On Mentoring Undergraduate Research

Playing cards made in Mexico from 1583. Archivo General de Indias, MP-MEXICO,73.

Undergraduate research is essential training for historians. For professors, mentoring undergraduate research can be a gratifying, concrete way to ensure that a new generation of scholars approaches the field with confidence and skill. How undergraduates access and undertake research opportunities depends on the institution and the student. Online resources aimed at promoting undergraduate research in the humanities are freely available, provided by organizations like the Arts and Humanities Division of the Council on Undergraduate Research. Over the past six years, I have built rewarding mentoring relationships with students at three very different schools (a public R2 university in the Southwest, a public R1 university in the South, and a private M2 university in the Northeast). What follows are some of my reflections on the ups and downs of these projects, my attempts to make these collaborations as productive as possible, and how the process of mentoring has changed me and my scholarship.

Why undergraduate research? My justification of undergraduate research in this blog post is not based on the many studies and well-written essays on the subject. (I make no claims to empiricism or expertise here. It’s easy to find those studies by using the keywords “undergraduate research.”) Independent research, or joining a research team, prepares students for careers and challenges them to push the boundaries of their abilities and expectations. A good collaboration helps early career professors practice facilitating other people’s research. Increasingly, universities offer research experiences that have defined goals and recognizable names, making it easier for students find them and for committees to give this work credit. Mentorship is one step toward changing the academy. Including students in the historical profession is about more than simply telling them they belong, although this is a powerful message on its own. Professors can act on this message by seeking students’ ideas and input, promoting their scholarly development, and supporting their applications to competitive opportunities.

Part of Relación Geográfica map of Cempoala (Hidalgo), 1580 in the Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas at Austin. I remain grateful to Josefrayn Sánchez-Perry (@icxicoatl) for introducing one of my students to the Rare Books and Manuscripts Reading Room.

Research and mentorship are part of demystifying academia. Students may find it easier to determine whether they want to pursue a career that involves historical research if they can see what that actually looks like. By going to academic libraries, working in archives, accessing databases, and hunting for rare materials, students find out how exciting (or tedious) historical research can be. You as the professor might consider bringing your students to events you are already planning to attend in order to elucidate what the historical profession involves. The Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association has a FAQs page directed at undergraduates, who can attend the meetings for a low registration fee. I have taken students to museums for exhibits and to meet staff. Another option is to bring undergraduates to colloquia and seminars. This allows students to see what a historical debate looks like and envision themselves in these spaces as their careers progress. You can also connect with graduate students, colleagues, and librarians to see if your mentees can tour special collections as part of the trip. In 2018, I brought a small group of students to a workshop at NYU where they got to know graduate students and asked questions of some of the presenters during the reception.

Part of “Portolan chart of the Pacific coast from Guatemala to northern Peru with the Galapagos Islands” (c. 1565) in Library of Congress. I agreed to supervise a student project on Panama, which coincides with my interest in Pacific histories.

Mentoring should be student-based and skills-focused. In the case of an independent or thesis project, help the student develop a lasting skill set. When working with research assistants, tailor their roles to fit their strengths and allow them to build skills they may lack. Use the student’s own goals and expectations as a guide.

  • Understand the student’s goals for the partnership. Find out what the student wants to do in the next five years. Build a program around how these goals might materialize.
  • Explore the student’s interests and evaluate their preparation for the tasks ahead. Ask why the student is interested in the past. Pose questions that can further those interests. Does your student believe they have strengths or weaknesses? Try to identify what those are and address them through the project.
  • Set the tone for the partnership. Discuss why you want to mentor the student and what you hope they will gain. Establish expectations and boundaries that fulfill the needs of the mentoring partnership and should not exhaust either party. Make a schedule and speak regularly.
  • Train the student in paleography. I evaluate the student’s abilities at first and then provide guides and practice exercises. Aim for progress.
Training students in paleography remotely during the summer of 2020 turned out to be challenging. Suggestions from these “Best Practice Guides” courtesy of the the Arts and Humanities Division of the Council on Undergraduate Research are useful.
  • Orient the student to relevant online repositories and databases. This will allow the student to expand the primary source base beyond the ones you can identify. Find libguides, inventories, catalogues (such as this new one based on Family Search), or videos (like “Navigating PARES”) the student can access.
  • Show the student how to ask for support. Avail yourselves of your school’s writing center and library. Teach the student to write professional emails to colleagues, librarians, and archivists at outside institutions.
  • Identify opportunities for professionalization. Research collaborations help students build their resumes and cultivate public speaking skills at events like undergraduate research celebrations. Publishing in an undergraduate journal and presenting at a regional research conference are ways students can showcase outstanding work. I co-organized a panel with a colleague in law and human rights research with an undergraduate student for a conference in 2019.
  • Explore the community impact of the proposed project or skillset. Are there ways to present and share knowledge for a wider audience? A student I worked with years ago later developed a podcast that features Native American guests. Mentorship may prepare your student to undertake endeavors you might not expect.

What can professors gain from being mentors? New perspectives, materials, and concerns have become part of my scholarship and teaching as the result of undergraduate mentorship. Research assistants on a grant project I co-direct with my colleague Dr. Guillermo de los Reyes have been instrumental. The two undergraduates process data from the documentos cortesianos (historical works concerning Hernando Cortés) in order to create a database focused on enslaved people in early New Spain. The students’ learning process made clear some of the issues we needed to highlight as we created digital tools for public use. Input from the research assistants guides how the group describes the data and publicizes the project as well. I have mentored senior theses and capstone projects, including one about the meanings of origin stories in Mexican nationalisms and Chicanx movements. While mentoring this project, I came across these playing cards in the Archive of the Indies. My own expertise lies far from this material, and I likely would not have seen it otherwise.

Pruebas de impresión de naipes fabricados en México, correspondientes a la contrata celebrada con Alonso Martínez de Orteguilla (1583). Archivo General de Indias, MP-MEXICO,73. Inset of second row of “Quatimoc” (Cuauhtémoc) and an Indigenous instrumentalist “Quetzecal.”

Being a mentor is humbling as well as enriching. It reminds me that I don’t need to know everything. I’m lucky to have a job that allows me to educate and also to learn. My mentoring style tends to be very directed, but I strive to be flexible and open to different dynamics. On a personal note, building a forum for exchange with students in a small-group or one-on-one setting is instructive for me on many levels. In particular the Gen Z kids have educated me about things that matter to them and have offered me input which was especially valuable in my early semesters of teaching. It was with the prodding of students in my first job that I became more engaged with local government, attended demonstrations, found volunteer opportunities, and started advocating in new ways for causes that matter to me. It’s not a requirement that mentorship be transformative, but every once in a while I think it will be.

Where to Find Research Positions for Undergraduates. Start looking for opportunities close to home. Students may benefit from taking on an hour or two a week of volunteer work at a local historical site or community organization with historical interests. I often point students to “Clio” where they can find local institutions and volunteer opportunities. I suggest students try a limited amount of volunteer work to build relationships in the community that will yield different skills and outside letters of recommendation. Encourage students to participate in National History Day by volunteering as a judge of middle and high school projects. I have taken members of a university History Club to a regional competition, where my students encountered educators from around the state. A small amount of uncompensated labor should lead to a competitive application to a paid position. There may be programs within your university that you can support. Look at the web sites of your provost’s office or honors program. I am a mentor in the Mellon Research Scholars Program and other research initiatives at the University of Houston, which carry good stipends for undergraduate participants. Your institution may have a relationship with the Council on Undergraduate Research or its own undergraduate research office. There are also many opportunities around the country that are worth a try. (I usually explain it like throwing spaghetti at a wall.) One of my mentees from a small school was awarded a spot in the Summer Academy of the Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship, a win I celebrated with great enthusiasm. It can happen! Your student could be selected for the National Museum of the American Indian Internship Program or the Schomburg-Mellon Humanities Summer Institute. Be reasonable, but give students a chance to compete at different levels. The Institute for Recruitment of Teachers also prepares students from groups underrepresented in academia for graduate school. You and your student can best identify the most appropriate applications to make in pursuit of their goals.

Author: Norah L. Andrews Gharala

I am Assistant Professor of History at the University of Houston.