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VIDEO: Professors and students talk about their experiences with the Liberal Arts Research Collaborative. (2:00)

Angela Leone '12 (left) and Professor Cindy Koenig Richards visited local grange halls as part of their research into history and identity.Angela Leone '12 (left) and Professor Cindy Koenig Richards visited local grange halls as part of their research into history and identity.

Rory O'Brien '12 meets with professors and other students in his LARC group.Rory O'Brien '12 meets with professors and other students in his LARC group.

English Professor Lynn Makau discusses research with her LARC learning community.English Professor Lynn Makau discusses research with her LARC learning community.

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Research program brings together scholars from different disciplines

In Eaton Hall this summer, historians met with scholars from English and from rhetoric and media studies to debate the relationship between history, memory and identity. Politics majors worked alongside environmental scientists in Collins Hall to study Latin American landscapes.

Rhetoric, sociology and politics scholars gathered in Ford Hall to discuss digital media and political narratives; and on a boat on the Columbia River, professors from English and biology guided a group to examine nature with both a scientific and an artistic eye.

The 11 Willamette University professors and 16 students were participating in the Liberal Arts Research Collaborative (LARC) — a new model of undergraduate research that allows them each to pursue their own topics of interest while collaborating with a larger group of people from different academic fields.

The program, funded by a half-million-dollar grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, provides students and faculty in the humanities, arts and social sciences with a chance to conduct summer research while also taking advantage of a core tenet of the liberal arts: interdisciplinary study.

“LARC gives students experience in working alongside others who may understand the world in a very different way — they may have disagreements, but they also have moments of illumination where they teach each other something new,” says Seth Cotlar, associate professor of history and director of LARC.

“Devoting two months to conducting research on a topic of interest is a special opportunity that not many students get. It’s beneficial for those who are thinking of going to graduate school, but it also allows them to show prospective employers that they have the ability to work on a large-scale project that involved research and ended with a product they created.”

How It Works

Each professor mentors one or two students who are pursuing their own research topics — but the professor also researches a topic that relates to those being explored by his students. They form a mini collaborative group that shares resources while working on independent interests.

But the collaboration doesn’t stop there. Each mini group is also part of a larger community of professors and students from other academic fields — the larger groups investigate a related theme through the eye of their separate disciplines.

The result? Each student and professor gets the benefit of feedback not just from a few others in their department, but from a wide array of people who may bring new perspectives to their topic.

“The ability to converse with academics with such diversified viewpoints has been truly game-changing for the way I am able to handle my artifacts and analysis,” says Angela Leone ’12, a rhetoric and media studies major who researched the rhetorical significance of sheet music in the suffrage movement.

“LARC allowed me to develop my research at a much deeper level and to expand my understanding into different disciplines.”

Long-Term Benefits

At the end of the summer, each participant produced a creative project or wrote an academic paper with the goal of submitting it to a professional journal.

“The professors and other students I worked with brought up questions I wouldn’t have thought about otherwise,” says Elizabeth Calixtro ’13, a politics and American ethnic studies major who researched a Belize indigenous land rights case. “I valued the unique exchange that came from collaborating with professors as if they were my colleagues.”

The LARC experience will benefit the students in the rest of their Willamette classes and long after graduation, says Megan Ybarra, assistant professor of politics.

“I work closely with the students, but at the end of the day, they are independent researchers. They determine the scope of their research and the argument they want to make in their paper. My job is to support them and to make sure they have the proper scholarly foundation.

“The students have done a remarkable job of setting their own goals and deadlines, and then meeting those goals. These are skills that will help them be successful in their careers.”

The Liberal Arts Research Collaborative participants will present their projects on campus Sept. 16 — check the LARC website closer to the date for details.