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Working with students—on research?

A Personal Story

by David Sowell


A joint faculty/student research project?

Sure, we do it all the time at Juniata—at least in Biology or Chemistry.

But in History?


The nature of historical research is so specialized that it is impossible for a student and a member of the faculty to work together on a project. Students might need language skills, certainly would have to be taught more specialized research skills, and then would have to learn a specialized historiography—so why do all that work? Just give me some professional development money and let me do my own thing.


Two years ago, I might have reacted this way to working with students. However, after Jim Tuten and Zach Wakefield did a joint project on the “Rebel in Blue,” Edward Gantt, during the summer of 2009, I saw the errors of my ways. This past summer, with support of the D. C. Goodman Summer Research Fund, Lauren Chambers and I worked on “The Rockefeller Foundation and Public Health in Yucatán, Mexico.” IT WAS GREAT!

Our broad goal was to document the activities of the Rockefeller Foundation’s International Health Board in Yucatán. The International Health Board, an important branch of the Rockefeller Foundation (RF), played a major role in the fight against yellow fever throughout the world. We sought to understand what RF did in Yucatán, and how it contributed to the development of local public health agencies.

Lauren and I first worked on a set of guided readings. These focused upon epidemics and disease in world history, so that she could better understand the contexts in yellow fever occurred and were understood. Eventually we turned to the role of the Rockefeller Foundation in Latin America and a major study of the IHB in Mexico. Lastly, she read several chapters of my manuscript on the development of public health in Yucatán, so that she came to know what I know. After each set of readings, we discussed the readings, clarifying points and expanding them when necessary.

A visit to the Rockefeller Archive Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY, constituted the second stage of our work. In anticipation of the visit, Lauren undertook two assignments: she searched the archival database for records that we should examine during the visit and she prepared an outline of “what we know about Rockefeller and Yucatán.” I had also researched the database, so that our discussion yielded a good survey of what we need to look for, with a priority of tasks. In late June we drove to NY, spending three days in the magnificent Rockefeller Archive Center. The staff was excellent, helping us to examine all the materials that we had requested and more. We left with lots and lots of data.

The final stage of the project was the organization our findings. We took two tracks: Lauren worked on an oral presentation at the 2nd Landmark Conference Symposium on Summer Research; while I began writing an article for submission to a journal. Lauren did a fine job in her presentation, earning second place in her category. I finished my article in August and will present it at a conference in February. Together, we did a Bookends presentation to the College community in October.

This project surpassed my highest expectations. The mentoring dimension of the project was more rewarding than I had anticipated. I have never had the opportunity of extended research collaboration with a student—it contained unexpected moments and outcomes. I very much enjoyed conversations about the readings, and watching her understanding grow. By the time we entered phase two—getting ready for the archives—I felt that she had really developed an understanding of the historical context and of the importance of the topic we were investigating. Working with her in the archive was fun. Our chats about our separate research projects helped me grow quite a bit. Lauren was much more than a pair of hands. She stimulated my thought and helped me to better understand the research process.

If you ask me now about working with students in a research project, I am a true believer. It was rewarding, fun, and in keeping with the true spirit of a liberal arts college.