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ACM Voices - Spring-Summer 2012

In the Spring-Summer 2012 issue of ACM Notes

Manga to Maasai: Off-Campus Research Can Spark Something Truly Special

Guest columnist: Carol Dickerman, ACM Director of International Study Programs

Carol Dickerman

Carol Dickerman

At the ACM Student Symposium this past April, Susie Smela, a Beloit College student, discussed her research on manga in Japan. She noted the extent to which conducting research deepened and broadened her cultural immersion, allowing her to interact with Japanese manga enthusiasts and engage with a subsection of Japanese culture in a way that would not have been possible without such a project.

Smela followed up her off-campus study program by returning to Japan the following summer to continue her research and attend Comiket, a biannual convention in Tokyo drawing more than half a million manga fans from around the world.

Excellent undergraduate research in off-campus study programs requires intentionality – about design, cultural sensitivity, and support.

"While I thought I was enriching my Japanese major," Smela noted, "this research was indispensable for my understanding of International Relations and my understanding of my academic self." Her remark highlights one of the ways in which various elements of an off-campus study program interact – and achieve a result in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Off-campus research does not follow a single model. Programs differ on how to how to help students identify a topic, or on what and how to teach about research methodology. Here are some examples from ACM programs.

  • At the Newberry Seminar: Research in the Humanities, students become acquainted with the breadth of the Newberry Library's collections through a variety of presentations by library staff. They identify a topic for their own research project with the help of those library "guides" and through the methodology work of the seminar. The results have ranged from projects on presidential campaign songs, to investigations of Victorian-era American women's diaries (entitled, "Dear Diary, I Hate My Husband"), to a study of the production of coffins in late 19th-century America utilizing a collection of photographs in one of the library's collections. While students' projects reflect their general interests and programs of study before their arrival at the Newberry, the specific topics are products of their immersion in the library's collections.
  • Jonathan Henn in Costa Rica

    Jonathan Henn (shown with members of his host family) was a finalist for the annual Award for Outstanding Research on an ACM Program for his project on food sources for scarlet macaws in Costa Rica.

    In Costa Rica: Field Research in the Environment, Social Sciences, & Humanities, in contrast, students are expected to identify and begin communication with an advisor about a general topic even before they arrive in country. The range of the advisors' interests is very broad: from marine biology and biodiversity, to environmental law, children's health, and Costa Rica's indigenous communities.
  • A number of student research projects in the Botswana: University Immersion in Southern Africa program have arisen out of volunteer projects with non-governmental organizations and from conversations with University of Botswana (UB) classmates. In spring 2011, one student evaluated services to orphans and other vulnerable children through her work at the SOS Children's Villages, while another conducted interviews with pre-health students at UB about their plans and motivations in furthering their medical education.

Excellent undergraduate research in off-campus study programs requires intentionality – about design, cultural sensitivity, and support. Just as cultural immersion doesn’t automatically ensue from spending a few months in a host country, good research doesn’t happen easily, especially given the time and material constraints of study abroad.

Thus, ACM is developing a template for teaching students about research design and methods, recognizing that at each program site, what students learn about research must reflect not only program themes but also the local culture, whether domestic or international. Some topics, including the ethics of research, span multiple program sites, while other topics, such as identifying appropriate survey tools, are site-specific.

The kinds of projects students design and carry out in ACM programs can rarely occur on their home campuses, and the results go beyond final products and presentations. Enhanced cultural engagement is only one of the outcomes.

Students also learn that research is not a linear exercise and that it requires flexibility and adaptation. For example, a recent participant in ACM’s Tanzania: Ecology & Human Origins program initially proposed to study Maasai burial practices. When she arrived at the field site, though, she reshaped her topic to focus on Maasai conversion to Christianity, a topic that was both more practical and potentially more interesting.

The independent project can also be an opportunity to test possible careers, as a biologist, historian, or even a stand-up comic.

For many off-campus study participants, independent research is the program element that will resonate long after the program has concluded. Just as the best research is about surprises – new findings, different ways of seeing the world – so, too, we hope students will return from off-campus study with new insights about themselves, their academic disciplines, and the world. When those activities reinforce each other, the results, as Susie Smela suggests, can spark something truly special.

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This column was written for the Spring-Summer 2012 issue of the ACM Notes newsletter for faculty and administrators.

Copyright 2012