By Nancy Kolsti
An idea for a never-written poem Walt Whitman scribbled on a calling card and an article Edgar Allan Poe wrote about photography were some of the treasures Wyn Gregory uncovered in a search for never-published documents by 19th-century American writers.
“It was detective work,” says Gregory, who looked for materials for an anthology of American Renaissance literature as a senior at the University of North Texas. The anthology of works published between the late 1830s and 1860 is being edited by Ian Finseth, assistant professor of English.
“I’d studied Poe and Whitman, but I also found works by a large number of authors that I’d never heard of before,” Gregory says. “These writers were very popular at the time.”
Gregory, who received his bachelor’s degree in English literature in May 2009, was one of seven students in the Department of English who received an Undergraduate Research Fellowship for the 2008-09 academic year. The fellowships provided each student with a salary to work 10 hours a week for a total of 100 hours on a research project with a faculty member.
UNT’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program, which funded projects in the Department of English and the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures in 2008-09, served as a pilot program for the university’s Undergraduate Research Initiative.
The new initiative is providing grant money to seven academic areas for Undergraduate Research Fellowships for 2009-10: the Department of English and the Department of Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences, the Department of Marketing and Logistics in the College of Business, the Department of Electrical Engineering in the College of Engineering, the Division of Composition Studies in the College of Music, the Department of Design in the College of Visual Arts and Design, and the School of Merchandising and Hospitality Management.
The selected undergraduates are paid for up to 100 hours of research, with a portion of the funds available for field work or other enrichment activities for the students and their faculty mentors. Gloria Cox, dean of the Honors College and head of the selection committee, says 19 proposals were submitted from across the university, “all of them of excellent quality and worthy of funding.”
“Undergraduate research is a win-win-win situation,” she says, “as research enriches the intellectual experience of our students, energizes and engages faculty members, and enhances the quality of the university’s undergraduate program.”
To build on UNT’s long history of support for undergraduate research, the Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program was funded by the Office of the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs.
It served as a pilot program for UNT’s Undergraduate Research Initiative, which is providing grant money to seven academic areas for Undergraduate Research Fellowships for 2009-10. The areas selected are merchandising and hospitality management, composition studies, design, electrical engineering, English, political science, and marketing and logistics. Selected undergraduates will be paid for up to 100 hours of research, and a portion of the funds may be used for field work or other enrichment activities for the students and their faculty mentors.
In addition to paying hourly wages for participating students, the Department of English’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program paid for a field trip to the Harry Ransom Center, a library and archive at the University of Texas at Austin that houses 36 million literary manuscripts and 1 million rare books from the U.S. and Europe.
By working as research fellows, the students got a taste of the work of professional scholars, says David Holdeman, professor and chair of the English department.
“It’s common for graduate students to get involved in this sort of research, but much less common for undergraduates. We didn’t want the students to just do the clerical work, but to do actual research that helps them grow as thinkers and scholars,” he says.
The trip to the Harry Ransom Center was a capstone experience to the semester of research.
“It’s one of the most important rare manuscript archives in the U.S. and, usually, it’s only doctoral students who go there to do research for their dissertations. Undergraduates hardly ever go there to work with the documents,” Holdeman says.
He says the seven faculty members who submitted proposals for the research fellowships each had promising students in mind.
Gregory had e-mailed Finseth, the instructor of his American Renaissance course, to ask about research opportunities before Finseth submitted a proposal for a student to assist with preparation of his American Renaissance anthology.
“I wanted Wyn to have a sense of the selection process for an anthology. He made a substantial contribution to the project,” Finseth says.
John Tait, associate professor of English, wanted an undergraduate to create an online submission protocol for the web site for American Literary Review, the publication he has edited for six years. He encouraged Nichol “Niko” Ford, who was already an intern for the publication, to apply for the fellowship.
“We get about 3,000 unsolicited manuscripts a year,” Tait says. “I thought the fellowship was a great opportunity to get interns involved.”
Ford, who received her bachelor’s degree in English in December 2009, says the online submission protocol she developed will make the literary journal more accessible for writers, particularly those from other nations.
Ford plans to earn a master’s degree in creative writing and eventually have some of her own work published in a literary journal. She says working for ALR helped her learn what not to do in submitting a manuscript.
“I’ve learned from reading others’ work. It’s really important to make sure to follow submission guidelines when sending in manuscripts to make a great first impression,” she says.
Senior Megan Trotter was chosen by Kevin Curran, assistant professor of English, to research the final act of The Tragedy of Philotas, a play written by Shakespeare contemporary Samuel Daniel. Curran received a Bibliographical Society of America Fellowship to prepare a critical edition of the play. Daniel, Curran says, “was testing the political waters” in the court of James I of England through the play, which criticized absolutist monarchy.
Trotter studied the five editions of the play published in the 1600s, handling the original copies at the Ransom Center.
“They were hard to understand because the language wasn’t contemporary,” she says. “But the whole experience was so stimulating for my mind. It didn’t feel like a chore.”
Trotter says the research fellowship made her realize that she could work in literary editing and criticism as well as teach.
“It reaffirmed that I’m on the right path in choosing a career in academics,” she says.
Other students who received research fellowships assisted their faculty mentors in preparing books about codes of masculinity in British Romantic literature and about Oscar Wilde’s writing style and ideas; preparing a collection of early writings by 18th-century British novelist Samuel Richardson; and researching the critical and performance history of a 1607 play.
The faculty mentors say all of the Undergraduate Research Scholars became more inspired as future scholars through their projects.
“The fellowships showed me that undergraduates can contribute as positively as graduate students. They are world-class young scholars,” Curran says.
Gregory says the fellowship made him “a much stronger candidate for graduate programs.”
“The skills I learned will help me hit the ground running in graduate school,” Gregory says. He is pursuing a master’s degree in English literature at New York University.
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