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Undergraduate research integral to Notre Dame

Dan Lindley, Cecilia Lucero | Tuesday, March 2, 2010

In response to Justin DeRosa’s letter in Viewpoint (“An argument against research,” Feb. 24), Mr. DeRosa is mistaken in saying that Fr. Jenkins “in his inaugural address, asserted that he is simply committed to ‘maintaining’ [Notre Dame’s] traditional excellence in undergraduate teaching.” This statement is nowhere in Fr. Jenkins’ address (see http://inauguration.nd.edu/ceremonies/inaugural_address.shtml), and the suggestion that Fr. Jenkins and the University are merely settling for a status quo in teaching is also unfounded. Instead, Fr. Jenkins was visionary in tying undergraduate research to his goal of constantly improving undergraduate education across the board. Undergraduate research is education, and research is service. As such, undergraduate research embodies the best of what Notre Dame has to offer.
DeRosa’s letter shows that there are misunderstandings about research and the University’s promotion of it among undergraduates. At our new Center for Undergraduate Scholarly Engagement (CUSE) — which is one symbol of the University’s commitment to academic excellence — we try to dispel myths about research and intellectual pursuits overall. First, research is not diametrically opposed to teaching and learning, as some may think. In fact, research is the cutting edge of undergraduate education. Top universities around the nation and the world recognize this, and Notre Dame strives to be a leader in undergraduate research. Students flourish when they challenge themselves and venture into the unknown, investigating ideas and beliefs about themselves and others, cultures, the world … whether through science, engineering, the humanities and arts, architecture or the social sciences and business.
Second, research is a far broader enterprise than many believe. Undergraduate research involves not just laboratory experiments, but also critical analysis of texts and artifacts, ethnographies, oral histories, creative endeavors, studies of the theory and form that underlie creative works and so on. For many students across the University, research is an integral part of learning, one that takes students beyond the classroom. Through the research experience, students take full ownership of their education — pursuing their own questions, working independently many times, collaborating one-on-one with faculty members and becoming creators of knowledge.
Why do research? A few practical reasons include discernment about majors and post-graduate opportunities and the honing of technical and communication skills. The real reasons, though, have to do with authentic learning and discovery. Through research, undergraduates not only discover knowledge and truths about the world, but also discover something about themselves — who they are, what they believe, what they might be capable of. Research requires a bit of risk-taking, venturing into unfamiliar physical spaces and intellectual territories. It can be a personal as well as an academic challenge, and we invite students to embark on that venture.
Another reason to participate in research is that Notre Dame is a research institution, with a treasure trove of faculty, graduate students, laboratories, libraries, archives and access to additional resources all over the world. Notre Dame is a relatively small institution compared to many research universities, but that means there are even more opportunities for undergraduate research. Students here can more easily get to know faculty and graduate students well, especially when collaborating on research projects. At CUSE, we are here to help undergraduates take full advantage of what Notre Dame has to offer.
Perhaps the best reason to conduct research is that it is a form of service. In his inaugural address, Fr. Jenkins quoted Pope John Paul II, who stated that our proper activity as members of a Catholic university is “Learning to think rigorously, so as to act rightly and to serve humanity better.” Notre Dame students are talented intellectually; to not use the gift of one’s mind would be to waste that gift. Put another way, participating in research, scholarship and creative endeavors serves the greater good. It is no accident that our new center is located in Geddes Hall, home to the Center for Social Concerns and the Institute for Church Life. At CUSE, we promote intellectual pursuits enthusiastically because we know that undergraduates have much to contribute to our understanding of the world, to improving the quality of life and to addressing some of the important, exigent challenges that we face today.

Dan Lindley is the Director of the Center for Undergraduate Scholarly Engagement and Cecilia Lucero is the Assistant Director for Undergraduate Research.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
necessarily those of The Observer.