No Senior Left Behind

Three realizations from a rewarding course.

May 14, 2013

Of all the undergraduate classes I am tasked to handle, the senior research course is by far the most challenging and rewarding. Involving individual supervision and hundreds of woman-hours of content and copy editing, it is akin to a “birthing” where I can truly claim to be the midwife. This year, 9 out my ten 10 advisees  (7 manuscripts total) made it to graduation. One of them presented her paper at the Political Science Association conference. Another is the best undergraduate student writer in my 20 odd years in the academe; she graduated with honors. One, delayed for two years, finally completed the course. I could never be more proud of this brood.

Perusing through the acknowledgement page of the bound copies of manuscripts given to me, I have a few realizations about myself and who I am to my students.

1. Let students be who they are.

I have learned not to impose my own preferences and research agenda on my students. My students are free to chose any topic under the sun; my job is to steer them away from research undertakings fraught with data gathering difficulties or that which could not be done in two semesters.  In the five years I have thought the course, only 2 (out of 40 advisees total) have chosen a topic similar to my research interest.

This “free market” of topics means that I have to be conversant on the wide array of literature they are reading - more work for me.  But letting students pursue what interests them in the end creates a sense of purpose and ownership. They become invested in what they’re doing, enough even to get them to enjoy research and possibly contemplate a career out of it. Of these chosen few, my students Jarrah and Marianie, who did their research on civil-military relations in non-traditional tasks, went on to establish a small foundation providing school supplies to children in conflict areas. Hilarion pursued an academic career in Mindanao anchored on peace studies (teaching Muslim values in mixed ethnic schools). Juhn Chris went on to publish his work on civil society engagements in a disaster in an ISI-listed journal.

2. Students are a priority.

I have a lot on my plate  (an administrative job, my own research projects, classes), but I devote time for reading my students’ manuscripts and consulting with them one by one. They eat into my lunch time, my tea break, even into my 15-minute walk to catch the afternoon bus (they have to briskly walk alongside me). My daily calendar may look like a never-ending series of 30-minute appointments, but in these short interactions, I get to critique, encourage and build confidence in my young wards. It is a lot of emotional baggage to learn personal things about them (e.g. politician-father getting death threats; getting into an accident while doing field work; young unwed mother losing her baby to a freak accident, but I would like to think that in writing, they can find self-worth to overcome these personal challenges.

3. The “prize” is the process, not the final output.

This insight comes from my Dean, progenitor of the senior undergraduate research course. It is about the experience of doing research in accordance to social scientific protocols, a foretaste of what might be a career in research or academe; it is NOT about the final output as magnum opus. While I try hard to emphasize rigor in their projects’ research design, and care about grammar and punctuation, I make sure that I never lose sight of the fundamentals: (1) this is an undergraduate course; and (2) it is a requirement for graduation.

In the end, beyond thankful references to knowledge conveyed (“the best adviser, ever,” “her enduring patience”), my job is simple: get these students out of the the University with diplomas in hand to start their new lives. Nothing gives me more cheer than seeing our “super seniors” (students close to maximum 7 years of University residency) finally march up to that stage. Milestones, they matter.

Iloilo, Philippines

Rosalie Arcala Hall is a Professor at the University of the Philippines Visayas and a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.


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