Undergraduates presenting work on James Joyce and Cypriot art, social media and the Napoleonic Wars? This month, the Undergraduate Research Experience arrived for its second appearance in as many years at the Riley Smith Hall inside Leeds University, bringing together undergrads to share their work and their passion for their subjects. A host of speakers presented their work to a fascinated audience throughout a whole day of interesting talks, all based on the work being done by students at Leeds University. Student lead and the event’s organiser Yosra Awad and Tess Hornsby Smith from the Faculty of Arts guest blog for The Culture Vulture on how it all came about.
It was quite a long time ago that I agreed to be the Student Lead for the Undergraduate Research Experience. Two years ago, when I was offered support by the university’s Footsteps Fund to pursue my own academic research, I met Tess Hornsby-Smith – the Education Enhancement Officer at Leeds University – who came to me with the idea of creating a student conference for the Arts. When Tess said she thought students in the Faculty of Arts should have a platform from which to show off their work, get tips from each other, and take part in a mass celebration of undergraduate research, of course I said it was a brilliant idea. I had always thrown myself at any opportunity to work at university events, and was so excited about giving other students the chance to share and celebrate their work.
It all came about after I had been chosen for to be part of the Undergraduate Research Scholarship. Like many other great schemes at Leeds University, the UGRS is funded by our generous alumni through the Footsteps Fund. Thanks to our alumni, I managed to undertake a two-year research project with my tutor, Professor Bridget Bennett, about abolitionist activity in Leeds and Yorkshire in the nineteenth century. Out of this research, Professor Bennett and I have produced our website, two short films, online teaching packs, an exhibition at the University, and have worked with children from local schools, using drama to teach them about the abolitionist movement and famous escapes from slavery. Without the support of our alumni and the Footsteps Fund, I have no idea whether I would have been able to engage in such a high level of research, work at events I love, meet fantastic people and organisations, or even have gained the skills necessary to put together the UGRE.
Despite my enthusiasm, though, I didn’t fully comprehend what I was getting myself in for – I didn’t have any experience of ‘managerial’ positions at all, and nowhere could I find a book which laid out the rules for conference management or being a good leader in an easy-to-follow format: I just had to learn from experience.
Last year was a great success, and the response this year was as overwhelming. Once our team was in place, we then embarked on the six-week project of organising everything: from lunch vouchers, to who was managing the Twitter and Facebook accounts, setting up a blog, holding promotional stalls in our union, booking rooms for meetings, liaising with societies, making short promotional films, getting freebies for the goodie bags, and of course, recruiting our presenters.
A lot of students relished the chance to share their successful essays in 15 minute presentations, but we also wanted the UGRE to be a chance for students in the audience to really get involved and make the most out of the event, rather than just sitting and listening. Over the past couple of years we have also had the Collaborative Arts Soc exhibition, a research photography exhibition, Pan Arts Super Seminars, and a speed-dating style dissertation poster session, as well as large group discussions covering topics such as how to boost essay grades, how to go about planning an essay or even how to get a First. I think all the people who came to UGRE really took advantage of the informal atmosphere, and the ability to share tips and advice about things which might seem obvious in academic practice, but really need to be spoken about!
I hope everyone who joined in managed to gain what I envisaged – the chance to be proud of their academic achievements (in a genuinely fun way!), to talk to their peers about common academic problems, to learn a bit about other subjects in the Faculty, and to go home with a sense of renewed enthusiasm about being a student of the Arts. And I hope that when I have graduated, this fantastic event will continue to be a part of Leeds University’s great programme of events.
Tess Hornsby Smith adds….
My “fancy” title is Education Enhancement Officer – essentially this means my role is to try and improve “the student experience”! For a quite a long time I had thought that we have fantastic students who write exceptional work, yet their work doesn’t really go anywhere – usually sent to gather dust in an archive. We should be celebrating the success of our students, giving them a chance to showcase their work – which could well act as inspiration to other students. I remember having a conversation with Yosra, one of our Research Scholars, and realised that not only could we put on a conference of student work, but the students could organise the event themselves.
The UG Research and Leadership Scholarship Scheme (funded by our generous alumni) is a fantastic opportunity open for all first years in our Faculty to apply.
Students apply to work alongside an academic on a research project. Past projects include Yosra’s Yorkshire Abolitionsists. As well as these we have had Gemma Bagshaw who is working on Redcoats with Dr Kevin Linch, creating a Wikipedia page about her research, as well as being the official Tweeter for Waterloo200 organisation.
This year’s potential research projects include working with the Legacies of War Project on any aspect relating to the First World War, and using the Liddle Collection in the Brotherton Library; helping to develop the new History of Science, Technology and Medicine Museum at the University of Leeds ; Classics in the Community – looking at working with Leeds City Museum and the Leeds Art Gallery to promote the continuing legacy of classical studies; there is a really intriguing project proposed about the founding professor of Chinese Studies at Leeds, Owen Lattimore, who was targeted by Joseph McCarthy and accused of being ”the top Soviet espionage agent in the United States”. You can find out about the scheme and the projects here: http://arts.leeds.ac.uk/ugresearch/ugrs/ugr2012/
I am always on the lookout for exciting projects our students can get involved with. I have helped organise some community internship opportunities including Leeds Black Elders, Re-Work social enterprise, Hollybush BTCV, Akoben, Space – the organisations get some bright, enthusiastic, dedicated student help to carry out short projects that they haven’t had time or capacity to complete and our students get some meaningful work experience. I’m also working with the fantastic Space to help recruit student interns to work on the Olympic Celebration event in Leeds in June and Stretching the Canvas Arts Event which is part of Leeds Canvas and the Cultural Olympiad.
I also help with a History Module called “Community Research Collaboration & Communication”. Students work together in groups looking at two key themes: Leeds: A Civic City or Race, Religion and Politics in Yorkshire. This module explicitly encourages community engagement with students working together to put on an event for the public – whether it be a film, an exhibition or a debate. This year one group of students are looking at the legacy of philanthropy in Leeds: @CivicCityLeeds; the other group of students are celebrating the history of Jews in Leeds @LeedsStudentJR, who hope to facilitate a public debate based around their academic research with those people who have helped them with their work and the wider community.
Many of these research projects have an explicit link to working with the local community, which for me is really exciting. It’s great that we can work together, genuinely, rather than the top-down approach which happened in the past. There is a great deal of really interesting work happening across the University – and not just our Faculty!