The Valley Humanities Review was created to encourage and support undergraduate research in the humanities. The journal is housed in the English department at Lebanon Valley College and was initially funded by a Pleet Initiative Grant. The Pleet Initiative for Student/Faculty Research Across the Curriculum was funded between 2008 and 2011 through a generous gift from David and Lynn Pleet of Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Starting in 2012, the journal is now funded by an Arnold Grant through the generous gift of Edward H. Arnold and Jeanne Donlevy Arnold. LVC’s Arnold grants fund experiential education like student-faculty research as well as independent student summer research and independent student internships.
Though current research on effective teaching talks a great deal about concepts like “active learning,” “authentic tasks,” and “natural critical learning environments,” teachers in the humanities may have some difficulty initiating such projects in their classes. In his book, What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain describes Professor Charlie Cannon’s project for architecture students, in which they “work[ed] collaboratively on a large and complex project, constantly sharing ideas and information from all their fields of study. Everything they learned was embedded in the pursuit of an intriguing collective goal, something authentic with hands-on experience” (64). Student Olivia Vidal writes about the learning experience that most influenced her:
I got to help develop a script and direct, film, and produce my own movie on my own terms… The teachers provided the needed equipment and instructions, gave us some encouraging words, and sent us on our way…The satisfaction I got from viewing my first film exceeded that of passing a test or writing a good essay, because, as Frank Sinatra sings, "I did it my way." My teachers stepped back and let me learn for myself instead of holding my hand all the time… I was given the chance to learn how to be independent in my learning. (“What Students Want from Teachers”)
Allison Zmuda points out that “For students to move beyond lip-syncing someone else's words, ideas, and solutions, they need the opportunity to struggle with a task that inspires their performance, that motivates them to do more than just go through the motions of learning and truly understand what the discipline requires,” and she advocates an “authentic learning environment” to help students move away from learning as “bad karaoke” (“Springing into Active Learning”). Along the same lines, Ken Petress argues that active learning “is a process where students take a dynamic and energetic role in their own education, thereby making the student a partner in the learning process” and that it “stimulates pride, increases confidence, stimulates a thirst for broader and deeper understanding in future academic endeavors, and tends to make learning more fun and personally satisfying” (“What is Meant by ‘Active Learning?’”). Ideally, in an “active learning” environment, teachers become coaches who help students move forward in self-motivated research projects.
Though the value of authentic, hands-on experiences seems clearly demonstrated by these articles, the humanities present unique challenges in producing these experiences for our students. Our research generally consists of individually produced papers presented at conferences and published in journals, none of which usually welcome undergraduate participation. Some professors may ask their students to present their papers to the class, but this does not extend the scope of student research beyond their course into a broader society where it could have a larger impact, and this is a major stumbling block for professors who would like to model membership in a scholarly community for our undergraduates. Students have trouble taking work produced solely for a grade seriously. When a student writes a paper just for his or her professor, that paper can be seen as solely a practice exercise for some time in the future when students will actually “use” those skills. Their work is produced in a vacuum that bears little resemblance to an exterior world beyond the classroom.
VHR is designed to combat these difficulties in the humanities in two key ways: first, by providing a place for exemplary undergraduate research in the humanities to be published, and, second, by modeling participation in a scholarly community for student editors. The journal is a collaborative project between faculty and student editors. The faculty editors work with students from each of the humanities’ departments (Art, English, Religion & Philosophy, History, Foreign Languages) who serve as student editors of the journal. Each student/faculty pair develops selection criteria, reads and selects work to be published in the journal. The relationship of the student and the faculty editors is meant to be truly collaborative. Students participate in—and have equal control over—all choices made for the journal. Faculty serve as advisors, guiding the student editors to develop rigorous selection criteria and helping them to ask appropriate, probing questions about submissions so that those students can learn what makes successful and intellectually stimulating work in their field. VHR thus models participation in a scholarly community for student participants. As they sort through submissions and make editorial decisions about the works to include in the Review, they learn about the breadth of research in their field and also gain insight into the qualities and strategies that produce exemplary work in their discipline.
VHR also funds and promotes a research essay contest for LVC undergraduates. Winners of the essay contest are published in the spring edition of the journal. Thus, professors in the humanities can tell their students that truly exemplary work may be published for a wider audience at the college and beyond. This provides an incentive for students—who may want to go on to graduate studies, and who would thus find a publication very useful—to take their work more seriously, and also indicates that there is a reward for exemplary scholarship beyond the assignation of an “A.” VHR also conducts an annual competition for the best high school research which carries a cash prize and publication in the spring edition of the journal.
As we provide these services for our students, VHR will also increase Lebanon Valley College’s visibility as a school that supports and encourages student research through the high school and college students across the country, and internationally, who will submit their work to our journal and our research competitions. Our goal with all of these projects—the journal, Research Day Conference, and paper competitions—is to encourage a culture of undergraduate research here at LVC and in the wider humanities community, not just within the sciences but throughout all disciplines, where excellent undergraduate work can attain a wider audience and appreciation, inspiring our students to greater application and imagination in their fields.
Bain, Eric. What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004.
Petress, Ken. “What is Meant by ‘Active Learning?’” Education 128.4 (2008): 566-569.
“What Students Want from Teachers.” Educational Leadership 66.3 (2008):48-51.
Zmuda, Allison. “Springing into Active Learning.” Educational Leadership 66.3 (2008): 38-42.