Give credit where it’s due: Humanities research both significant and imperative

By Simon Brown / Columnist

The phrase “undergraduate research” conjures an image of precocious students measuring and pipetting, staring wide-eyed through their lab goggles at a world of opportunity. 

At least, that’s the prevailing image from Pitt’s webpage dedicated to the now-common practice. 

The choice to predominantly depict science researchers is understandable. The undergrad humanities scholar — buried under books of Foucault at Hillman past midnight — is much less photogenic.

But the marginal position that humanities scholarship occupies in the expanding community of undergraduate researchers poses a serious dilemma. While the unique conditions of research in humanistic fields will require new programs to support undergraduate scholars, there is no reason why universities can’t do more to try. And Pitt would do well to lead them in the effort.    

As a student with research experience in the humanities, I often encounter the inescapable question, “So, how do you research? Do you, like, read a bunch of books?” This is perhaps the most encouraging response a budding young humanist could expect after explaining his research project, which is more often met with glazed-over eyes and a visible urge to change the subject. 

But to answer the question: Yes, we usually do read quite a few books. But the content of those books, and what researchers do with them, depends entirely on the field. Literary scholars, historians, philosophers, writers, artists and all others working within this rather broad category work with different material. What unifies them in a research setting, however, is the fundamentally solitary nature of their work. 

While the robust process of peer reviewing, editing and presenting form the social bases of these scholarly communities, the relationship in which the humanist spends most of his or her time is the one-on-one dialogue with a text, with a medium or with him or herself. 

This distinguishes the humanities from the natural sciences, in which the central location of the laboratory brings the entire spectrum of researchers — from the lowliest undergrad lab assistant to the tenured senior researcher — together in one shared space.

Considering these starkly different settings, it makes sense that undergraduates more easily enter the social space of the scientific laboratory. With its built-in hierarchy of professionals, interacting with those directly above and beneath themselves, it provides optimal support for the undergrads who, ideally, will one day direct the operations of those labs. Undergrads can benefit from contacts with their PIs — Principal Investigators — whose shoes they may ultimately fill in years to come. 

What is more, the diverse duties of different lab researchers allow the entering undergraduate to work at a level suitable to his or her skill. Though they may begin by assisting in the day-to-day technical operations, they can graduate to independent research responsibilities and, finally, to self-designed projects. 

This arrangement, however, is not often available for the future philosopher, historian, critic or artist. 

Considering the individual nature of the humanist’s work, it’s understandable why undergraduate research programs — including Pitt’s — have difficulty attracting such scholars willing to include student proteges within their own projects. It is not always easy to imagine how a sophomore or junior could meaningfully contribute to, say, a paper on the irreducibility of the mind to the brain, or to archival research in documents written in 12th-century French. 

So the first experiences of an undergraduate humanist must often differ from their peers in the sciences. Rather than finally graduating to the self-conceived project, the humanist typically begins with one. 

While this may prove particularly rewarding for some, it can also intimidate any sophomore trying for the first time to navigate the dense and perplexing literature that already exists in their field. And that isn’t any easier when you find yourself alone on the fourth floor of Hillman, searching through dusty volumes, the only audible sound being your whispered prayer that no one has already written your paper. 

Needless to say, the solitary conditions for this work can sometimes drive prospective humanists from pursuing meaningful and rewarding research. 

To counteract this, undergraduate research programs have to design particular opportunities for undergraduate humanists. They can begin by ending the reliance on faculty members to include students in their research projects. Since their work is not often conducive to such a meaningful relationship, they should rather be recruited to fulfill their role as a mentor to students’ original work. 

But most of all, student researchers in the humanities — along with their peers in all fields — should be given ample opportunity to present their progress, their methodologies and their difficulties to colleagues within their fields. The support network of fellow students and experienced faculty can help encourage students frustrated by the new demands of independent research. 

What is more, this could help faculty to stay aware of the often impressive work of their own undergraduates, which they may not see in the narrow confines of the classroom. 

Someone could enumerate all the differences and similarities between research in the sciences and the humanities and comment on how a university might make both subject areas available to its undergraduates. Who knows, it might make an interesting topic for a research project. 

Write Simon at [email protected].