Field Note No. 4: Creating Value for Students Through Project Documentation

Activity for 1/10/19

So today, the primary objective to complete was pulling together job descriptions for the amazing new student researchers (both undergraduate and graduate levels) that are joining the Social Energy Atlas. Two of them are working remotely, and I think it’s fair to say that all of them are fairly new to working on research projects of our scale and type. Moreover, given my background in technical communication, it only makes sense that I take the time to actually write up job descriptions for each of the three roles these students will be performing for the project–even if they are unofficial descriptions that we solely use on this project.

On a total side note, I can hardly curb my excitement that one of those three students is a phenomenal graduate student who will be working with us to begin making real some ideas I have regarding inclusive softare development! For all of you non-design folks out there, that just means that we're approaching the making of our web applications by beginning with thinking about all of the types of people we can include in the possibilities of who will interact with our products, rather than the point of view of who is excluded. 

So I spent a good portion of my time today writing job descriptions for a Social Media Specialist (Undergraduate Research Assistant), a Data Analyst (Undergraduate Research Assistant), and pulling together the requirements and language for a User Experience Architect/Inclusivity Engineer (Graduate Student Research Assistant). It was hard work, but well worth it. By the end of the day, I produced final/share-worthy drafts of the two job descriptions and sent them out to those students. I was also able to send the task requirements to my graduate student collaborator, as I want to see which tasks will help her meet her goals and satisfy her interests–especially since I have significantly more tasks and work available than what she could handle as one person. All-in-all, it was a pretty productive day that made me wonder why more of us who hold faculty positions and direct research projects aren’t talking about the impact something as simple as a job description can have on our student research assistants and the mentorship we can give them as their faculty mentors.

Analysis

Most of the time, those of us classified as faculty who oversee research project operations at the university level really don’t do a good job of documenting what it is our students are REALLY doing for our projects. Even more importantly, we often will rush through the boring, operational components (e.g., job descriptions) without once thinking about how those necessary documentary evils actually can be opportunities for us to better serve the people that work to support our ideas.

Here is a scenario that many of us will find quite familiar…

I am Dr. W.! I am the Principal Investigator of Project X. I decide to hire a student onto Project X to help us with Topic Y for our current research project (generally this takes the form of things like a deliverable funded by a grant or assisting in research needed for an upcoming publication). 

Most often, Dr. W. won’t think twice about creating an additional job description beyond the generic, ubiquitous one that the university system will use for student research assistants across all departments–think something like a non-descript system title like an “hourly clerical worker.” The university doesn’t require additional documentation on the nature of the work the student will be performing, so more often than not faculty like Dr. W. never think once about using the student research assistant job description and moving on to the next task. However, the choice to not generate additional documentation from the beginning of a project is essentially a missed opportunity to create shared knowledge across the team and to promote a culture that acknowledges each member’s role and function. In the end, it creates a situation in which even the best of students may find themselves struggling to translate the role of an “Undergraduate/Graduate Research Assistant” to a non-university audience without some guidance and assistance.

As higher education professionals, those of us in faculty roles have an obligation to attend to our students’ needs from our course, including when they are no longer in our classrooms or laboratories. Yes, they are students now, but before long they will be going out into the world looking for jobs and careers. Most of us in the university have confidence in our abilities to help students formulate the language needed to describe their capabilities after completing our course or project–but that language will be rooted in what we know: the university. Hiring students to work on our projects and collaborate with us in our research necessitates for us the responsibility and commitment to assist in equipping them with the knowledge of how experience in our laboratories and classrooms translates to “real world” opportunities.

Emerging Insights

More of us with technical communications experience/background/skills/intuition need to embrace an ethos of sharing (that crazy philosophy I wrote about yesterday) and become more open and diligent with on another in sharing our project documentation–even the most mundane like job descriptions. Not every professor or researcher in the university needs to know how to do this. That being said, those of us who do regularly produce these kinds of resources should be open to sharing ours with our colleagues and peers. In the spirit of openness, you can find the two job descriptions I mentioned earlier down in the Resources section of this blog post. The files are free for you to download, should you need to use them. If you use do them, I would love to hear about it.

The second big insight I would like to share from my experience today is that those of us in faculty positions who supervise and mentor students in research activities need to cultivate better empathy for our students in this area. I am the first to admit that until recently being in a situation requiring me to write a job description for a student we were employing from a different university I had not considered this deficiency on my part in this system. Moreover, it wasn’t until writing this blog post that I realized how neglectful that was on my part. As faculty, having empathy for our students should extend into thinking forward to their job search experience. One easy way of showing the students who choose to work with us is to write job descriptions that can be revisited toward the end of their time with us. We should also be encouraging them to establish their professional identities at such junctures and put those same details on LinkedIn when they join our teams, while then using regular meetings with them to talk about any additional opportunities to enhance and revise those descriptions based on their experience working on our projects.

But what about those of us who do not have the know-how to draft impactful job descriptions for our students? Isn’t it a violation of empathy to knowingly create things that could cause as much harm as good? The answer to these questions is simple: seek similar resources that your students are encouraged to seek by the university writ-large. Most universities have grown to include career centers and other programs for helping students think about translating their post-secondary experience for résumés. It wasn’t until this evening that I realized the potential for these resources to be used by faculty to request a consultation regarding how to translate the skills performed by students working on research projects, or better yet in credit-earning classes.

As I shared earlier, it wasn’t until recently that I faced the truth that I was one of the guilty faculty researchers who didn’t once stop to consider the usefulness of a project job description for my students. What makes matters worse is that I have the skills and expertise to do so (and have taught that genre of writing). Needless to say, today yielded a lot of powerful thoughts for me regarding the need for cultivating and sharing these resources for supporting our teams, but also the potential for using language (like that from job descriptions) to make the courses we teach that much more relevant to students. I feel that there is a unique opportunity and need for making clear in rubrics, and even in assessment when providing feedback, language that articulates the skills students have learned in ways that are explicit and actionable and can be used on resumes: language that is far more valuable than the “A” students desire. This insight is one that I find myself thinking a lot about since many courses I have taught in the past and will teach in the future are built on project-based learning assessments (a pedagogical approach that I adore), making them prime candidates for these approaches. (As a side note, I imagine this approach will also make it easier to write recommendations for students seeking future opportunities both inside and outside of the university! 👍)

At the end of the day, the lesson I’ve learned is that we need to be more explicit and applied in articulating our expectations to students regarding what we want them to learn/perform/embody. It is through such actions that we are able to see them achieve amazing things. I also need to remind myself that they have limitless futures ahead of them, and me spending just a few hours of my time making sure that I have documented what all they will do or will learn while working with me is just another way of showing them I value their future and the work they do in my lab. And who knows, maybe I’ll be increasing the likelihood that I’ll be having really healthy, happy, and productive teams or classrooms.

Resources

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