Collaborating with Undergraduate Research Assistants

In a 2017 piece for Anthropology News Richard Wilk argued that anthropology graduate programs are not preparing students for the reality of anthropological life. Indeed, that has been my own experience over the past three years as I transition from graduate student to postdoc to faculty member. Much of the research I do today is conducted in a manner completely opposite to that blissful, independent space of reading, writing, and observing that was the dissertation process. I wouldn’t trade that self-centered graduate school time for the world, but I find that now I need to acquire skills in people and project management that simply never made it into my graduate experience.

Wilk argues that most of our sociocultural programs fail to prepare students to work in a team and manage a large team project:

It is also time that we acknowledge that the world and the research landscape are too complex for a single anthropologist working for one or two years to make a substantial contribution. Biological and archaeological anthropologists have long recognized that big issues require big teams. But in sociocultural anthropology we still expect an individual quest and original work (whatever that means). How can this possibly train students for the teamwork that is now essential in most field research? Even when students are working as part of a larger project, we continue to treat the dissertation as the work of an individual, written from a single vantage point.

To that end, I wanted to offer my experience supervising undergraduate research assistants. As a postdoctoral fellow at Davidson College, I recall explaining my new summer work situation to friends: I was assisting my assistants. The true nature of the deal was that I had the luxury of two summer research assistants to aid me in my postdoctoral study of campus agricultural projects, but in reality I needed to assist, guide, and collaborate with them so that we could work as a team.

Image shows two research assistants speaking with interviewee.
Research assistants Charley Orner and Gregory Hunt speak with Philip Otienoburu about the Sustainability Village at Johnson C. Smith University. Amanda Green

I had never acquired the knowledge of how to manage team-based ethnographic research, so I began by asking my colleagues how they collaborated with their undergraduate students. Do note, I did not ask other cultural anthropologists how they collaborated with students. I asked the environmental studies, psychology, and biology professors who supervised large lab projects and co-published with their students. I learned much from these colleagues, yet I remained concerned about my ability to overcome the nature of ethnographic inquiry: it is a subjective, open-ended process that often depends on the interests of the researcher (positionality) and the timing of the research project (coincidence). How could I overcome these challenges when I was using multiple eyes and ears to study one research question?

Here’s a short list of steps I took, or wished I’d taken, to bring our team effort to fruition. I have Davidson College professors Laura Sockol, Dave Martin, and Brad Johnson to thank for many of these insights.

Talk with experts at your university who already work in teams with their students. There are no blogs that can offer you as much perspective and veteran knowledge as the people you work with every day.

Develop paperwork and protocols for your team to ensure that no data is lost and there is uniformity across files. In cultural anthropology, this involves setting up (1) file saving protocols for audio and visual data as well as transcripts and field notes; (2) transcript and field note templates; (3) participant database templates; (4) annotated bibliography templates; and (5) citation templates. Anything the team will need to refer back to should have a template design located in an easy-to-remember folder so that team members can use them as a reference.

Set up file sharing and citation sharing networks. I prefer Dropbox and Zotero. My students prefer Google Drive. Some of my students do not know how to use either Dropbox or Google Drive, and most have not used Zotero or similar citation software. Plan to dedicate a few training sessions to using and then reviewing these platforms. They are critical to the success of your team and the long-term paper trail of your research.

Be clear about your expectations and goals. We drafted a set of research objectives and sub-objectives for the summer, and we revisited those goals every week to two weeks in order to update and determine our progress. We posted them in a visible part of our work space in order to remind ourselves of the path we were on. We also had to negotiate working hours, as my 8:30 a.m. start time was unpalatable. We established a set of mid-day hours where we would all work in the same space, and they would continue working into the wee hours of the night while I headed home to family and sleep.

Create a weekly rhythm for reporting achievements and setbacks. I used a set of questions to ascertain how students were progressing in their research: What have you done in the last week? What do you want to get done in the next week? What is the main difficulty that you are up against now? What do you need from me?

Identify and work toward students’ personal goals. Students may have their own objectives and expectations for what they will get out of this project. Ask them to define those objectives, including their larger curricular and career goals so that you are aware of the skill set they need to develop in order to reach those dreams.

Observe their ethnographic skills and provide feedback. In cultural anthropology, this step is the most important to building a team in which you have confidence. It is the step in which I failed most strongly because of my hesitancy to impose my own ethnographic perspectives and interview approaches onto my students. My own hesitancy is a result of precisely what Wilk identifies: the continued belief that a cultural anthropologist is on an individual quest to produce original research. Instead, I suggest conducting several interviews and ethnographic observations together so that students can observe how you run an interview. Allow them to run the next interviews, and provide them with feedback. Compare field notes and transcripts after these collaborative interviews and observations, and provide one another with feedback. Continue to monitor their field notes and transcripts to be sure of consistency and unexpected data that should be shared with team members. The same process should be repeated for coding (analyzing) qualitative data. We created our codes together, working side by side in a lab. Merging separately coded data can be challenging, so be sure to begin the process of coding with knowledge of how you will bring your codes together for a final analysis. You may also refer to the literature on inter-rater reliability for this part of the analysis process.

I’m curious what additional tips faculty might have for working in ethnographic teams with undergraduates. Add your ideas in the comments section.

Amanda Green is an assistant professor of anthropology at Eastern Kentucky University.

Interested in submitting news, announcements, contributions, and comments for the SAFN column? Please contact SAFN section news contributing editors Kelly Alexander ([email protected]) and Amanda Green ([email protected]).

Cite as: Green, Amanda. 2019. “Collaborating with Undergraduate Research Assistants.” Anthropology News website, October 8, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1275

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