Seven undergraduates worked in this research lab during the fall semester. They ranged from sophomores to graduating seniors, with hard skills in coding, videography, multimedia design, and animation. All of them excellent writers and verbal communicators. All of them probably some of the best problem-solvers I’ve ever worked with. All of them Digital Technology & Culture majors offered through the Creative Media & Digital Culture program at Washington State University Vancouver.
All of them also helped to turn out numerous (very) important academic resources for scholars in my field: The ELO Repository, the site that provides the metadata for 1508 works of electronic literature; the ELO 2013 Proceedings, Chercher le texte; the trAce Online Writing Centre’s archival website; two Live Stream Traversals of electronic literature and the content for its accompanying multimedia book, Rebooting Electronic Literature; and video for the MLA 2019 panel about Kate Hayles’ NEH Summer Seminars.
While there is much that can be said about the lab as a site for hands-on learning, what is more profound is the fact that undergraduates can have a large impact on academic research. Certainly the work these undergraduates have done over the past months has.
For example, four undergraduates worked with the digital librarian and archivist to identify metadata for e-lit works, enter that data into Excel spreadsheets, migrate the data into CSV files and finally to refine the data with OpenRefine so that this information could be ingested into the ELO Repository. They carried out this task for over 1508 works. Another undergraduate working with me inventoried The Museum of the Essential and Beyond This, an avant-garde online museum created in the late 1990s by Brazilian artist Regina Pinto. The student steadily searched throughout the site looking for all of the works playfully displayed in obvious and not-so-obvious places. In the end she determined that there were 160 works exhibited in the museum, a number different from my original estimate. Because of her contribution to the project, we were able to include the museum’s works in the ELO Repository for the December 30 deadline. Two other undergraduates working with me handled the entire Scalar production of the ELO Proceedings. These tasks––developing bibliographical information, researching works of art, conceptualizing how best to present research––are generally ones given to graduate students with a body of courses under their belts and a commitment to a chosen field.
What does it take to make undergraduate research to work? Access to a pool of talent, yes. But more importantly, it takes building a collaborative community that is “seamfully designed, and mutually productive, regardless of standing within or without academic institutions” (Mauro et al). Such a community cannot be driven by a top down approach pitting academic expertise against other potential contributions to a project. Rather it is, as Mauro et al point out, a “symbiotic relationship between intellectual curiosity and skills-based training in the humanities,” one that
. . . requires a community of concerns bound by an evolving culture of exploration and experimentation through method. This is a dialogue that should occur between faculty, staff, and students in an ongoing basis during the development and dissemination of in-process scholarly work. (Mauro et al)
This means when the student inventorying the works hosted in the online museum finds a number different than my own and has the data to show it, we accept her findings and congratulate her on work well done. It also means that all of us, students, librarian, and scholar, debate the way in which to explain to the viewing public the problems with outmoded software for works published in trAce Online Writing Centre’s frAme journal. It means if a student finds a Word Press template she wants to build a website with, we provide her that option.
With academic jobs in the Humanities diminishing and graduate programs shrinking because of it, undergraduate research is not only viable but––if the work these undergraduates have accomplished is any indication––also necessary for the future of Humanities research.
Thankfully, the five undergraduates who did not graduate in the fall are returning in January. I am fortunate to have such talented and committed colleagues working on the ELL Team.
Mauro, Aaron, Daniel Powell, Sarah Potvin et al. “Towards a Seamful Design of Networked Knowledge: Practical Pedagogies in Collaborative Teams.” Digital Humanities Quarterly. Volume 11 Number 3. 2017.