Nice Work if You Can Get It: The Gershwin Initiative Provides an Unforgettable Research Experience for Undergraduates
Sarah and Frances, two undergraduates who joined the Gershwin team through the U-M UROP program, would like to step back and say a word about their journey into the world of research with the Gershwin Initiative over the 2015–16 school year.
What’s UROP, Exactly?
UROP, the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, has been introducing undergraduate students to hands-on research experience at U-M for twenty-five years. Through it, students can assist with scholarly research projects alongside U-M professors and faculty, as well as graduate students and undergraduate peers. We, Frances and Sarah, both found a place as research assistants with the Gershwin Initiative for the 2015–16 school year.
Frances: “Being a linguistics major, I wasn’t initially looking for a research opportunity in musicology—but when I read about the Gershwin Initiative and their project, the music kid in me couldn’t stay away. Being with the Initiative for almost a year now has tremendously improved my writing and researching skills, and being able to grow as an undergraduate student like this while under the wings of the the Initiative blog team has been the best experience of my college career.”
Sarah: “I transferred into Michigan as a junior last fall, and I participated in UROP through the sub-program designed for transfer students, Changing Gears. The Gershwin Initiative was one of my first experiences at U-M, and I could not have found a warmer welcome into the professional and scholarly community at the university. I’m majoring in English, and working with the Initiative has allowed me to write and research for a project that reaches so many people in the academic spheres and beyond. I love the music of the Gershwins, and I love the amazing people who are a part of the Gershwin Initiative.”
Undergraduate Research at the Initiative
Under the wing of Dr. Jessica Getman, the Initiative’s managing editor and fearless leader, and Kristen Clough, our intrepid coordinator of public musicology and education outreach, we were introduced to the mission of the Gershwin Initiative: to publish critical editions of George and Ira’s works and to develop a corresponding educational outreach project. We were immediately put to work on the the Initiative blog team, brainstorming and researching blog topics and engaging in peer editing of blog articles. While we had the freedom to pursue the topics we found most interesting, we also had the guidance we needed from the seasoned graduate students and PhDs on the team. They assisted us in finding the resources we needed to write articles that, aside from being interesting, could serve as accurate and reliable sources for our readers. Throughout the school year, we learned and applied research skills such as navigating online databases, communicating with libraries and archivists, examining the credibility of sources, and respecting copyright restrictions and intellectual property. We even dipped our toes in the copyediting process of the George and Ira Critical Edition, which meant getting a priceless glance at the handwritten manuscripts upon which the editions are based.
Kristen: “Working with Sarah and Frances has been a joy and a privilege. They joined the team only weeks after I was hired and contributed to planning for the blog, social media, and other education outreach programs from the very beginning. Together, with the rest of the blog team, we have settled into a rhythm of truly collaborative work that is both fun and rigorous—without their generous spirits our team just wouldn’t be the same! Personally, the UROP experience allowed me to learn so much about what it means to mentor student research, and I have enjoyed watching our incredible students grow as researchers, writers, and leaders within our Gershwin community. Our first year was amazing, I can’t wait to see what comes next!”
Jessica: “One of the most rewarding aspects of our program is that I get to witness our students’ tremendous growth. Sarah and Frances have consistently wowed me with their dedication and the artistry they bring to the table, as well as with their increasing research abilities. Our work here, especially in terms of our mandate to reach varied audiences, continues to blossom because of their presence, their enthusiasm, and their powerful voices.”
The apex of this year-long adventure in research is UROP’s main event—the Spring Research Symposium—where all participating undergraduates present a poster on their projects for fellow students and faculty. Thus, as the winter semester was wrapping up, it was time for us to distill our work with the the Initiative into a scholarly abstract, as well as to prepare for our poster presentation in April. We spent the upcoming weeks figuring out how to cram two semesters of accomplishments into a 32″ x 40″ poster, and we were ready to wow the judges—and hopefully get the word out to attending students and faculty about the fantastic things happening at the Gershwin Initiative. We did better than impress the judges: our presentation won a coveted blue ribbon! Better yet, our entire blog team (not to mention Dr. Mark Clague, the Gershwin Initiative editor-in-chief) showed up to see our poster and cheer us on.
Sarah: “Symposium was an amazing conclusion to our UROP experience. We were able to talk directly with other students, sharing our understanding of the Gershwin project as well as our genuine enthusiasm. For me it was a perfect example of exactly what the Gershwin Initiative is all about, combining scholarship with public outreach to introduce more people to the wonderful musical legacy of the Gershwins. And the fact that our entire team showed up speaks to the amazingly collaborative atmosphere of our project. Our success is the success of everyone who has helped us get here.”
Let’s (Not!) Call the Whole Thing Off
Our spotlight at the symposium was a rewarding culmination, but to us, the biggest success of all was the ability to spread the word and work of the the Initiative and the amazing progress we’ve made this year, from completing the test scores for An American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue to kickstarting our blog. But even though our UROP experience is over, the Initiative’s work is far from done—which is why the two of us are thrilled to be continuing on as regular employees on the team to assist with editing and blog writing over the summer. Who says all good things have to come to an end? We’re looking forward to the months ahead and plan to keep #Gershwinning for as long as we can!
Frances Sobolak is an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan pursuing a Linguistics major and Music minor. She joined The Gershwin Initiative team in the fall of her sophomore year through the university’s undergraduate research opportunity program.
Sarah Sisk is an undergraduate English major at U-M’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts. She is working with the Gershwin Initiative as an undergraduate research assistant in the university’s UROP program.