Next week, UMBC’s campus will burst with the excitement of discovery as more than 250 students from across all disciplines present their work at the annual Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievement Day (URCAD) (April 24). In addition to a day filled with performances, discussions, and poster sessions, the event will include a keynote by former undergraduate researcher Eric Grollman ’07, sociology and psychology, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Richmond. In preparation for the big day, we asked Grollman to talk about their experiences with undergraduate research at UMBC, and life beyond the loop.
We understand that you’re an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Richmond. Can you tell us a little bit about what your research and teaching entail?
I am a newly-tenured associate professor of sociology at the University of Richmond (UR), where I have worked now for six years. Though I did not know much about UR or the city of Richmond before interviewing for the position, one of the biggest draws for me was moving close to home (southern Maryland). Another was the close relationships that UR faculty develop with their students through teaching, mentorship, research, and advocacy – dynamics that I remember fondly of my own undergraduate studies at UMBC.
I have less hair on my head and more gray in my beard than I did 12 years ago as a senior completing my honors thesis in sociology at UMBC. But, my work as a scholar-activist – which first emerged at UMBC – remains consistent. I continue to use research as a vehicle for advocating for social justice. My research examines the impact of prejudice and discrimination on the health, well-being, and worldviews of oppressed groups, particularly those at the intersections of multiple systems of oppression (e.g., women of color). I continue to do work in LGBTQ studies, though now with a deeper focus on the lives of transgender and non-binary individuals – work that spurred my efforts to create Sociologists for Trans Justice to use sociological insights to advance public understanding of trans issues.
There is, however, one area of scholarship and advocacy that is new: academic justice. My latest project is an anthology entitled Counternarratives from Women of Color Academics: Bravery, Vulnerability, and Resistance, about which I and a few contributors will be speaking at UMBC on Wednesday, April 17 (5 p.m. in the Albin O. Kuhn Library). This project is a product of a blog I founded and edited for four and a half years called ConditionallyAccepted.com, now a weekly career advice column on Inside Higher Ed for marginalized academics. That is, I’ve turned my critical scholarly lens back on higher education itself to challenge the pervasive practices of sexual harassment, discrimination, microaggressions, and tokenizing that occur in academia. In related work, I examine the limits of acceptance of marginalized populations – that is, the conditions we must meet in order for the dominant group to consider us acceptable (e.g., “professionalism,” and activist approaches that effectively do nothing to challenge the status quo).
Were there any particular mentors at UMBC who helped you along the way?
Retired sociology professors Dr. Ilsa Lottes and Dr. Fred L. Pincus were two faculty mentors who were most instrumental in teaching me how to use research to make a difference in the world. Dr. Pincus and Dr. Lottes worked with me to turn my LGBTQ campus activism (i.e., the push to create the “Rainbow Center” at UMBC for LGBTQ students) into research and, in turn, to use empirical findings from my thesis research as evidence for the need for such a campus center.
Additionally, I was pleasantly surprised to find other professors who supported me in my scholar-activist pursuits. Dr. Jodi Kelber-Kaye, Dr. Carole McCann, Elizabeth M. Salisbury, and other GWST faculty provided guidance in employing feminist theories and principles in my own advocacy. Dr. Michelle Scott particularly stands out in introducing me to Black feminist thought and the history of Black women’s activism in the U.S., which laid the groundwork for my intersectional politics.
I also found mentorship and support for my scholar-activism outside of the classroom context, namely in Student Affairs and Residential Life. Jennifer Dress, Candace Martinez-Doane, Erin Hundley-Carter, David Hoffman, Lisa Gray, Darci Graves, Dr. Patty Perillo, Dr. Lee Hawthorne Calizo, Erin Stampp, and Matt Soldner were the other half of my huge team of mentors at UMBC. (You may not recognize some of these names, as amazing people are often called to share their gifts with students at other universities.) They showed me that the academic and student affairs sides of a university are most effective for a student’s development when they work together – not as independent divisions. The incredible impact they had (and still have) on my life led me to seriously consider pursuing a career in student affairs. I ultimately continued in sociology, but I am quite active in campus life now as a professor at UR.
Tell us about your URCAD experience and how it may have shaped your future research in graduate school and beyond.
I received an Undergraduate Research Award to conduct a survey on UMBC students’ attitudes toward lesbian women and gay men – the focus of my honors thesis. The following year, I presented my findings at URCAD, and subsequently published my final thesis in the UMBC Review. Shortly into graduate school, Dr. Lottes and I expanded my thesis research, subsequently publishing an article in the International Journal of Sexual Health. Altogether, these opportunities were the beginnings of my career as a researcher. I entered my Ph.D. studies with research experience already under my belt, and with my first article already published and the second shortly soon after. I humbly admit that I am very productive as a researcher, and my URCAD experiences were fundamental in propelling me into a successful research career.
Why do you believe it’s so important to celebrate and support undergraduate research?
Teaching college students how to think is a core part of the mission of any college. So, too, is knowledge-production in the form of scholarly research. For the most part, research is thought to be part of what faculty do outside of their teaching responsibilities. But, students must be involved in research activities, as well.
For students, producing – not merely consuming – academic knowledge deepens the college experience. One learns so much more by doing. Student researchers can see the full research process, from conception to publication – things they may only learn about abstractly in a methods course. Student-researchers gain so much more when they are invested in the outcomes of a given study, feeling a sense of ownership. Even if academia or other research-oriented careers are not in a student’s future, she will get more out of her undergraduate studies by experiencing research first-hand.
For science in general, we all stand to benefit when a new generation of scholars begins conducting research that challenges existing ways of doing things. Today’s college students have views on gender, race, sexuality, social justice, activism, the environment, and so forth that are uniquely expansive and fluid. We, as a society, cannot afford to wait any longer for their views on the world to change the direction of scholarship. And, we lose out when students who do not pursue research careers decide not to conduct research during college.
What advice would you give to students who are interested in being a part of URCAD?
I highly recommend URCAD, especially for students majoring in fields outside of STEM (e.g., the social sciences, humanities, arts, education). If you’re even slightly interested, go for it!
Independent research can be time-consuming, but it will be rewarding. So, I recommend pursuing a topic of study about which you are passionate. As exhausting as research is, and as long as it takes to complete, you run the risk of feeling burnt out or even bored with your topic (at least temporarily). These risks are much lower if you are actually invested in the subject. Avoid picking a topic that you feel will appease your professors, or parents, or friends, or grad school admissions committees. Studying something that reflects your passions will make it easier to articulate why others should care. Do not confuse rigorous, dare I even say “objective,” research with not caring about the subject; if you do not care about it, then it will be harder to convince others to care.
“We all stand to benefit when a new generation of scholars begins
conducting research that challenges existing ways of doing things.”
As you work, I recommend staying organized and setting firm deadlines to complete tasks. You will be shifting from hard deadlines imposed by professors in your classes to having no firm structure as an independent researcher. I recommend self-imposing a timeline so that you are not left panicked with too much to do as the year ends. That timetable should account for other personal and academic demands in your life. Talk through your proposed timeline with your research mentors, and be open to making changes as necessary. And, you might find creating an accountability group with fellow student-researchers useful – meeting weekly, biweekly, or monthly to check in on your progress and workshop through challenges that have come up during your research.
I suggest that you aim to do your research thoughtfully and carefully so that you could do further research with it in the future; don’t think of your work as a finite project that is completed within a year. Though you’re “just an undergrad,” you can get one or even multiple publications out of your research! (I did.)
As a novice researcher, it may prove difficult channeling personal interests and passions into research. You many not feel that you know enough about the field to effectively pinpoint research that has not already been done. So, selecting an advisor who knows the field and knows you (as a student and a whole person) is crucial. Expertise is only half of what makes a great research mentor. The other half is guidance that fits with what you need and your goals.
I would suggest that it is ideal to actually start making connections with professors outside of the classroom before you begin independent research. Chat with them before or after class. Visit them during office hours. Communicate via email. Let your professors know who you are, why you are studying your major field, what your career goals are, and what you are getting out of their class(es). This will help them become invested in your undergraduate studies, or at least have more information about your aspirations. This strategy will also let you see that a given professor isn’t invested (enough) and/or isn’t available (enough) and probably is a poor fit for you.
You might also ask fellow students or even recent graduates about their experiences working with a particular faculty member. Again, brilliance does not translate into effective mentoring or even good teaching (there is actual research on this!). The mentor one student loves may not be as useful for another student; so, take others’ experiences with a grain of salt. When asking if a professor will serve as your research mentor, you might even have a frank conversation about what you need and want in a mentor and ask them what they can offer to you as a mentor.
I found it was best to have multiple mentors, even if only one or two are officially recognized as your mentors. No one person knows everything, nor can they offer you everything. Some mentors may be stronger at offering emotional support, others at teaching you a new method, and still others at writing and publishing. I recommend avoiding the common pitfall of relying on a single mentor for everything.
Without giving everything away, can you give us a taste of what you’ll be talking about as this year’s URCAD Alumni Keynote Speaker?
I’ve been advised not to give a boring speech about tips for student-researchers. So, I’ll probably talk about myself – my journey as a scholar-activist. That’s about as far as I’ve gotten in my planning!
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UMBC’s 23rd annual Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievement Day (URCAD) will be held on Wednesday, April 24, at locations around campus. Grollman’s keynote will take place from noon to 1 p.m. in University Center 312. Visit urcad.umbc.edu for the full schedule.
Photos provided by Eric Grollman.