Today’s guest poster, Emily Yankowitz, recently received her B.A. in History from Yale University. She is currently pursuing an M.Phil in American History at the University of Cambridge. Her research interests include the intersection of politics, culture, and memory in early American republic. Here she writes about the impact of her experiences doing research as an undergraduate.
As a recent graduate preparing to pursue a career as a historian, I have been spending a fair amount of time considering how I came to this decision. While I am sure I will continue to grapple with this question for a long time, particularly considering the uncertain job market, I can say that my experience conducting historical research as an undergraduate played a central role in informing this choice. In this post, therefore, I would like to use my own experience to reflect on the importance of providing opportunities for undergraduate research.
The summer before my junior year in high school, I got my first taste of intense primary source research as a research intern at St. Paul’s Church, National Historic Site, Mt. Vernon, NY. This experience catalyzed my interest in early America and gave me a different perspective on the past than I had previously encountered. Still in high school, I also volunteered as a research assistant for a professor who needed a student to gather articles from microfilm of my town’s newspapers.
As an undergraduate, my experience ballooned through coursework for history seminars, independent research for a senior essay, and work as a research assistant for five professors (three from the university I attended, two from other universities) and one independent scholar. I completed tasks ranging from spending a summer in an archive collecting material covering the 300-year history of an institution and city to analyzing newspaper coverage of slave rebellions in the United States and West Indies. The majority of these projects were not on topics in early American history, which gave me the chance to work with different types of sources and broaden my knowledge of the longer trajectory of American history. Through undergraduate research seminars and writing a senior essay requirement, I gained experience conducting research on topics in early American history.
In the process, I received guidance from professors with a variety of research styles, worked with a range of databases, archives, and libraries, and gained vital tools and necessary confidence to pursue my own projects. Along the way, I honed my paleography skills and became quite adept at using microfilm. But above all, these research experiences provided me with profound insight into the work historians do and attracted me to the profession.
I also saw the less glamorous side of “doing history.” I came to understand the amount of labor involved to acquire the information necessary to write a single sentence and that doing research is not always straightforward or enjoyable—transcribing records isn’t the most intellectually stimulating task, documents burn in fires, and directions that appeared to be enlightening may be dead ends.
Yet, I quickly became captivated by the act of finding, combing through, and analyzing sources and the adrenaline rush that comes when you find patterns in material or locate just the right letter. The impact of these earlier research experiences became most apparent when I began to work on my senior essay. I knew how to locate the primary sources I needed, to operate the microfilm machine I would use to gather most of my source materials, and to organize the sources I gathered. While this process has the potential to be quite daunting, because of my prior experience, I felt well prepared for the task.
In general, the senior essay or honors thesis, coursework that includes research assignments, and departmental seminars tend to be the most common chance for undergraduate history majors to pursue history research. However, the number of opportunities to acquire such research experiences varies from university to university. Some offer structured programs with research elements, while others, for a variety of reasons, take a more hands-off approach. Particularly in the latter case, student organizations that function as research networks and the history department itself can also play an important role in involving undergraduates in research, including encouraging students to look into positions volunteering or working at places such as archives, libraries, museums, and historical sites.
While acknowledging the prohibitive role of cost in such programs, another avenue might be giving students the chance to present their research at undergraduate research symposiums. I personally benefited from the chance to present my senior essay research on a history department panel and a presentation series hosted by my residential college. Funding and whether a student can do research for credit are two other variables in this equation. While summer funding for research projects varies greatly, jobs working as a research assistant or at a university archive may be able to fulfill work-study requirements.
Regardless of what career undergraduates go on to pursue, they can benefit from the experience of conducting research. For one, it has a powerful role in challenging misconceptions that history is merely memorizing names, dates, and places in the kind of hands-on way that a lecture course or non-research seminar does not. Moreover, it enables students to learn that there are still many gaps in our knowledge, view events in the past from different perspectives, and engage in the work of historians.
I can only offer the perspective of an undergraduate at the university I attended, so I would be interested to hear more about this topic from individuals at a range of institutions. What kind of undergraduate research opportunities are available in your department and what are other potential methods of encouraging students to pursue undergraduate research?