Grant Eckstein and Jacob Rawlins open doors for students through mentored research.
Mentored research isn’t just for graduate students, and it doesn’t just happen in the College of Life Sciences. In fact, humanities undergraduates engage in mentored research every semester.
For the past three years, Associate Professors Grant Eckstein (Second Language Writing) and Jacob Rawlins (Editing and Publishing) along with several undergraduate and graduate researchers have done extensive research on a little-known aspect of the English language: reporting verbs. The project includes intensive research and a published paper, conference presentations, and valuable mentoring opportunities.
“New writers are obligated to use reporting verbs, but there’s not a lot of good information about which reporting verbs to use and how to use them,” Eckstein says. Academic writers use reporting verbs to introduce research from another author (verbs like stated, claimed, and found). “We wanted to look at the kind of information that a student or new researcher might need in order to effectively write with these kinds of reporting verbs.”
The researchers analyzed 270 articles across six academic disciplines, highlighting the reporting verbs in each article and coding the verbs for pragmatic information. The pragmatic information is a crucial part of the research because it tells the reader how the writer feels toward the research he or she is citing. For example, words like corroborate or criticize show that the writer may agree or disagree with the statement. Other verbs like found indicate a neutral feeling toward the research. Understanding those nuances helps new writers learn how to use the verbs.
Their research provided two noteworthy insights. Social sciences such as linguistics and philosophy use reporting verbs to reflect their opinions toward the research (verbs like suggested or claimed). In contrast, the hard sciences such as physics and chemistry use neutral, or factive, verbs (such as found or stated). Eckstein says that this is because the hard sciences typically report facts whereas research in the social sciences includes arguments.
“We also found that different fields use different numbers of reporting verbs. Physics uses reporting verbs sparingly because most of their references are numerical,” Eckstein adds. Students who are unaware of this may overuse or underuse reporting verbs in an academic paper, making writers sound like outsiders in the field and limiting their chances of being published.
Throughout the project, the student researchers were responsible for everything from data analysis to drafting the final research paper to presenting at conferences. Rawlins says, “When we bring our students on the team, we make them equal researchers. We meet with them regularly, provide feedback on the research they are doing, answer questions, and guide them through the writing process.”
Hannah Taylor Mortenson (Editing and Publishing ’21) and Sarah Hill (Linguistics ’20) did a lot of the initial work of marking the reporting verbs, and PhD student Lizzy Hanks (Applied Linguistics ’25, NAU) helped develop a tagging scheme to collect data that the group could later analyze. Additionally, Hanks had the unique opportunity to mentor her younger sister, Haley Briggs (Political Science ’26), who was also a student researcher on the project.
Another student researcher, Leanne Chun (Editing and Publishing ’22), is compiling an online dictionary of reporting verbs for students and teachers. The dictionary will include information about how the verbs are used, what they mean, and their pragmatic force. Once the dictionary is published, the researchers plan to make it available for use in high school English classrooms and writing centers—places where the dictionary will be useful for new writers and second language learners as well as those teaching writing and editing.
Presenting the Findings
Most students don’t have the chance to attend an academic conference, but the student researchers on this project have been integral to each conference presentation.
Mortenson and Hill presented the team’s preliminary research virtually at the Intermountain TESOL conference in October 2020. Then in March 2022, Eckstein, Rawlins,
Chun, and Hanks presented their research at the TESOL International Convention & English Language Expo in Pittsburgh.
The Pittsburgh conference marked the beginning of a return to in-person conferences for university researchers, and it was the first time the group had presented their research in person. Hanks and Chun took on the bulk of that conference presentation.
More recently, Chun, Eckstein, and Rawlins presented this research at international conferences in Ireland; Flagstaff, Arizona; and Tampa, Florida. The group’s published article on reporting verbs is the start of further research and publishing on both this topic and their larger focus of writing variation among different academic disciplines.
Rawlins and Eckstein both say they gained valuable insights as they led this research project. Rawlins explains that this mentoring opportunity taught him that he wants “to do more research with students because it’s helped [him and Eckstein] do better research. Students bring a unique perspective and fresh eyes to the research—and a lot of energy and excitement as well.” He also notes that the students utilize skills, tools, and knowledge from their other humanities classes to support the research.
Eckstein adds, “Mentoring is in my DNA. That’s why I became a teacher, because I wanted to work with students specifically and help them feel the joy of academic research.”
Encouraging Undergraduate Research
Faculty-mentored research is an excellent opportunity for students to expand their education beyond the classroom. Research helps students bolster their résumés, develop both hard and soft skills, and forge relationships with experienced professors. Hanks notes that her experience with both undergraduate and graduate research taught her “how to conduct research and how to think critically about different topics of interest.”
Hanks advises students to seek out their own mentored research opportunities, saying, “Ask for what you want. More faculty than we realize want to give students these opportunities.” Mortenson adds, “If you’re interested, talk to a professor you trust. It’ll probably be easier than you think to find a project.”
For undergraduates who are unsure whether they can do research, Mortenson says, “Don’t think you can’t. It’s less about qualification, especially in humanities, and more about your interest and willingness to learn and to work hard. Professors want to help you, especially at BYU.”