Last Wednesday, I loaded my car with undergraduates from Romania, China and Singapore to catch our flight home from a mathematics conference in Michigan. A conference for undergraduates? Indeed. If you are in the over forty set, you know this opportunity simply did not exist back in the eighties when we earned our bachelors degrees. I went to class, I took tests, I occasionally mustered the courage to visit a faculty member during office hours. I rarely talked with faculty outside of class and I certainly did not spend a summer pursuing research with them.
Now, an increasing number of students, particularly at liberal arts institutions, receive funding for research in the summer. The sciences still attract the largest number of students but opportunities for students in mathematics have grown in recent years. Even students in the humanities have slowly begun to take up undergraduate research.
On the surface, this seems like a perfect addition to an already meaningful undergraduate curriculum, something like adding dark chocolate m & m's to the already delicious collection of colorful candy coated treasures. My own students' undergraduate research experience this summer began less than twenty-four hours after the last spring semester final. With funds from an internal (them) and external (me) grant, we traveled 500 miles to explore the Archives of the American Mathematical Society at Brown University. The three of us huddled over letters from the equivalent of mathematical celebrities in the early 1920's. This was no textbook introduction to American mathematics. These letters captured the heart and soul of the driving forces behind the creation of seminal mathematics and the sustaining of a burgeoning community.
We finished our work at the Archives about 4 p.m. With four hours of daylight stretching out before us, we traveled to Newport News and walked between "The Mansions" and the Atlantic Ocean in the afternoon sun. Later, these two nineteen-year old students and I wound our way through tightly packed tables at a small restaurant in town to a window seat with geraniums peeking through the tiny panes of wavy glass. And this was work for me. It was undergraduate research for them. That beginning segued into a meaningful summer of research for all of us.
These moments bolster my belief in undergraduate education, particularly within the broader context of the liberal arts. They keep me awake at night celebrating my chosen profession and thinking I might actually make some tiny difference in the life of a student. But they come at a cost. These moments require time and attention, precisely what it takes to be an attentive parent and a productive scholar. How do we fit it all in?
Then there is the ancillary (more selfish) question that comes to my mind when I give this further thought. Will someone do this for my own children? Will someone not only introduce the idea of scholarship to my children but also create the space for their ideas to form and take shape? As it turns out, I need not worry.
Late in the summer, as a sort of last hurrah, my students and I set aside our more hard core research and traveled to the Walters Museum in Baltimore for a small conference on the Archimedes Codex, the tenth century manuscript that is the source for two of Archimedes treatises. Like a good professional meeting, the talks and discussions provided a refreshing shot in the arm for us after so many weeks of focused research and writing. My fifteen-year-old daughter joined us for the trip and, as we made our way up Interstate 95 in the early hours of the morning, one of my research students asked my daughter about her recent experience at a celebrated arts camp. Within a matter of minutes, my research student had Hannah fully engaged in a conversation not only about what she had learned but also about how she had flourished in a community of artistic scholars. This nineteen-year-old student created the kind of space for Hannah to work through her thoughts and ideas that I had hoped for her in the future as an undergraduate. There he was, creating the liberal arts frame for Hannah that, apparently, he had taken in during his two years at the University of Richmond. I savored the moment. I don't know what I enjoyed more: hearing Hannah talk about her experience or hearing Bill ask the questions to spur her thoughts. What I do know is this: in those moments, parenting, educating, and fostering a spirit of lifelong learning coalesced beautifully in a University car on I-95. I'm ready to hit the road again.