On the other side of the desk
March 21, 2018 6:59 PM   Subscribe

The student has become the teacher... literally. I am an assistant professor in the humanities and it looks like I may get an undergrad research assistant (!!!). Now what?

I am used to being a one woman show! How do I delegate? I am especially looking for nuts and bolts "get under the hood with me" answers like exactly how much bibliographic work you give, admin tasks if any, etc. Especially in a liberal arts context where my real research occurs at libraries elsewhere. I also welcome general "creating a positive relationship"/"intern management" answers too. For context, this student approached me and will take less pay than her peers for Bureaucratic Reasons, so I feel more of an imperative that it be a useful learning experience for her than if it were just a job. Assume I am an anxious and indecisive Libra: supervision and management are NOT my forte. But I am also so excited about this possibility: she would be a super right-hand young woman.
posted by athirstforsalt to Education (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
First off, are there any set expectations from this? (At my SLAC we are heavily encouraged to take on undergrad research assistants but are also heavily encouraged to let them do an 'independent' project alongside our own rather than just pay them for useful scut work).

Next, what kind of project are you working on and at what stage are you?

If it's useful scutwork, I've found it super helpful to have them double-check references and read/summarize primary sources that I'm not certain will be useful. Other friends have sent them on road trips to do archival work/interviews which seems to be very popular for all parties involved.

For creating a positive relationship: clear communication; have regular friendly meetings to check in (and students being students, always throw some food/coffee at them). Make sure they have a clear sense of the goal/finished product, and see if they can be a part of that (a conference? A poster session? A book launch party?). Reward responsibility with trust. Have fun!
posted by TwoStride at 8:03 PM on March 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yes! Thank you! This is so helpful. To answer these questions before backing away, the university itself is very hands-off in this area. Book research is early stages and two articles are mid-pipeline. The thought of starting a new (article?) project "as a team" / with her more active involvement did cross my mind, especially if we will work together for more than a year.
posted by athirstforsalt at 8:14 PM on March 21, 2018

I'd say make sure you have compatible working styles by trying out one of the articles or a book chapter before you embark on a whole new project with her.
posted by TwoStride at 8:29 PM on March 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Things I've had undergrad RAs do very successfully :
-Give them a topic I'm thinking of incorporating into a project, or something interesting but tangential to my main research and get them to compile me a bibliography (in endnote or some other reference manager, with tags /categories, and PDFs of the papers that are available). They offen aren't great at doing this for my main areas because they are never going to know the literature as well as I do, but it's good for interdisciplinary projects.
-chase people for me by email /phone. Check they know how to write a professional email first, then you can give them like a list of all the authors who owe you papers for a collection you are putting together /possible invitees to a workshop /people who need to attend a meeting, and get them to contact each person and check in with them. It's good networking for them too.
-go through papers I had printed off and scribbled in the margins of and turn my marginalia into useful digital summaries of what I thought of the paper.
-Write draft text for project websites /social media.
-take a PowerPoint draft for a conference talk and find /create images to illustrate my points. If they end up creating diagrams or figures themselves they get coauthorship.

Something a colleague had students do but I'm not so sure about :
-Sort a giant pile of papers, notes, letters, etc on the floor into a filing cabinet.
-lots of printing and photocopying
-fetching and returning library books

While those things aren't inappropriate (unlike eg buying a birthday present for the professor's wife, or making endless cups of tea for him, which ahem, were jobs I had to do as an undergrad RA), the student doesn't benefit much from them either.
posted by lollusc at 1:09 AM on March 22, 2018

I know that when I was an undergrad RA, we could submit a letter from the prof that we worked with to get the same library loan privileges that they had, presumably so we could sign out books for them. Just don't do what the professor I worked for did, and neglect to return the books, leaving me with a steep bill for their replacements when I graduated.
posted by peppermind at 4:12 AM on March 22, 2018

Check with your student employment office about how the undergrad is funded --- workstudy, grant, scholarship. What are the expectations for hours each week? Who is responsible for approving those hours and supervising the student is meeting hours reported? What is the process for if the undergrad fails to deliver? In all seriousness --- there is a process for terminating undergraduate workers just as there other employees. You will need to know that.

Next, there are a number of ways to take on undergraduate students. One is to demand work at all costs and hold them to that expectation. One of the others, and my preferred style when I was supervising undergrads in an office setting, is to openly tell them they are students first. Homework first. Classes first. Grades first. They can let me know if they're stressed or have too much going on and need to take a day off. BUT THEY NEED TO COMMUNICATE WITH ME. Flaking out repeatedly is not okay, but having four tests in a single week? Take the damn week off. It doesn't do anyone any good for them to meet their work related deliverables if they end up failing their classes, right?

THAT SAID, be clear in what your expectations are. If they are working relatively independently, assign hard deadlines. If something should take a week, ask them to update you in three days. Meet with them regularly. Do not trust they are getting things done. They likely are and will, but the pressures on undergrads today is not so different from the pressures on graduate students, and in some cases, it's a lot more. Since you're brand new faculty member, think really hard on what really helped you as a graduate student from your advisor and think really hard on what made you tear your hair out and cry. Do more of the former and try to avoid the latter.

Undergrads who take on RA roles also tend to be undergrads who take on too much in other areas of their lives. Be cognizant of that. Teach them skills so they don't burn out. Teach them to say no, or "I need more time," or, "I need a break" professionally, and be very, very aware of the pressures they are facing and be very, very aware of services available to students on your campus. And don't be afraid to recommend them --- to your RAs as well as students in your classes you see struggling or you have concerns about.

Good luck! Undergrads are doing amazing and high quality work! When they're on the ball, they are really on the ball.
posted by zizzle at 6:04 AM on March 22, 2018

I am in the physical sciences, not in the humanities. However, here are my two cents. Everything depends on the student. I've had some excellent ones who took ownership of their projects and barely required supervision. I would check in with them weekly and set direction, but otherwise they did everything on their own. These students went on to grad school at places like Harvard and MIT. On the other hand, I have had students who required lots of mentoring and accomplished little to nothing. Nowadays, I am careful about who I work with and never accept a student without an in-depth interview. Between the extremes, there are those for whom you have to set very specific tasks, but who do these tasks well. The distribution of students between these categories depends on how selective your institution is (and probably on your field), but there are likely some that fall into each category at any college and department. Try to figure out where the student is at, what you think she can do, and what skills she may needs to develop. Also, ask her what she wants to accomplish. There is no single recipe. Once you know more, play it from there.
posted by auctor at 11:08 AM on March 23, 2018

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