The annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) is the largest gathering of anthropologists in the world, which also makes it an amazing place for undergraduate anthropology students to present their work.
For its 108th meeting in December 2009, the AAA invited Notre Dame faculty Agustín Fuentes, professor, and Deborah Rotman, professor and director of undergraduate studies, to organize a poster session titled “First Rites: Innovative Undergraduate Research in Anthropology.”
“A poster session is a much more robust intellectual interaction for students than giving a podium paper,” Fuentes explains. “It’s a two-way conversation with mentors and peers rather than just a one-way presentation of their work. Students are given specific feedback about their data and challenged to explore new scholarly sources.”
Scholarship in Action
Participating in this intense learning experience were 36 undergraduates representing 16 institutions—including eight from Notre Dame—who were selected from among a broad spectrum of colleges, community colleges, and universities across the country.
“People were incredibly excited to learn more about my project, discuss my ideas with me at length, and provide me with contacts, references, and resources,” says participant Alejandra Gutzeit ’10, who combined her studies in architecture and anthropology at Notre Dame to propose a design for a Peruvian history cultural center to UNESCO. “The crucial aspect about the poster session is that it is tangible, diverse, and active.
“I found this experience to be intellectually stimulating, enriching, and challenging,” she says. “I had to explain, expand upon, grapple with, and engage with my own ideas, methodology, analysis, and understanding of my project.”
The poster sessions are an extraordinary opportunity for students to enhance their learning and actively participate in scholarly engagement, Mark Schurr, professor and department chair, says. “Deb and Agustín have not only helped our students develop a deeper intellectual connection with anthropology, they’ve also helped let the world know that Notre Dame is a place where students and faculty work together on exciting projects.”
And, he adds with conviction, “you can expect to see Notre Dame undergrads at every major anthropological conference throughout the year.”
Investing in Undergraduates
This is the fourth year Fuentes and Rotman have helped organize a presentation of undergraduate research for the AAA meeting—and Rotman says they make this effort because they believe undergraduate research can have an impact on the field of anthropology. “It will keep current professionals reassessing what we do and why we do it,” she says.
Adds Fuentes: “We see undergraduates as agents and partners in reshaping the landscape of anthropology.”
According to Schurr, the part Rotman and Fuentes have played in the department’s commitment to meaningful collaborations between students and faculty is already influencing the way other institutions approach undergraduate education in anthropology.
“Their work,” he says, “is making undergraduate research a standard practice for the field.”