Why I wanted an undergraduate research assistant

It was probably a year ago when I started thinking about this research project. The call had just opened up for the Student Engagement Network Faculty Academy positions and I knew the IRDL applications would open in December. As I put together my various essays, CVs, and budget proposals, I knew I wanted to have at least one undergraduate student research assistant.

My motivation for having a student was multi-faceted. The biggest motivation for me was to have a student voice woven throughout the project. Since the beginning, Ally has been providing feedback and giving me a better sense of what it means to navigate student engagement at Penn State. I feel that we are true partners in this project and I’m grateful for her as a collaborator. She also has the ability to reach students in a way that I can’t and I saw that come to life last week. So far, we have been tag teaming our first set of interviews; one of us is the lead, and the other chimes in when needed. At a recent interview that Ally was leading, she and the student had some shared student engagement experiences and as the two of them went off on a short tangent about a mutual connection, I knew that I would never be able to have that sort of conversation with the student. It’s cool to see her leading the interview and I know that insider student perspective will play a role as a we share out our results. It has also made me think about what we’ll need to do during the analysis stage, in order to capture that insider knowledge within the transcripts and coding.

I also wanted an undergraduate research assistant because I wanted to see what it was like to offer a library-focused undergraduate research experience. In my job, I think and talk a lot about undergraduate research, but mainly from the point of view of the library providing workshops or resources to wrap around disciplinary undergraduate research experiences. As I think about Tim Schlak’s article asking librarians to “[t]ranscend a transactional approach to library services to one where the library partners with students” (pg. 137, 2018), this project is a way for me to see that in action.

When Ally joined the team, we spent some time developing her goals for this project. I told her I was flexible in what her role on the team looked like; it could be as expansive or tightly defined as she wanted. In conversation, I learned that Ally was interested in learning how to interview participants and taking an active role in coding and analysis. This was my ideal situation! As the goals were set, I was able to scaffold that learning; I pulled out my textbooks from IRDL and had Ally read about in-depth interviewing techniques and coding practices. She read a chunk of our student engagement articles and we’ve spent time discussing the intricacies of academic libraries. For me personally, it feels good to know how to build up an experience and then see that new knowledge in action.

Selfishly, I wanted an undergraduate research assistant because it’s nice to have someone who’s as jazzed about your research project as you are. It’s nice to have someone to chat about interview questions or express frustration when your participants aren’t responding to your email. This is a big research project and it’s good to know I’m not alone in it. Ally has also held me accountable; she works every day and that means I get a chance to work on this project every day as well. It also means that I won’t get sidetracked by my other day-to-day work and put this project aside.

Now, I know it’s not always possible to have the funds to support an undergraduate research assistant. But I think that in a project like mine, it’s a crucial component and adds a different type of rigor and credibility to this work. I’m thankful for the funds to support Ally in this meta student engagement experience (an undergraduate research experience around student engagement). We’ve got our first presentation in a few weeks and I’m jazzed we get to talk about this work, together.

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Student Engagement Coordinator at Penn State University Libraries. When she's not in the library, Hailley is an avid oatmeal connoisseur, baseball scorekeeper, bike rider, embroidery queen, and reader of memoirs. Check her out on Twitter @hailthefargoats.

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