Trading effort for experience, student research assistants help faculty to gain insight into professional research
BY MICHAEL THUNBERG, PhD
NORWICH RECORD | Spring 2021
“There is so much to cover in most classes, that going into detail about something so narrow like executive orders is impossible … I was able to broaden my horizons by looking deeply into a topic that I did not even know I enjoyed learning about.” Those are the words from Robyn Dudley ’22, an international studies and political science double major and my current undergraduate research apprentice. Her point could not be more accurate. No matter how narrowly I focus my political science course on the American Presidency, there is always more material than time. Teaching the course requires attention to the Constitution, rhetoric, powers, institutional relationships, and, last year, impeachment and the constitutional emolument’s clause. Covering all this leaves only a single class period to cover a specific topic like presidential executive orders.
Robyn was able to work as my re¬search apprentice, allowing us both to take a concentrated look at executive orders. She was introduced to scholarly works and, together, we co-authored a paper.
Established in 2016, the Apprentice Grant Program is a collaboration between the Faculty Development and Undergraduate Research Programs. The grant program provides a valuable experience for both students and faculty. Students work directly on faculty research projects, allowing them to see the professional side of academia, conduct research, and contribute to the larger discourse on a specific topic. Faculty, in turn, get valuable help collecting and analyzing data, enabling them to advance research projects and inject new material into the classroom.
Last year, Robyn and I worked on a question I have long been interested in, but hadn’t yet had time to investigate: Where do presidents claim their authority when issuing an executive order? Robyn read through thousands of executive orders, constructing a dataset that identified each order’s constitutional and/or statutory claims of authority. Along the way, I was able to teach Robyn how to identify, collect, and code data that matches a research question. While the double major said she enjoyed reading through executive orders and seeing how presidents wield this tool, it also showed her that the research process can be long and tedious … which is one reason I was thankful to have an apprentice doing the coding.
Also important was understanding what other researchers said on the topic. In addition to reading executive orders, Robyn and I worked through a syllabus over the summer. We had weekly calls to review progress and discuss assigned readings. Our conversations covered the strength of arguments, critiques of an author’s evidence, and how an article advanced the discourse and understanding of executive orders. The nuances in each article made this a challenge. But after a few weeks of guided discussion, Robyn started to make connections across readings and identify critiques reserved for the cramped rooms of graduate seminars. As we worked through readings over the summer, a broader picture of executive order use emerged, including holes in our understanding. One of those gaps includes presidential claims of authority when issuing an executive order. Robyn quickly understood how the data she was collecting would fill that gap and advance the conversation about executive orders.
Our collaboration and discussions allowed me to revisit arguments and think them through in new ways based on Robyn’s reading of scholarly articles.
Thanks to her commitment, the project advanced significantly from its early days when it was just a research question. We are now co-authoring a paper, and plan to present it at the Midwest Political Science Annual Conference. There, Robyn will get to see what the academic profession looks like outside the classroom and the impact that research has. The professional experience offers an opportunity for testing ideas, intellectual exchange, and thinking and discussions on an order that can’t be replicated on campus.
When she’s done, Robyn will have worked through the entire research process from question generation to conference presentation. Thanks to the Apprenticeship Grant Program, she is now prepared to conduct her own independent research. Robyn is applying for a summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, which will allow her to make contributions to her own area of interest.
Assistant Professor Michael Thunberg, PhD, directs the Honors Program and teaches in the Department of Political Science and History.