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High-impact humanities

Sandi Kruse studies political effects of digital literature around the world and prepares for grad school at the same time, thanks to Arts & Sciences Undergraduate Research Fund

Sandi Kruse, Rebecca Weaver-Hightowner
UND undergrad Sandi Kruse (left) works with her advisor Rebecca Weaver-Hightower on research on digital media impacts on politics around the world. Photo by Tyler Ingham.

University of North Dakota senior Sandi Kruse came from a tiny North Dakota town of 300 to take on a hefty learning opportunity.

One area of study just isn’t enough for the Drake, N.D., native — she’s carrying a triple major in English, women and gender studies, and honors.

“If I was missing one of my majors, I feel like I wouldn’t be the scholar that I am,” Kruse said. Seated next to her, UND English Professor Rebecca Weaver-Hightower laughs: “She’s an overachiever.”

This semester, Kruse is taking her scholarship to the global level. She’s partnering with Weaver-Hightower for a research project that will dive into digital literature and politics in Australia, South Africa and the Anglophone Caribbean. Kruse will spend the coming weeks identifying and analyzing literary blogs and websites that are impacting people in those areas.

“We are aware that online publications and online spaces have a connection to political discourse, especially in a previously colonized place,” Kruse said. “There’s interesting politics going on in the literature there.”

Weaver-Hightower, whose expertise lies in postcolonial literary studies, says she would like to see the field start thinking more about digital platforms and locally produced short stories, poems and plays as sources of literary substance. This research will help push the conversation further.

“The world has opened up for who can publish now,” Weaver-Hightower said. “It’s not just famous people — lots of people are publishing. Even though it may not be as high of quality, it’s still interesting and important to see what people are saying.”

Once Kruse has collected her data and analyzed her findings, she hopes to share her research at a postcolonial conference in February. From there, she will shape her work into a scholarly article that can be submitted to academic journals and showcased online.

“I’ll be going off to grad school in the fall, so any experience that I have doing independent research is going to be really important in my career,” Kruse said. “In grad school, they expect you to know these things already. This definitely makes it possible to start working on those skills.”

Significant payoff

The importance of undergraduate research is personal for Debbie Storrs, dean of the UND College of Arts & Sciences.

“I did a survey, I collected data, I analyzed the data — all with the support of a faculty member,” Storrs said, recalling her own experience as a sociology undergrad. “I published part of my findings, and it was exciting. It was hands-on, and I was applying what I was learning about methodology. It brought the learning to life.”

This is why Storrs and her team have prioritized high-impact learning opportunities, like undergraduate research, in the College’s strategic plan. She aligned funds and worked with faculty to create a process in which students can apply with their mentors for funding to engage in research at the undergraduate level.

In this, its third year, the “Undergraduate Research/Creative Activity Initiative” funded 16 projects across seven Arts & Sciences disciplines, from physics and astrophysics to theatre arts. The fund is currently supported by internal revenue and gift money, but Storrs hopes to find even more donors to support an endowment that would make the fund sustainable. All project proposals were approved this year, but the application process gets more competitive every year.

“The payoff is significant,” Storrs said. “The payoff for students is they get excited about learning and they get mentored by faculty. In general, the research shows that if the students take part in high-impact learning, we retain them at a higher rate.”

Two-way learning

Although the research initiative is student-centric, the benefits for the faculty involved can’t be ignored. Storrs says the ideal project proposals offer students high-impact experiences while providing faculty with research assistants to move their own work forward.

“The learning is two-way, and it’s great just having somebody who you can work with and really collaborate with,” Weaver-Hightower said. “There are things Sandi is learning in her digital humanities classes that are skills that I don’t have. I’m really looking forward to learning from her a lot of the Web skills that she’s developed.”

Weaver-Hightower said this semester’s work with digital literature and politics likely wouldn’t have happened without funding, because she wouldn’t ask Kruse to give up all the time necessary without being paid for it. Kruse has been working an average of 20 hours a week at a local restaurant, on top of her involvement in a number of campus organizations. For her, time is money.

“With all the budget talks on campus, it’s really nice to know that there’s still a priority on undergraduate research,” Kruse said. “Even the opportunity to apply for funding shows undergrads that this is a possibility — you can participate in scholarship and you can do research.”