The experiment: Engaging undergraduates in advanced university research


It started out as an experiment. We took the brains of a dozen undergraduate students and carefully placed them into the flailing bodies of several research projects; we fired up the electricity (well, actually, set up a webpage) and … the Project Management and Research module was born.

I have become very fond of what we have all created this year. Anthony and I have worked together on projects for over a decade now (hard to believe, I know) and it seemed like a good idea to share some of what we have learned along the way and pass on our genuine enthusiasm for project-based work. In an academic environment that is increasingly stressing employability and the transferability of skills, this module ticks all the boxes. I hope that it has given our first cohort of students a taste of research in an academic context and the opportunity to exploit the talent they have and bring out new talents they never knew they had.

Modules like this always have teething problems, of course. There is the issue of finding suitable projects in the first place and of allocating them equitably. The module is also resource intensive: the students need access to computing, scanning and printing equipment. There was a glitch early on in the year when the office space we had organised was not ready on time. The idea, though, was that we would build enough flexibility into the course to allow the students enough time to think through and properly establish their projects.

The assignments were allocated according to the interests and career plans of individual students and covered a range of projects: the Database of Mid-Victorian Illustration (including curating two online exhibitions), the Robert Louis Stevenson edition, Romantic Textualities, cataloguing in Special Collections and Archives (SCOLAR), writing a blog for Cardiff Book History and the Palgrave Guide to Gothic Publishing. Some of these projects, like the one in SCOLAR, had a relatively fixed remit, in this case to catalogue the prints in the extensive Salisbury collection; others like the blog allowed for more freedom in the approach and topic. By the end of the year, the students will have encountered a little bit of both types of project.

The results in the first semester were terrific. Seeing the finished projects and reading the accompanying portfolios has been an incredibly rewarding experience. Anthony and I were so impressed with the work that went into the projects – and with just how brilliant, organised, inventive, clever and funny this group of students is (see the module blog for proof!).

So, while the students carry on with their second semester projects and start to think about the reflective essay they will write at the end of the module, I can reflect on an experiment that (so far, at least!) went very right.

Julia Thomas



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