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Talk About Teaching and Learning
February 17, 2009, Volume 55, No. 22

Preparing to Launch: Stage One in Mentoring Undergraduate Research

Rogers M. Smith

Undergraduate mentoring is not for everyone. The most successful mentoring occurs when both parties share intellectual enthusiasms and their personalities and ways of working mesh.  We cannot always make that happen. I enjoy working with students with a wide range of interests and abilities because I am curious about what intrigues them and why. I also am thrilled when they move from inchoate thoughts to a finished project that is far better than they anticipated, even if it is not everything that the most gifted student might have achieved. Some faculty members find it hard to get caught up in projects that are not close to their own research interests, and some cannot feel good about projects that do not reach a certain level of excellence. They do less mentoring, and that’s not all bad.

Still, we can all learn to mentor better. I have found that what I like best about it also provides the best way to deal with the all-important first step in advising research: helping a student find a topic. I used to get a sinking feeling when a student asked for advice on a senior essay or a paper because (gazing at feet) “I don’t know what I want to do.” The temptation is to throw them a few options or just to say “Come back when you figure it out!” But I’ve learned it’s both fun and productive to help them figure it out, by employing what I grandly call the “method of systematic introspection”—though some students think of it as “Smith’s annoying inquisition.” 

I ask the students to do two things, orally or, preferably, in brief written paragraphs. First, list two or three general topics they think they might be interested in—and then list some reasons why they are interested in those topics. I then ask them further “why” questions, seeking specific answers. For example, if a student says, “I think I want to do something on immigration,” I ask, “Why immigration?” The student may say, “I heard someone on TV say immigration is like a contract and I’m not sure it is.”  I ask, “Why not?” The student might say, “Well, it’s not really negotiated, and I’m not sure some things are fair to ask. Like, I heard you can’t get food stamps for years, and what if you really need them?” It may turn out that the student knows a family, or has a family, who couldn’t get food stamps for five years after immigrating (as current law provides).

After these “why” questions, I usually find that I can say to the student, “Sounds to me like you think the idea of immigration as contract is a bad one, because you think it’s being used to legitimate imposing on immigrants conditions that you see as unjust and hurtful.  Is that right?” If the student agrees—and sometimes they perk up at hearing their thoughts articulated—I might continue, “There are at least a couple of claims here: that ‘immigration as contract’ talk is being used to confer legitimacy on immigration policies; and that certain policies are harmful and unfair.  Which interests you most?”

The student’s answer puts us in position to take the next steps. We can think what would count as evidence and arguments for and against the claim the student wants to make. We can think where to look for such evidence and arguments, with me scouring my brain or googling to suggest some sources as initial starting points. Then we can set up a tentative schedule for the student’s research, drafts, and our meetings. 

If the student said she was interested in whether contract talk was used in recent legislative debates to give dubious legitimation to certain policies, we’d identify the debates to examine; some sources on what usually count as legitimate contracts; and pertinent secondary sources.  If she said she thought denials of food stamps are harmful and unfair, we’d identify different literatures, some focused empirically on the impact of such denials, some on normative policy and philosophical debates. The work might evolve into a local empirical study of whether Philadelphia immigrants really get food stamps, or into a political theory essay building on Amartya Sen, or something else.

There are two reasons I urge this introspection and undertake this inquisition. First, students will be more persistent if they pursue projects whose content they really care about—so I need to ask and listen carefully to understand what’s exciting to them. Second, I want to uncover the student’s preliminary argument or hypothesis. Many students don’t wish to acknowledge, even to themselves, that they have an argument lurking in their minds when they think about a topic. Many resist the notion that they have or should have anything as starkly scientific as a “hypothesis.” 

But I think it’s psychologically impossible to be interested in a topic without having some stance toward it—perhaps a belief that what many say about it is wrong, perhaps a hope that something can be shown to be true that many don’t accept. That stance is a tentative argument or hypothesis. Surfacing it helps in lots of ways. It serves to motivate and focus the student. It provides guides for what the student’s research design should be. And it helps with the necessary but potentially infinite task of mastering relevant literatures. Once one knows what one would like to argue, reading becomes easier and more efficient. Rather than trudging through piles of articles and books to see if there’s anything “on topic,” the student can often assess quickly whether the arguments and data in a piece are pertinent to the student’s claims. If they are irrelevant, the student can set the piece aside. If they are supportive, the student has gained evidence and footnotes. If they are challenging, the student has targets to critique and a response to why the research matters. At worst, if several articles say just what the student wants to say, the student must think how to go beyond them. But usually by then the student has learned enough to do so. 

What I’m urging is not the same as asking students to pick a question they are interested in, and then define it so that it is researchable.  I do not think it sufficient to be able to say that one is interested in a “question,” because usually that question could be pursued in vastly different directions. If we want to get the student both focused and fired up, it’s far better, though harder, to get them to work out at the start just what they’d really like to show. Even if this initial discussion does not get the student all the way to a researchable topic, it gets her thinking along lines that are likely to lead to one. 

And there is another benefit. After this discussion, students often have the feeling that they have learned something about themselves. That is worthwhile in itself. For though much has changed since the days of Socrates, surely “know thyself” remains a central goal for education of the young—if not indeed for the very “life of the mind” that, in our different ways, all of us in academia seek to pursue.


Rogers M. Smith, professor of political science, and chair of the Penn Program on Democracy, Citizenship and Constitutionalism,
is the recipient of last year’s  SAS Dean’s Award for Mentorship of Undergraduate Research.

This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.

Almanac - February 17, 2009, Volume 55, No. 22