Advanced Authentic Research

Mentoring High School Students in the Humanities

The culture that surrounds the student doing research often involves working as part of a team. Assessing your student in advance and helping him or her to acclimate as quickly as possible to your environment will set the stage for a constructive research experience.

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Research in the humanities and social sciences is distinctly different from laboratory-based research experiences. Because of the nature of the research, students need to clearly understand the expectations inherent in this environment. Some social science research environments (e.g., those that involve administering surveys or running subjects through research protocols) share some similarities with laboratory-based research environments, so you may find some helpful suggestions in the previous section.

I. Orientation
Research in the humanities and social sciences is often conducted in libraries, and involves  the examination of primary and secondary sources as well various types of information that could yield potentially interesting data. This research entails a significant amount of time spent on one’s own, wrestling with the research question, writing, and interpreting data. Please keep in mind the following suggestions for preparing and supporting students as they work independently.

At the initial meeting, work with your student to develop a research plan that includes short-term and long-term goals as well as a timeline for completion of the work. Inform your student realistically about how frequently you will be able to meet with him/her and when. If you have a heavy travel schedule or will be away for a significant length of time, make sure the student is aware of this. Provide ways to ensure the student can continue to receive feedback while you are away, e.g., via e-mail or phone calls. Tell students that it is their responsibility to contact you if they need anything. Remind them that independent, self-directed work often defines humanities and social sciences research but it does not mean that they should not seek help if they are confused or unsure about the direction of their research. Discuss the resources that are available to the student as he/she pursues independent research. Mention the services offered in university libraries and explain the roles of archivists, reference librarians, information technology experts, database managers and curators. You may wish to encourage the student to make arrangements to meet with these professionals. Let your student know how often you will provide feedback. Provide corrective feedback with empathy and kindness. Discuss the level and the amount of writing that is expected over the course of the research project, and let him or her know the number of drafts you expect.

II. Defining a Research Question
Students may arrive with a specific research project in mind or they may simply have a broad interest in the field. You must help the student define a project that is realistic within the given time frame of the research program but will also allow the student to be introduced to the depth and breadth of the available literature.

A Student Researcher by early December should have a clearly defined two to four page research proposal. The proposal should follow the guidelines from the AAR curriculum and be developed under supervision of the mentor. Students should submit the proposal to the AAR Coordinator for approval before they begin conducting the experiment and collecting data. 

The proposal should include the following:
1) Title
2) Research question
3) Background and significance
4) Research methodology
5) Key references to relevant publish work.  

Listen carefully to the student’s perspective about the kind of research they wish to pursue.  Ask the student to share an article or essay as an example of the work he/she would like to do. Question your student about familiarity with the available literature to help you gauge his/her knowledge of the field. If appropriate, discuss ways in which ethnicity, culture gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status and other characteristics help to expand the types of questions asked in a particular discipline and the various methodologies used for answering them.
Once the project has been defined, help your student assemble a reading list to provide some direction and guidance. Although you may have a particular bias about the research, you should provide competing hypotheses and divergent theories. Help your student understand how diverse perspectives have come about and provide examples of how his/her research can be placed in the context of these different perspectives.

III. Asking Questions
Research in social sciences and humanities relies on the ability of the investigator to pose good questions and then find the appropriate primary and secondary resources necessary to answer these questions. Students must recognize their questions may require understanding of a wider variety of disciplines than they may have originally considered.

Discuss with your student the importance of learning to ask appropriate questions, particularly during critical periods, in order to move the research forward. Do not hesitate to appropriately challenge assumptions held by your student about his/her research topic but remember that your student is still a novice in your discipline. Encourage your student to write down all of the questions he/she has and bring them to share during regular meetings. Be open to exchanging ideas with your student. Strive to create an atmosphere that makes a student feel empowered to ask questions. Help your student learn to formulate better questions but do not make him or her feel inferior while doing so. Model how to ask questions within the context of the discipline. Help the student clearly delineate the different levels of questions and the kinds of questions to ask during the research process. For instance, broad research questions need to be honed down to specific questions related to the data or information found.  This in turn will lead to different levels of analysis and additional questions.

IV. Methodologies
Researchers in the social sciences and humanities utilize a wide variety of both qualitative and quantitative methods in their research. It is important for you to discuss the appropriate qualitative and quantitative methodologies currently used in your discipline. Keep in mind that students with limited research experience may not be familiar with diverse methods of inquiry.

Ask students explicitly about research methods they may have used in the past and question them about their understanding of methods they may use in the project. Provide a variety of examples of the kinds of methods that can be used to address different research questions. You may also wish to provide readings that contain examples of how various methods have been used by other researchers. If the project requires survey instruments, archival materials or large databases, arrange for your student to meet with appropriate professional staff for training in the use of these resources.