black Illustrators.” Gender & Society 5(1993). 227-245.

Clark, Roger and Leanna Morris. “Themes of Knowing and Learning in Recent Novels for Young Adults.” The International Review of Modern Sociology. 25. 1995. 105-123.

Clifford, Terry and Roger Clark. “Family Climate, Family Structure and Self-Esteem In College Females.” Journal of Divorce and Remarriage. 23. 1995. 97-111.

Guilman, Jessica, Roger Clark, Paul Kahlil Saucier, and Jocelyn Tavares. “The Halting Portrayal of Gender in Award-Winning Picture Books Between the 1930s and the 1960s.” Poster presentation at the annual Psychology Department Student Conference, Rhode Island College. April, 2002.

Hanna, Mary-Ellen and Roger Clark. “The Differing Requirements of Collateral Clients And Primary Users in Outpatient Treatment.” The International Journal of Addictions. 23. 1988. 509-516.

Copyright © 2002 Roger Clark, Tara Gurka and Lisa Middleton

Teaching and Learning Through Student/Faculty Research Collaboration, Issues in Teaching and Learning, 1:1, 2002.

Content may not be reproduced without permission. Contact rclark@ric.edu, Rhode Island College, Craig Lee #464.

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