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Dr. Dana Williams
January 2008

A staunch advocate of undergraduate research, Dr. Dana Williams is an Associate Professor of African American Literature who believes the research process encompasses the “core” of an undergraduate education.  Research promotes critical thinking and develops students into scholars, she says, but it must be “encouraged and nurtured” by faculty.


Dr. Williams believes a major problem in society is the lack of people engaged in scholarly discussion; too many people simply regurgitate what they hear from the media or elsewhere.   Therefore, she insists, “We [faculty] have to do a better job of training scholars.”  She defines a “scholar” as someone “engaged in informed critical commentary.”  She also believes every student has the potential to be a scholar and critical thinker, and that conducting research helps to develop those characteristics.   “We need this more than ever today,” she observes.  The need to train Black scholars is particularly great, she says, noting that less than 3% of PhD graduates in the Humanities are Black.   “What better place to do it than at Howard?”


To train Black scholars, Dr. Williams has promoted undergraduate research in various ways.  Since its inception in 2006, she has advised more students than any other faculty member in the annual COAS Undergraduate Symposium--twelve in the last two years alone.  The symposium, which gives students a chance to present their research during poster sessions, requires each student presenter to have a Howard faculty advisor.  Since 2006, the number of participants has more than doubled, and some professors are beginning to shape class syllabi to coordinate with the symposium.  According to Dr. Barbara Griffin, Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences (COAS) and founder of the symposium, COAS established the symposium with the belief that undergraduates were willing and able to conduct research, but there was little incentive and no centralized means of sharing undergraduate research.   Also, there was a misperception that research was only for majors or a certain type of student.  So the symposium was designed to be a “culminating experience that pulls everyone into the [research] circle.” 


In addition to preparing students for the symposium, Dr. Williams also teaches an English Senior Thesis course and directs the English Department’s Honor Program, both of which require a research paper and presentation.  (Honors students present at the symposium.).  However, on a less formal basis, she encourages students to pursue research any way possible.  One “gateway to research” is study abroad; students can use what they learn abroad as a research subject for further investigation.  That is one reason Dr. Williams has participated as a faculty volunteer in summer study abroad programs, including the COAS-sponsored trip to Kemet (Egypt) last summer.  She expects a number of those students to present research related to their trip at the symposium.

In Dr. Williams’ eyes, research benefits undergraduates because it engages them in the critical processes of an undergraduate education: research, critical thinking, and writing.  Researchers must look at the information they collect and form their “own individual intellectual opinion,” and then clearly articulate their findings and opinions.  The ability to carry out these processes is essential to a student’s success in post-graduate studies, particularly in graduate and law school.  In these settings, it is what “makes or breaks” students, Dr. Williams says.  

However, advising undergraduate researchers benefits faculty members too, Dr. Williams has found.   One-on-one engagement with students is a process in itself, out of which an “organic pedagogy” emerges.   Each student’s learning style is different.  Therefore, she must adjust her approach accordingly for each individual; through this process, she gains more insight into the art of teaching.  Also, she said she has learned how to teach a student “how to write,” an immensely valuable skill for any teacher to possess. 


Furthermore, Dr. Williams says that she has become aware of new scholarly resources because she hears about almost everything her students “think, write and read” while advising them.  For instance, one student project began when some students questioned why Black authors’ works were displayed in the “Black Studies” section in bookstores, separate from the literature section.  This curiosity soon turned into a research project incorporating diverse viewpoints and empirical data, which were presented at the COAS Symposium.  Another project examined the retention of Kemetic (Egyptian) traditions over the centuries from Eastern to Western Africa to the Black Diaspora.  “I didn’t know about this before!” she exclaimed, clearly impressed with the scholarly potential of her students.


Such are the rewards of undergraduate research.




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