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.

Using Biography and Technology to Teach Global Africa

Skype call with Dr Ali
Screenshot of Skype call with Dr. Omar H. Ali, Dean of the Lloyd International Honors College at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and Georgian Court students.

For Spring 2019, I’m teaching a broad survey of African history, and I wanted to invite students to think about African diasporas across the world. As we have discussed African societies and African leaders in the increasingly connected world of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we read Linda Heywood’s study of Queen Njinga (c. 1583 – 1663) alongside another new work by Omar H. Ali on Malik Ambar (c. 1548 – 1626). These two books drew the students into the lives of African leaders who were instrumental in shaping the worlds of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Queen Njinga ruled Ndongo-Matamba, in what is now Angola, negotiating with and resisting Portuguese demands as Atlantic slave trading and civil war continued to fuel instability in West Central Africa. Malik Ambar, originally from Ethiopia and once enslaved himself, prevented Mughal dominance in the Deccan while in power. Skilled military leaders, tacticians, and diplomats, Njinga Mbande and Malik Ambar have inspired wide-ranging discussions among my students about gender, race, leadership, movement, and slavery. Likewise, Njinga of Angola: Africa’s Warrior Queen and Malik Ambar: Power and Slavery across the Indian Ocean are solid guides in the undergraduate classroom.

malik ambar portrait
Portrait of an African courtier, possibly Malik Ambar. Early 17th cen. India, Ahmadnagar. Ink, opaque watercolor, gold on paper. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

malik ambar cover
Malik Ambar: Power and Slavery across the Indian Ocean, part of The World in a Life Series with Oxford University Press.

As a special opportunity, my class met via Skype with Omar H. Ali, PhD, Dean and Professor in the Lloyd International Honors College at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Students in an introductory survey read Malik Ambar: Power and Slavery across the Indian Ocean the week before and prepared questions ahead of time, with my guidance. I highly recommend this type of activity wherever possible! Not only did it bring new voices and spaces for discussion, it also brought out a renewed sense of initiative and confidence in the class. Students asked about methodology, sources, motivations, and purposes in the book. How did the author theorize Malik Ambar’s motivations? How does one write the history of a person who left few records behind, compared to some other world leaders? What kinds of legacies did Malik Ambar’s policies leave for future administrations in the Deccan? Dr. Ali’s answers were open and thoughtful, and I believe the students were able to get a better understanding of what it means to be a historian and a scholar. While Skype visits from authors are a rare privilege, they matter in particular for undergraduates at smaller institutions. I am very happy with how the lesson unfolded and with the investment of my students in an excellent conversation.

Jahangir Shooting the Head of Malik Ambar
Jahangir Shooting the Head of Malik Ambar. 19th century copy of work attributed to Abu’l Hasan, c. 1616. Opaque watercolor, ink, gold on paper. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

Remembering 1519: A community discussion

This semester the Georgian Court University History Club and chapter of Phi Alpha Theta have organized a community event to talk about the legacies of the Spanish arrival in, and subsequent attack upon, Tenochtitlan in the early sixteenth century. Five hundred years ago this month, the Cortés expedition left Cuba without official permission in search of new conquests. Eventually, this leader and thousands of Indigenous fighters brought about the collapse of the Aztec Empire. We will focus on 1519 and its consequences for people of Indigenous, African, and European ancestry in North America.

Our panel represents a collaboration across disciplines and groups within the university. Two officers from the History Club, William Donahue and Kiyomi Locker, will facilitate and pose questions. Kiyomi Locker, a History major interested in Mesoamerican art, will give a long-term view of the conquest focusing on what it meant for the Nahuas and other Indigenous peoples, and what it means to Native Americans today. I will ask the audience and panelists to consider the roles Black conquistadors took in the process of early colonization. Professor Jaime Rivera (World Languages and Literature) will discuss the symbolism of conquest in Mexican literature, attitudes, and popular culture. A nursing major and representative from Student Government and Latin American Students Organization, Cristian Mendoza, will share some experiences and thoughts about mestizo identity and what it means in Mexico and the U.S. Finally, we will leave plenty of time for open discussion and reflection upon this process and how we remember it today.

1519 Poster.PNG

Interdisciplinary Teaching: “Music and Race in Latin America” Seminar Course

This interdisciplinary topics course brought together my training as a historian and my study as a musician. Though I am not an expert in music history, I found using works from this field very effective in engaging students from Latin American Studies, History, and History Education programs. The course explored how people have deployed, defined, or deemphasized race through music in Latin America. Examining processes of migration and exchange, we compared the influences of musics with roots in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe on present and past understandings of race in the region.

The format of the class prioritized a group experience of the music and an analysis of the readings and other primary sources. We started each class by listening to some of the assigned musics, like politically charged calypsos by Sparrow, Indian fiddle music published through the Smithsonian, or popular tracks by Tego Calderón, Ivy Queen, and Calle 13. The books for the course included Bryan McCann’s Hello, Hello Brazil: Popular Music in the Making of Modern Brazil  and Zoila Mendoza’s Creating Our Own: Folklore, Performance, and Identity in Cuzco, Peru, along with titles from Temple’s Studies in Latin American and Caribbean Music, edited by Peter Manuel. Some of the other works I used proved overly theoretical, but most were accessible and pushed our discussion in interesting directions. Short documentaries (around 30 minutes) worked well in the classroom, among them Chutney in Yuh Soca: A Multicultural Mix and Waila! Making the People Happy: Contemporary Dance Music of the Southern Arizona Indian Tribes (available on Kanopy).

The assignments resulted in some very cool projects by undergraduates. They produced reviews of archives and library collections, podcasts, and an online exhibit. The online project was especially useful in promoting students’ analyses of the nonverbal and musical texts. The students posed their own questions for podcasts and web sites: Do distinct genres of “Latino rap” or “Chicano rap” exist, and how have Latinx musicians influenced rap? What are the purposes of obscenity in the baile funk music scene? How are gendered roles and expectations in reggaetón and rap changing? Students used the flexibility in the assignment to make challenging and insightful presentations. I am happy to share some of the work (with permission) on race and ethnicity in rap music, Latina rappers and women in rap, and the politics of Rio de Janeiro’s funk scene. Below you can see screenshots from some of the web pages created for the course.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Teaching Atlantic Slavery in World History with Digital Student Projects

One of my ongoing teaching and research questions concerns situating the Atlantic and Atlantic slavery in world history. To bring these topics to the attention of undergraduates, I have designed and implemented assignments that allow students to directly address comparative questions related to legal personality, indenture, slave trading, and transculturation. For a final assessment in an undergraduate seminar on comparative slavery, students created individual online exhibits to complete a project involving two case studies. The goals were a) to contextualize digital sources in historical ways b) to distill information for an online reader and c) to integrate and discuss two cases of slavery to form a coherent argument. The sites had to contain a minimum of three pages or sections incorporating images, text, and other media.

The basic requirements for the project included comparative analysis with supporting multimedia items; use of appropriate secondary sources from class or other academic texts; complete captions for all media; and a minimum of 2,000 words in the three combined pages. I graded the project on a rubric for its historiographical engagement, original arguments, comparative analyses, item captions, primary source use, and design.

Africans and Chinese Laborers project 1
Partial screenshot of an opening page from a student project on nineteenth-century Cuba.

Africans and Chinese Laborers project 2
Partial screenshot of a student project using of primary sources to discuss labor in Cuba.

Using a range of scholarly works, including Lisa Yun’s The Coolie Speaks: Chinese Indentured Laborers and African Slaves in Cuba, James Sweet’s Domingos Álvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World, and Kristin Mann’s Slavery and the Birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760-1900, students explored transregional approaches to study slavery. These methods were then intended to help students create accessible projects linking or comparing the experiences of historical subjects in the worlds of Atlantic slavery.

History Education Teaching Portfolios

Students in my capstone course on “Religion in Iberian Empires” used assigned monographs and published primary sources in translation to create an individual digital project or write a final essay. I offered the digital option specifically for students interested in public history, digital humanities, and secondary education. History Education students expressed an interest in building electronic portfolios with lesson plans and public web sites. These projects would then be useful to them in student teaching and as examples for potential employers. While I did not evaluate the lesson plans for middle and high school students, I graded the websites themselves for content, writing, citations, and design using a rubric. Most students built their projects in Wix, Weebly, or Google Sites. Many of these projects worked well as teaching tools when the students later formally presented them to the rest of the class. I recommend an assignment like this for undergraduates pursuing a career in teaching.

Students covered a range of topics using digital projects intended for their teaching portfolios, but one of the best focused on theater in colonial Mexico. This particular student project (referenced here with permission) draws heavily on Aztecs on Stage: Religious Theater in Colonial Mexico, the recent work of Louise M. Burkhart,‎ Barry D. Sell,‎ and Stafford Poole. In addition to being seamlessly translated and edited, these plays are great entertainment. They work well in an undergraduate course as a primary source to be read and discussed in class. (My students really enjoyed reading aloud the advice of a doctor who instructs others to “take [a sick man] up to the top of the bell tower” and have him “spurt his diarrhea.” This intriguing episode can be found on page 174 of the text.) Other aspects of the plays and editorial guidance from Burkhart, Sell, and Poole allowed students to examine gendered concepts and identities among spectators, writers, and performers (below).

Nahua Theatre student project 1

This example of a student site provides broad cultural and historical contexts for the plays using primary and secondary sources. Connecting the past and the present, the student addresses processes of colonial transculturation and some of its legacies using different media.

Nahua Theatre student project 2

The site also includes some good examples of the student’s teaching toolkit. A scavenger hunt provided helps teachers evaluate student comprehension and interpretation of the basic concepts in the site. The student also offers links to other teaching tools online and in print.

Nahua Theatre student project 3

A Student Project on Colonial Places Using Google My Maps

In an introductory survey of colonial Latin American history, I tried out a mapping project using a simple, free, online program. Objectives included thinking about the persistence and use of colonial spaces in the national period; analyzing changes and continuities to names of historical places, especially with regard to language; and locating sites of historical memory and national meaning. These broad goals seemed suited to Google My Maps, which is straightforward and requires only a little explanation and training. This tool allowed students to insert their analyses as descriptions to marked places, as well as create categories to distinguish time periods. Using information from the textbook and lecture notes to describe the colonial places, students then combined their knowledge with current news sources. Students were required to note the significance of the places they chose and describe relationships between places on their maps.

map of slavery 2
“Colonial Slavery and Conquest.” Student mapping project created with Google My Maps.

Students chose the themes of their maps, many of which explored the legacies of Atlantic trade routes. These examples show one project that reflected on slavery and forced migration (above), and another that took a more general view of the maritime and overland connections between West Africa, the Americas, and Iberia (below).

goods and services map
“Flow of Goods and Services Utilized in Colonial and Modern Latin America.” Student mapping project created with Google My Maps.

minas map
Selection from “Flow of Goods and Services Utilized in Colonial and Modern Latin America” focusing on contemporary Minas Gerais.

This assignment was easy to complete, in terms of the digital skill set needed, while promoting student learning and critical thinking in a key area of colonial Latin American history. The memory of colonial places and their continued use are important take-away points in my teaching. The same aim could be accomplished without using a mapping program, but I also believe that using relatively simple digital tools in an introductory class helps students visualize the impact of colonial places. Furthermore, digital assignments build confidence with technology alongside critical thinking, and possible collaborative projects.

“Los Recuerdos del Barrio” Digital Collection at NAU

On Thursday, my Mexican history class visited Cline Library’s Special Collections to learn about “Los Recuerdos del Barrio en Flagstaff,” an online repository of oral histories from what the exhibit describes as “Flagstaff’s Basque, Spanish, Mexican, and Mexican American families.” Interviews include transcription, translation (where applicable), and video or audio recordings of the discussion. (Much of the text is searchable!) Over the course of more than a decade, Special Collections librarian Delia Ceballos Muñoz has been collecting memories and images that preserve the experiences of Flagstaff residents who lived through historical events such as the Mexican Revolution or the Influenza Epidemic of 1918. The site includes potential lesson plans for secondary education in Arizona, as well as a bibliography of local histories.

During the class period, researcher and librarian Delia Ceballos Muñoz talked to the students about how she conducted this project, its importance, and its scope. After the presentation, students had a chance to ask her questions about the meanings of oral history. Then, I created a group activity in which students laid out a hypothetical interview with a survivor of the Mexican Revolution, taking into account the importance of interviewer and narrator identities. This visit to Special Collections allowed students to learn more about Flagstaff’s communities while considering the practices of oral history. I hope this repository will play a role in final projects for my undergraduate classes.

Benito Mayorga
From Cline’s collection. Gelatin Silver print (black and white). “[L-R, Unknown friend and  Benito Mayorga in Mexico]1920.”
Catalog Description: “BIOGRAPHICAL HISTORY: Lillian Martha Ortiz Mayorga Chavez was born in Flagstaff on April 23, 1943. She and her brother were orphaned as young children and then adopted by Benito and Maria Mayorga. Benito worked at the Saginaw sawmill and Maria worked at home, taking care of the family. Lillian’s upbringing was greatly influenced by her parent’s values, her Mexican heritage and the Catholic faith.”

Monitoring Student Progress with Poll Everywhere

A colleague from the College of Education at NAU recently suggested I try Poll Everywhere to evaluate the main points students are taking away from my lectures and assigned readings. I recommend it to new lecturers or anyone who wants to keep tabs on how well students are absorbing information.

Cover of “Leyes Nuevas” of 1542. 

With five minutes left in a 75-minute introductory survey, I put up a question for text message live polling. Students had the benefits of anonymity and immediate evaluation of their responses. (The question below regards legislation from the mid-sixteenth century.) I’ll be trying out Poll Everywhere with easier and harder questions as the semester progresses. It is certainly helpful to get a range of answers to a question, in this case to see if students are following the reading. The downside is that not all students participated, but I hope more will get used to the exercise as the semester progresses. The goals of using the tool are to keep students on track with the readings and to ensure my own clarity with lecture.

new laws poll

A Successful Lesson with Prism

As a tool for “crowdsourcing interpretation,” as its creators describe it, Prism is visually and functionally interesting for college students. This semester I used Prism to teach two texts in Latin American history, but one stood out as a good length and style for classroom use. Below, I’ve pasted a screen shot of how the class marked up an excerpt from Maria Eugenia Echenique’s essay “The Emancipation of Women” (1876). (This text was published for educational purposes by Harcourt Brace Custom Books and translated by Francisco Manzo Robledo.) I uploaded text and had my class sign up for Prism in small groups. They then read part of the essay and highlighted portions of the texts using three facets. Below, you can see how they understood the theme of legal culture working in this text. The other facets were “Gender Roles” and “Progress.” Three facets seems like a limited number, but I think adding more would not make the exercise as compelling or easy for students to conduct in groups.


My class found the Font Size Visualization feature appealing, though Winning Facet I think would be interesting in a larger class. The Font Size is easier to understand on impact and encouraged students to think about their ideas in relation to those of others. We were able to discuss where we strongly agreed and where some groups had different ideas. The Winning Facet Visualization takes some clicking to understand. Black text indicates places where facets were equally popular. For example, the author argues that Argentine women, “can manage the interests of our children, these rights being the basis for emancipation.” My students believed that managing children’s interests was equally applicable to gender roles and legal culture in nineteenth-century Argentina. Therefore, this portion of text had no winning facet. When we examined this phrase using the Font Size feature, we found that fewer groups had highlighted this section anyway. The combination of the two visualizations is really neat and helps students communicate their ideas with their peers. This exercise allows the class to quickly evaluate multiple opinions–where they overlap and where they diverge.

Like many educators, I have found Prism valuable. Thanks again to all the graduate students, librarians, and faculty at University of Virginia who support the Praxis Program, and the Scholars’ Lab in general. I am a huge fan!