Student research has long been a foundation of the Hamilton program, an opportunity across the curriculum to carry out intensive, detailed study — often in collaboration with faculty members — that is usually reserved elsewhere for graduate students.
In addition, the most accomplished student research on the Hill is sometimes published in journals or presented at conferences, giving Hamilton students in the sciences, the social sciences and the humanities an unrivaled opportunity to join the scholarly conversation while they are still learning its language.
Nevertheless, there's a new game in town. And it offers students in the social sciences a unique opportunity to extend their research, have it reviewed and critiqued by their peers, and publish it in a journal available to the campus and the academic world both in print and online.
That, says Executive Editor Paul Gary Wyckoff, associate professor of government and director of the Public Policy Program, is a much more deserving fate for the best undergraduate work than the advisor's office-shelf graveyard, where student theses and reports typically go to die.
Insights: The Best of Undergraduate Social Science Research — first published in the spring and planned for both fall and spring publication this school year — "originated in a sort of frustration," Wyckoff says. Public policy majors, like other seniors at Hamilton, must do a thesis, "and some of those theses are pretty good," going beyond the conventional wisdom and the basics of research to present new findings and perspectives. But they would end up collecting dust on a shelf or in a drawer. "I wanted a way to make that work available to other researchers."
He settled on the idea of a student-run journal, one with the scholarly conventions and peer-reviewed standards that reflected the best practices in the social sciences. As the plan took shape over the last couple of years, the provided funding to print 200 copies of the inaugural issue, and the center's administrator, Sharon Topi, took on the tasks of both managing editor and Web editor.
"Publications like Insights are of tremendous value, since they not only give students an opportunity and incentive to compose in-depth research papers, but also because they directly contribute to the total knowledge of academia," says Luke Forster '08, who contributed an article on the prospects for Belarusian democratization to the inaugural issue. "My own personal research experience has taught me that there are a finite number of scholarly writings. By adding to this body of knowledge and putting this information on the Web, journals such as Insights can help researchers everywhere."
Wyckoff agrees. "You're part of a community of scholars," he says. "You're not just a kid who has to write something for a professor. You're now part of this discussion on medical malpractice or terrorism." That achievement in turn provides a model for other students and prospective students: "It shows the kind of work it's possible to turn out," he says.
While the scholarly impact of Insights is still difficult to measure, Topi points to another, more practical benefit for student contributors: The journal and its Web presence are impressive to prospective employers and graduate schools, most of which require some form of professional writing sample. "Not to mention how impressed parents can be," she laughs.
Just as important as the writing itself, Wyckoff notes, is the peer-review format. "It's a student-edited as well as a student-written journal," he says. "Students do the selecting and critiquing, and the very process of doing that strengthens their research and scholarship skills. What's a good paper? How do you write well? What methodology is appropriate? They grow as they answer such questions."
For the first issue last spring, the Department of Government wanted its honors students to serve as referees. This year the editorial board will be broader, and volunteers from across the social sciences who maintain an average of 90 or higher are invited to participate.
One member of this year's editorial board will be Forster, whose duties will include reading and evaluating student papers and working with other board members to decide which will be published. He believes he, like his colleagues, will be up for the challenge of studying "topics far outside my field." And, he says, "I am sure that they will represent some of Hamilton's finest student writings."