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Helping undergrads see the ‘flip side’ of research

Programs like U of T’s Scholars-in-Residence offer students the opportunity to dive into a project and discover whether academic research is for them.


As the summer semester kicks off, most undergraduate students are exhaling in the wake of another exam season. Some prepare for full-time internships or co-ops, while others pack for international travel. Across the University of Toronto’s three campuses though, 120 undergraduates are moving into residence and preparing for an intensive month of research in small groups.

Now in its ninth year, U of T’s Scholars-in-Residence program provides small groups of undergraduate students with four weeks of paid work experience as they collaborate on a faculty-led humanities or humanities-adjacent research project. The students live together in residence, participate in research- and careers-related workshops and support faculty in advancing their research projects. This year, undergraduate researchers will be involved in 30 projects, including “Knowing Black Atlantic Worlds,” “Charting Virgil’s Renaissance Reception,” and “Performance Design Driven Theatrical Exploration of Canadian Housing Crisis, 1930–2030.”

For Arushi Dahiya, “there’s something really uplifting and motivating” about participating in the Scholars-in-Residence program – which she did in summer 2023. From her coursework, Ms. Dahiya was accustomed to reading peer-reviewed journal articles, which gave her a good introduction to scholarly research, but still left her with questions: “I would often wonder, ‘How did they write this? This is so much information – how did they sit and examine all this data?’” Participating in the program gave her hands-on experience using qualitative data analysis software to review, code and analyze a large dataset for an education studies project. Her supervisor helped her and her peers to process the data: “Professor [Elizabeth] Buckner told us, ‘okay, so when we’re analyzing, look for these trends, and these patterns.’ Being able to work with a lot of data and learning that structure has sharpened my analytical skills in a way that I don’t think I could’ve got from coursework alone.” The program, says Ms. Dahiya, helped her to see “the flip side” of research, and to discover for herself if she’d like to continue to perform academic research as a graduate student once she has completed her BA – an option she’s seriously considering.

Faculty participants tend to have equally positive experiences. “A lot of faculty members don’t realize the potential of working with undergraduates,” says the program’s co-founder, Angela Esterhammer. Her colleague and co-director, Ira Wells, agrees: “faculty supervisors are consistently impressed by the quality of the research. After having an opportunity to engage with these students, faculty end up thoroughly convinced of undergraduates’ capacity to contribute meaningfully to research projects.”

After almost a decade running the program, Drs. Esterhammer and Wells have found that teams of undergraduate researchers are particularly skilled at reviewing and analyzing large volumes of material: a set of declassified government documents, say, or a few thousand boxes of archival material held in U of T’s Thomas Fisher Library. Last summer, Ms. Dahiya and her teammates analyzed the mission, vision and values statements of hundreds of postsecondary institutions from around the world, looking for patterns in how institutions from different regions describe their commitments to sustainability. These kinds of projects, notes Dr. Wells, would be “simply impossible for a single researcher to get through alone.”

For projects without a large dataset, student researchers support the development of research communications, producing podcasts, writing blog posts and creating story maps. Other faculty members work with student teams “as a kind of conversation lab,” says Dr. Wells, “to test drive ideas in very specific and targeted ways right at the very beginning stages of a research project.”

By bringing together small, multidisciplinary teams in an intensive burst of activity – the undergraduate teams work alongside their faculty supervisors every weekday morning for four weeks – Drs. Esterhammer and Wells strive to catalyze research projects while providing undergraduates with an experiential learning opportunity.

For the broader research community in Canada, the Scholars-in-Residence model can serve as inspiration for humanities researchers unaccustomed to working in research teams or hiring undergraduate RAs. Perusing the list of past Scholars-in-Residence projects reveals the geographic, temporal and disciplinary breadth of undergraduate research capacity – and, notes Dr. Esterhammer, their interest: “the desire and the hunger for students to participate in humanities research production is immense.” Humanities researchers curious to learn about the potential offered in small-group undergraduate research should be encouraged by the Scholars-in-Residence program’s success.

If you’re looking toward submitting a SSHRC Insight Grant application in September 2024, for example, consider whether allocating $20,000 of your budget to hiring a five-person undergraduate research team for four full-time weeks (at $25/hr, plus 12 per cent for employer expenses like EI and CPP) might be an effective strategy for catalyzing your own humanities research project. Such an approach wouldn’t replicate all of the Scholars-in-Residence program’s features – SSHRC won’t pay for your students to eat all their meals together, for instance – but could offer a proxy of the program’s intensity and immersion. For U of T researchers who have participated in the program, the experience tends to be, says Dr. Esterhammer – herself a regular participant – “transformative for our research and energizing on a personal and professional level.”

“Yes,” Ms. Dahiya adds, “please include us. And don’t underestimate us.”

Letitia Henville is a freelance academic editor. She is also the author of the Ask Dr. Editor column, published by University Affairs.

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