Discovering the Contours of Vocation through Undergraduate Summer Research

What is the purpose of undergraduate research in the humanities? We may agree that college and university students aspiring to graduate studies benefit from the experience of researching and that a well-crafted research paper contributes to their graduate school applications. We may also concede that developing a research question and carrying out an investigation helps humanities students who are not bound for graduate school to develop important analytical, problem-solving, writing, and time-management skills.

But is that it? Humanities research really only benefits a few declared majors already heading to grad school and assists others with soft skills? If this were the case, then there would be little point for students to engage in research outside of their disciplinary majors. Yet general education courses still require the use of primary sources, reviews of scholarly literature, argument analysis, and final projects—all forms of investigative research. The more students I mentor in shaping investigative projects, the more I find that “doing research” directly engages students in understanding the contours of their own vocations—that place where their deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger, as Frederick Buechner has said.

I have found the clearest examples of students engaging their vocations through investigative research in

the required first-year course, Religion, Identity, and Vocation, and in students’ funded summer research projects, which include faculty mentorship. In this post, I will address the latter. I recruit widely and boldly for summer research applicants, even among first-year students.

The pitch goes like this: I know many of you are working at least one or two jobs to pay for college while you are in school. This summer, our university will pay you to develop and carry out an investigative, eight-week research project. If you don’t know what topic or question you want to investigate, or if you have never done research before, you can apply to join a professor’s research team and help with their project. Very few first-year students take me up on the invitation. But sophomores and juniors remember. They return to ask if the invitation still stands. We talk about what they want to investigate. Together we imagine, name, and frame a project from a question, gap, or problem they have seen, experienced, or wondered about but have not yet been able to pursue. Their questions are real, and, most importantly, they are deeply connected to who they are and how they want to serve in the world. In “doing research,” then, we work to weave their projects out of the threads of their vocations.

What do I want to do?

One thread of vocation is one’s “gladness” or passion and gift. As I help students shape their investigation topics, this is the thread to which they keep returning as they articulate a question or problem. The process of naming, narrowing and then selecting a topic is not easy. Following (finding and tugging on!) the thread of their own passion shapes the question into a discrete project for investigation. Narrowing a topic down can take an hour or few weeks of conversations, freewriting, and widespread reading. Conversations with other professors, community leaders, or experts not only help students narrow and select a topic, but also lay the groundwork for networking with future colleagues and mentors who are pursuing similar passions. Freewriting helps students reflect on and engage in self-discovery. Reading into a scholarly conversation develops a student’s vocabulary to further articulate and sharpen a question to share with others. This initial process is invaluable—for developing research skills certainly, but also for mapping, testing, and tasting the contours of one’s vocation in conversation with others who share similar callings.

Who am I?

After determining a topic and a question, students explore various research methods, lenses (hermeneutics), or parameters (theories, frameworks). Each offers a perspective on the question or problem that students can try. Some fit their views of the world; others bend or challenge their views of the world. Searching for the “right” frame for the subject of investigation, students must listen to what resonates with their experiences in the world, their ways of knowing, their ways of seeing. Selecting a method, hermeneutic, or frame through which to approach one’s question leads to the exploration of a second vocational thread, which relates to identity: Who am I? What is my vantage point, and how do I see the world? What unique perspective do I bring?

In this way, one’s chosen research method, lens, or frame is always in conversation with one’s own perspective on the world. Choosing and using a method or frame requires investigators to touch and test (even rebuild) the contours of their own stances. This can be intense work as students come to understand how their views of the world relate to other established views, approaches, and investigative frameworks. Again, the process is conversational. Like vocation, disciplinary methods and theoretical frameworks develop in communities of knowledge. Students discover new communities of belonging and study. And, as students articulate their own perspectives, insights, and contributions to established scholarly conversations, they stretch and refine their understandings of how their investigative work meets “the world’s deep hunger.”

Research is a process of discovery, trying on perspectives, working within limits, listening for what resonates or does not with one’s subject and one’s own analysis. Self-knowledge—who students are intellectually, which academic tools and modes they enjoy working with, and what kinds of questions and answers drive them—is key to vocation.

As students articulate their own perspectives, insights, and contributions to established scholarly conversations, they stretch and refine their understandings of how their investigative work meets “the world’s deep hunger.”

Whom do I want to serve?

From the outside, research can look imposing and feel far removed from the sidewalks and campus paths we walk—whether because of the distancing vocabulary, the mind-numbing data, or the theories scholars employ. Yet many undergraduates with whom I have worked in summer research come to their projects with some version of “ultimately, I want to help people.” What Buechner called “meeting the world’s deep hunger”—another key thread in vocation—appears here as a motivating factor in student research. As faculty mentors, we need to help students bring this thread of community service full circle, from motivating the research to communicating the researched insights. Indeed, the reward of research is often seeing our investigation become relevant in community settings.

To weave this final thread—service to the communities that students care about—faculty mentors can provide “bilingual” opportunities. That is, in addition to teaching students to communicate in specific disciplinary lingo, we can also provide opportunities for students to practice communicating their investigative knowledge, insights, and solutions in conversation with local community members. Students can practice articulating the truths of their passions and their investigations in demonstrable ways and in language their family and friends can understand, appreciate, and evaluate.

In this way, summer undergraduate research weaves the threads of vocation—motivating passion, refining perspective, and serving one’s community—full circle. Undergraduate students who participate in this research learn that when their intellectual work engages their deepest passions and questions, the insights they glean may serve the needs of those they care about in real, impactful ways.

After all, isn’t this the point of human vocation?

Julia Lambert Fogg is Professor of Religion at California Lutheran University. Her most recent book,  Finding Jesus at the Border: Opening Our Hearts to the Stories of Our Immigrant Neighbors, was published in 2020 by Baker-Brazos Press. Julia was an invited speaker at the NetVUE gathering held at the 2021 AAR meeting in San Antonio, Texas, on religion and justice issues in the undergraduate classroom. For more posts by Julia, click here.

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