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Editorial: The Importance of Great Expectations

by Cath Lambert and David Metcalfe, University of Warwick

As with many ventures initiated and sustained through a Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL), Reinvention: a Journal of Undergraduate Research is at a Janus point, looking back at its progress and forward towards its prospects and sustainability. This is timely as the five-year HEFCE CETL funding ends in 2010. The journal continues to be an integral part of the Reinvention Centre’s aim to develop research opportunities for undergraduates and to facilitate their participation in the research culture of their disciplines and institutions. In turn, the journal is underpinned by the intellectual and practical concerns of the Reinvention Centre. These include critical exploration of the contested relationships between research and teaching, between staff and students; and the factors limiting or facilitating undergraduate research. The Reinvention Centre also provides funding and support for staff to introduce and embed research-based learning into their pedagogy and curricula, and for students to undertake research within and outside their degree programmes. These factors create a culture in which there is a presumption that all students have research potential. Without such a culture, undergraduate journals are unlikely to thrive.

The ways in which these factors interlink have been highlighted by our provision of interactive training sessions. These are run by members of our editorial team and are aimed at undergraduates wishing to publish or simply learn about the mechanics of writing for publication. The sessions have been massively over-subscribed despite no formal reward being offered for attendance. Feedback from these sessions indicates that students seek understanding of the processes involved in academic publication which can otherwise appear mysterious. Many students enroll in the hope of enhancing their confidence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, very few undergraduates are initially confident of their potential to undertake and communicate research to a wider academic audience. The training sessions aim to help students recognise their own potential, and reinforce the fact that high quality research and writing requires practise, rigour, creativity, and often, a great deal of patience. These are often more significant than higher academic qualifications alone. The students’ comments and feedback reminds us that having high expectations of students’ abilities and attitudes engenders a culture of confidence, motivation and high quality performance. Of course, we also recognise the importance of institutional support, including coherent policies and systems; however, without a culture of high expectations, these count for very little.

Many, although by no means all, of the undergraduate participants are undertaking funded research on their own or in collaboration with academic staff. A surprising number of students, including first years, state their interest in a research career as their key motivation for getting involved with publishing. This anecdotal evidence may be encouraging for those concerned about the UK’s future research-base (e.g. Thrift, 2008). In a report commissioned by the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, Nigel Thrift argues that many undergraduates are unclear about what research (and a research career) involves and ‘Many high quality graduates will be lost to research prior to even graduating’ (Thrift, 2008: 14). Our experiences of working with student researchers, editors and potential reviewers, suggests that dedicated outlets for communicating research – operating within a positive research culture inclusive of undergraduate members – may help mitigate any such losses.

Although institutions should seek to involve undergraduates in research, there are a number of potential obstacles. Limited time, knowledge, encouragement, skills, and resources can all conspire to discourage undergraduate participation in research. However, undergraduate research can take many different forms. In the current issue, four articles attest to the ability of undergraduates to organize and lead their own projects. These include a film analysis – “Gender Roles and Sexual Politics in Hollywood Action Movie Cycles of the 1980s and 1990s” – by Joseph Oldham at the University of Warwick; and archival research by David Kinahan at University College London, reported in “Struggling to Take Root: The Work of the Electro-Culture Committee of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Between 1918 and 1936 and its Fight for Acceptance”. Although under-represented in previous issues, we are pleased to present strong examples of undergraduate mathematical modeling and laboratory research. These are reported in “Photonic Dipole Contours of Ferrofluid Hele-Shaw Cell” by Michael Snyder and Jonathan Frederick at Murray State University and in “Dissolution Kinetics of Scolecite in Alkaline Environments” by Lingchen Mao at the University of Nottingham.

Despite these high quality contributions, the model of undergraduates working alone – or with supervisors removed from the publishing process – is only one possible way of conducting undergraduate research. Other models include collaborative research in which undergraduates and established researchers work together throughout the publication process. Indeed, collaborative research is often the only opportunity available to undergraduates to conduct primary research, as in the natural sciences where laboratory facilities are invariably “owned” by academic staff. Collaborative research can also provide a valuable apprenticeship – teaching undergraduates new skills and helping them develop confidence as researchers. It is in recognition of these advantages that the current issue features a number of papers written collaboratively between undergraduates and academic staff. These include “Breaking Barriers in Clinical Communication: Are Securely Attached Doctors More Empathetic Doctors?” by Kirsten Atherton and colleagues from the University of Manchester and the University of Liverpool, and “μCell – Interdisciplinary Research in Modeling and Spatial Simulation of Multi-Cellular Environments” by Dominic Orchard and colleagues from the University of Warwick.

The debates around collaboration in relation to undergraduate research and publishing will continue to be explored critically by members of the journal team throughout this Volume of the journal and we welcome authors’ and readers’ thoughts on the theme of ‘collaboration’. For this issue, we hope the strength of both collaborative and individual submissions will demonstrate that both models have potential to address important research questions across a range of disciplines.

 

REFERENCES

Thrift, N. (2008), Research Careers in the UK: A Review, DIUS, http://www.dius.gov.uk/higher_education/shape_and_structure/he_debate/research_careers, accessed 16 April 2009.

To cite this paper please use the following details: Lambert, C. & Metcalfe, D. (2009), ‘Editorial: The Importance of Great Expectations', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 2, Issue 1, http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/go/reinventionjournal/archive/volume2issue1/Editorial Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.

© Reinvention: a Journal of Undergraduate Research (2009). Full copyright remains with the author.