Oberlin Blogs

Confessions of an Undergraduate Researcher

July 3, 2014

Alexandria Cunningham ’16

One of the things that compelled me to attend a liberal arts institution outside of the curriculum and small class size was the variety of opportunities to conduct undergraduate research and have multiple sources of support in doing so. It was definitely important for me to be able to work towards my life post-undergrad and Oberlin gave me ways to do that. College was my chance to not only learn interdisciplinarily but to find the avenues to discuss the things my experience taught me mattered most both in and out of the classroom.

At Oberlin, two formal programs exist for undergraduate research. MMUF (Mellon Mays Undergraduate *Research Fellowship) and OCRF (Oberlin College Research Fellows) encourage students to create a research proposal, develop a plan and execute it alongside a faculty mentor over two years. Mellon, specifically, encourages students from underrepresented groups to apply to the program and later enroll in graduate school. The broader goal is that these students obtain a PhD, enter the professoriate and support students similar to them to follow similar paths. Outside of these official fellowship programs there is always the option to work in a lab or in conjunction with a professor as research experiences too.

During the summer, OSRI (Oberlin Summer Research Institute) is in full swing with the cohorts from each of these groups coming together for workshops, recreation and everything in between. Each researcher either has a self-developed project (humanities and social science folks) or is working alongside a professor's research with their own focus or a lab group (science folks). The season concludes with a week of culminating presentations in late July delivered by OSRI members on what they have investigated for the past eight weeks.

In this fancy formal talk, researchers share what their research has been, what they have found, the implications of this new knowledge and the direction of it past their talk. Essentially, this is an opportunity to finally share all of the exciting, challenging and maybe even problematic information you have come across related to your research and let a room full of your peers and supporters into your head for an hour or so. My Mellon cohort is rather diverse with Sociology, Geology, Africana Studies and East Asian Studies departments represented between the five of us. As the twenty-something days before presentation week starts, I am admittedly in a time-pressed situation to pull a magical presentation together. Debating on presentation style, navigating the too-much-not-enough jargon line, figuring out what "relevant" information should be shared all the way down to worrying about time, rhythm and the quality of my voice while presenting is all overwhelming the hell out of me.

All qualms and worries aside, I really want my presentation to be something memorable and enjoyable for those who are there. Lectures/powerpoints can be mildly effective but I think having a semi-structured conversation can be better to talk about my mellon project (which is black student (under)performance and achievement by the way). Ideally, I can give context, intent and some direction and a fruitful discussion can ensue that I facilitate but who knows how this will all play out in the end. Bottom line? I want to be as relaxed as possible and not bore the audience to tears and have the information completely go over anyone's head. I am open to suggestions on how folks may like to see this topic be discussed as well!

Originally this post was going to be a walk through of things I learned about researching that I was not necessarily aware of coming in, but I think that post is best served after the summer program is over. Stay tuned. In lieu of that, I will do two things: (1) share a persistent struggle with researching thus far and (2) ask for any thoughts on how folks may want to see/hear my presentation take shape (given the limited amount of information you may have from these posts).

Research Struggles
I am a naturally really organized person. During the academic year, I am super on task with my color-coded calendar, written agendas and daily productive plan. However, this summer I just have not been able to go all in like that for a variety of reasons. Self-directed research takes a lot out of you; especially during an academic off-season when your brain is supposed to be fixing itself from all the strain put on it nine months out of the year. So I have to battle for brain power to force myself to get organized, on-task and highly motivated to do some great work. It takes soooo much effort but I am almost there and I know it will be great.

Community Opinion
Here is the part where I am asking for opinions! If there is a particular way that you may think that this research can be shared that is interesting, effective and welcoming to a broad variety of folks--let me know. I really want my presentation to be accessible to people and of interest. It is personal and significant work to me but I want to make sure that I make the knowledge that I have to give as inviting as I am to all who want to learn something new or bounce ideas around with me. So comment a thought or tell me directly if you run into me in person! It is greatly appreciated and will really help me in making a presentation for this Oberlin community that goes beyond the one-hour slot I have to speak.

And so I will leave this quote here as I continue to challenge myself with this research:

"I've learned that you shouldn't go through life with a catcher's mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back." ~Maya Angelou


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