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State humanities councils and undergraduate research.

Historically, funding for student research in the humanities has been sparse. In recognition of this, the Utah Humanities Council (UHC) inaugurated a fellowship program for students based on evidence that novice scholars can make contributions to a field of study. The student fellowships parallel existing fellowships for academics and independent scholars. The program, how it affected recipients, and what the program's potential is for enhancing a culture of undergraduate research are analyzed from multiple perspectives: that of the humanities council staff, two student fellowship winners, and the director of a university undergraduate research program. The results should encourage other state humanities councils to consider similar fellowships to foster the development of the next generation of scholars, particularly given the lack of funding typically available to students in the humanities. (For a definition of the humanities in the 1965 National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act, see

The Utah Humanities Council Perspective

A key question that prompted the staff of the UHC to think about student fellowships was this: When does a scholar become a scholar? Is there a magic moment--perhaps during the first job in academe--when the mantle of scholar is laid upon a person's shoulders? Or does one's identity as a scholar begin even earlier? For 20 years, the council has provided research fellowships for faculty and independent scholars. But, it was clear from activity in the state--including the annual Utah Conference on Undergraduate Research (UCUR), begun in 2007, and the National Undergraduate Literature Conference, hosted at Weber State University since 1985--that long before they might become academic faculty members, students were pursuing important questions in humanistic research and disseminating the results in public and professional venues.

As an independent 501(c)3 organization, the Utah Humanities Council--like state humanities councils in every state and territory--develops programs to serve needs within its boundaries. UHC's board of directors had been seeking ways to involve youth, and fellowships for college students seemed one way of accomplishing this objective and also nourishing a new generation of public humanities scholars. As a result, student fellowships were inaugurated in 2009. Public is a key concept for these awards. While the council wished to encourage students to consider ambitious research projects, it also wanted to introduce a non-academic audience--the general public--to topics of interest in the humanities. Thus, each UHC Fellow--as is true of any senior scholar who is awarded a fellowship--presents the results of his or her work in at least one public program. In doing so, the fellow takes on the responsibility of making the humanities accessible and interesting. The public programs required by the humanities council help audiences continue to be learners, thinking critically about big questions and ideas.

Fellowship stipends may support the costs of equipment, supplies, software, technical support, or travel to do research or to report on the results of research at a professional conference. These fellowships are not traditional scholarships in that they don't provide funding for regular college work. Instead, they are intended for students who seek to go above and beyond what they are directly taught in a classroom, for projects that appeal to the individuals' scholarly curiosity. Recipients typically do the work during the summer and may extend it into the academic year, culminating with public presentations and a final report to the council by the conclusion of the grant year.

The application (for details see asks students to describe the basic idea or question to be explored, illustrate the planned approach, and indicate the contribution the proposed work will make to the humanities by offering a review of the literature and an explanation of how the project fills a gap in scholarly knowledge. Applicants also describe plans for a public program for adults off campus. Fellowship recipients are responsible for planning and publicizing their programs in conjunction with the selected venue. An additional presentation at an academic conference is encouraged but not required.

Each application must also designate a faculty advisor or mentor, which the council has found to be crucial to the fellow's success. These students may be applying for a professional grant for the first time, and guidance on the conventions of the process can be instrumental, as is ongoing encouragement and advice during the project. A faculty member's letter of support in the application portfolio provides important additional information to the review committee and offers certification of the student's ability to undertake the project and see it through. Applications are reviewed for potential contributions to scholarly fields, topics of interest to the lay public, evidence of the student's understanding of the research process, and a faculty mentor's commitment.

Originally, the fellowship awards were set at a modest $500, but, by the third year of the program, the stipend increased to $2,000, and, thanks to private donations, the council was able to award multiple fellowships. UHC found that donors were particularly interested in fellowships supporting students who wanted to become humanities scholars. Some higher education institutions in the state also contributed to the fellowship fund, recognizing that awards from an independent and respected source like the council carry significant prestige and thus enhance a student's resume.

Other state humanities councils offer fellowships ranging from $500 to $4,000, but most of them go to faculty and independent scholars. Students, particularly graduate students, may be eligible to apply, but typically they must compete with senior scholars. To our knowledge, no other state council offers funds specifically to undergraduates.

Trenton Olsen, an undergraduate majoring in English at Utah State University, received the inaugural UHC fellowship in 2009 for his project comparing the poetry of contemporary Irish writer Seamus Heaney to the famous Romantic poet William Wordsworth. "While scholars have long been interested in Wordsworth's influence on Heaney," Olsen wrote in his application, "my analysis provides new and important insight on the relationship through a close reading of Wordsworth's 'Tintern Abbey' and Heaney's 'Changes.'" The fellowship was significant in Olsen's development as a scholar. With the fellowship's support, he completed the research and presented a paper at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR). His essay was then published by the Sigma Tau Delta Review (Sigma Tau Delta is the International English Honor Society). It was one of 12 essays accepted out of about 1,000 submissions. As a result of his work, Olsen was named Undergraduate Researcher of the Year by his academic college and competed successfully against seven other college winners to be named Utah State's Undergraduate Researcher of the Year. His track record in scholarship led him to graduate studies at the University of Minnesota. A second UHC Fellow's perspective is provided by Rebekah Monahan of Brigham Young University, a 2011 awardee. She reflects on the process of applying for the fellowship while Trenton's reflection is post-fellowship.

The Fellow's Perspective: Trenton Olsen

I learned about the UHC fellowship around the same time I began seriously working on my senior honors thesis. Consequently, I went through the research process with an eye towards applying for the award. The application prompt called for a project of "significance" that "fills a gap in scholarly knowledge." Fulfilling these criteria, I knew, would not only require a deep understanding of relevant criticism and its central debates and development over time, but also direct, substantial engagement with scholarly arguments. I also realized that a major effort would be necessary to compete with other humanities students throughout the state. This ambition, I think, helped me extend my ideas and present them more compellingly, which paid off when I presented the essay at a conference (funded by the fellowship), revised it for publication, and submitted it as a writing sample for graduate school applications. Applying for the fellowship, with the guidance of supportive faculty mentors, gave me valuable experience on which I've drawn in subsequent proposals. The skills gained working on my project have translated well in my graduate studies, especially in developing seminar papers and preparing to disseminate my work in professional venues.

While the application helped me to conceive of my project as part of an ongoing scholarly debate, the public engagement requirement prompted me to think about the relevance of my work outside of academe. I coordinated and delivered two presentations at public libraries, meeting with community reading and writing groups and other members of the general public to discuss the project. While many audience members had little or no familiarity with the poets I was studying, they were interested in what these writers revealed on larger topics such as conservation, nationality, and childhood, and how these themes related to my analysis of poetic influence. Talking about my work with non-specialists taught me to identify and explore the interests of my audience--a lesson I've since found useful in teaching undergraduates from various backgrounds. During the application process, I had a conversation with a legislator at our university's annual Undergraduate Research Day at the State Capitol in which I was able to draw connections between my project and contemporary political issues. I saw these experiences as opportunities to assert the value of the humanities during a time of financial crisis in higher education. My experience as a UHC Fellow deepened this conviction, as it enhanced my understanding of and appreciation for my field through scholarship and public engagement. Two years later, I can say that the fellowship made a significant impact on my early development as a scholar.

The Fellow's Perspective: Rebekah Monahan

The process of applying for a UHC Student Fellowship benefited me in three connected ways: I learned how to be mentored, how to apply for a grant, and how to make an argument for my research. Paul Stavast, director of the Museum of Peoples and Cultures at Brigham Young University, was my mentor for my honors thesis. For that project, I researched the history of BYU's archaeological and museum collecting between 1875 and 1975. Because I began work on this project in only my second year at BYU, I relied heavily on him for guidance during the researching, writing, and editing phases. Throughout the process, it became clear that the history of the museum, created to house growing archaeological and ethnographic collections, was connected to and involved in much broader processes. I found interesting links to the Deseret Museum, one of the first museums established in the Territory of Utah, as well as to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.


Because of time and space constraints, I had to limit what I included in my honors thesis, so research into Utah's involvement in the 1893 Chicago World's Fair was placed on the back burner. I was intrigued by the topic, and every once in a while, thoughts of it resurfaced, but I did not have the opportunity to look into it, particularly since so few grants exist for undergraduate research, especially in the humanities. When I learned that UHC student fellowships were available to undergraduates, the idea that I had been tinkering with for so many months finally seemed feasible. I was hopeful that UHC funding would give me the opportunity to complete the research I had thought so much about.

I approached Paul Stavast about the application for the fellowship, explaining why research on Utah's involvement in the World's Fair needed to be done and what exactly I would do. In this case, the collaboration with a mentor was possible because of our established relationship. Paul was someone I trusted to offer guidance. He gave me the confidence to write the grant narrative, which I then submitted to him for review and advice. His years of experience with grant writing guided me through the processes of budgeting, planning, and arguing my case, while at the same time he pushed me to rely more heavily on myself than I had during the planning of my honors thesis. The process deepened and enriched my understanding of the roles of mentor and apprentice. I gained experience accepting criticism and knowing when to make changes, while at other times defending my choices. I am confident that, as I continue working on the project, I will gain more skills and experiences that would not have been possible without UHC's student fellowship.

The Undergraduate Research Program Perspective: Joyce Kinkead

The UHC's student fellowship program has the potential to enhance humanities scholarship at institutions around the state. It has led Utah State University's undergraduate research office to add a grant program to enable faculty to employ student research assistants on humanities projects. Working as research assistants allows students to get an inside view of what it means to do research in the field. Our hope is that this is a structured experience that then leads the student to independent research.

Establishing a pipeline of researchers and scholars in the humanities is important so that students can compete successfully for fellowships such as those offered by the Utah Humanities Council. The UHC Fellowship may be a steppingstone to other fellowships for students, such as the Jacob K. Javits Fellowships or the Rhodes Scholarships. Institutions need to be just as proactive in getting humanities students primed for these prestigious awards as they are in preparing students to compete for awards such as the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarships in science and engineering.

Directors of undergraduate research programs and faculty mentors might consider contacting their state humanities councils to inquire about the possibility of launching similar student fellowships. A second possibility for student involvement in humanities scholarship via state councils is through fellowship awards to senior scholars, which could include funding for student research assistants. As a senior scholar who received the Albert J. Colton Fellowship from the UHC in the 1980s, to work on a project on frontier schoolmarms' diaries. I included a budget line for an undergraduate assistant. At the time, I was not aware of the term undergraduate research; I just knew that I wanted assistance and that having a student on board also meant that she or he could engage in a meaningful project. That first grant from UHC actually set me on a path of engaging students in research projects throughout my academic career.

As both a faculty member in the humanities and the director of an undergraduate research program, I've been pleased that Utah has been a strong supporter of undergraduate scholarship, with its own state undergraduate conference (UCUR), the National Undergraduate Literature Conference, and other student conferences in the humanities, such as the Rocky Mountain Peer Tutoring Conference. Additionally, the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) has been hosted by the University of Utah (2003) and Weber State University (2012).


A decade ago, in an essay on undergraduate research, David DeVries called for humanities teacher-scholars to "persuade all of our colleagues and peers that research is just as vital, just as sustaining, for the humanities and their students as it is for the natural and social sciences" and to recognize "the inestimable value of independent research in the intellectual and professional growth of young scholars" (155). The changing climate for undergraduate research in the humanities suggests that the time is ripe for more state humanities councils to consider adding student fellowships to their line-up of grants. The Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) has added a Division of Arts and Humanities to its governance structure, and it hosted a special session at the 2011 Posters on the Hill centering on the humanities. An increasing number of journals and books focus on undergraduate scholarship in the humanities (e.g., Young Scholars in Writing; Grobman and Kinkead 2010; Behling 2010; Klos, Shanahan, and Young 2011). CUR members can be proactive by contacting their state humanities councils (see links at

The Utah Humanities Council believes that investing in the future of humanistic scholarship helps to guarantee a vibrant future for a new generation of scholars. These budding scholars, through the fellowship program, identify significant topics, conduct research, write a grant proposal, and plan a final, publicly visible, community-oriented presentation. These may be the first steps in identifying oneself as a scholar. The fellowship offers students the opportunity to become scholars in their own right through design and implementation of an original research project. It's a laudable goal worthy of replication throughout the nation.


Behling, Laura, ed. 2010. Reading, Writing and Research: Undergraduate Students as Scholars in Literature and Language Studies. Washington, DC: CUR.

DeVries, David, N. 2001. "Undergraduate Research in the Humanities: An Oxymoron?" CUR Quarterly 21 (4): 153-55.

Grobman, Laurie, and Joyce Kinkead. 2010. Undergraduate Research in English Studies. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Klos, Naomi Yavneh, Jenny Olin Shanahan, and Gregory Young. 2011. Creative Inquiry in the Arts and Humanities: Models of Undergraduate Research. Washington, DC: CUR.

Young Scholars in Writing: Undergraduate Research in Writing and Rhetoric.

Cynthia Buckingham, Maria Torres, Utah Humanities Council

Trenton Olsen, University of Minnesota

Rebekah Monahan, Brigham Young University

Joyce Kinkead, Utah State University

Cynthia Buckingham

Utah Humanities Council,

Cynthia Buckingham is executive director of the Utah Humanities Council, where Maria K. Torres serves as grants and program manager.

Trenton Olsen is currently a PhD student in English at the University of Minnesota, which he entered after graduating from Utah State University in 2009 as University Undergraduate Researcher of the Year. His fellowship and honors thesis were supervised by Dr. Brian McCuskey.

Rebekah Wilson Monahan, a sociocultural anthropology major with a minor in women's studies at Brigham Young University, was named a UHC Fellow in 2011 for her research project "Utah at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago."

Joyce Kinkead is professor of English and associate vice president of research at Utah State University.
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Title Annotation:From the International Desk
Author:Buckingham, Cynthia; Torres, Maria; Olsen, Trenton; Monahan, Rebekah; Kinkead, Joyce
Publication:Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2012
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