Undergraduate Mentor: Orson Cook

by Michael West

For Dr. Orson Cook, mentoring undergraduate students feels a lot like raising children: though both students and children require clear guidance at first, the goal is ultimately to send them out on their own. “The last thing one wants to do is keep students—or children—dependent,” Dr. Cook said. “The quicker they move away from the mentor, the better.” Shepherding a student to that departure, in fact, is what Dr. Cook most enjoys about the process. “The best part of mentoring undergraduates is watching them take charge of their project and find a comfort level with their own abilities and skills,” he said.

Dr. Cook, a professor of history in the Honors College, was recognized for his outstanding mentorship of Honors students when he received the Distinguished Service Award at May’s Honors Banquet. Since joining the Honors College in 1990, he has come to see that the personal attention that mentoring requires flows easily from the atmosphere of the College. “In the Honors College, the students are strong, and you have the time to interact with them,” he said. “The combination of small, intimate classes and great students is hard to beat.”

Dr. Cook has worked with many undergraduates on research projects over the years. And despite the high “cost” of mentoring—after all, it requires a significant investment of time from a single professor—he sees it as essential to the mission of the University and the Honors College. “Mentoring is dreadfully expensive in almost every way, but it is, in my view anyway, the highest stage of instruction, and it should be what great universities are all about,” Dr. Cook said.

One former student whose research Dr. Cook guided is Derek Goodwin (’10), who studied under Dr. Cook with the support of a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) and a Provost’s Undergraduate Research Scholarship (PURS). Derek was struck at first by Dr. Cook’s generosity with his students. “He’s always involved in undergraduate research, and he always has a PURS, a SURF, and a couple thesis students all at the same time,” Goodwin said.

Dr. Cook’s engaging classroom style was also a primary attraction for Derek; but he later saw that that in-class sensitivity to students’ needs translated well to the delicate back-and-forth of mentored research. “In the classroom, he’s a dynamic lecturer, and that draws students who are interested in research,” Derek said. “With me, he had a good balance between letting me craft the project for myself, while keeping it from turning into something of no use.”
The results were impressive: Derek’s research on the early history of the NAACP eventually turned into an award-winning senior honors thesis and presentations at two professional conferences.

One of the biggest challenges of mentoring students in the discipline of history, Dr. Cook says, is the research results’ lack of precision. Because history “is a unique discipline quite unlike others which have precise measurements to assess their conclusions, historians—even apprentice ones—have to learn quickly that historical conclusions are tentative at best, and that the evidence on which they are based is almost always fragmentary.”

Dr. Cook specializes in American History, and his courses include colloquia on History of Houston, the Harlem Renaissance, and the United States 1900-1929. He has also led student trips to Mexico City and New York City.

Dr. Cook’s current research focuses on African-American history, and a series of articles and chapters resulting from that work have begun to be published. His own research, he points out, is how he does his learning. “Some faculty in other schools think that research is only about having your name on a book,” he said. “But research is also the primary way we learn. You can’t teach well if you don’t do research; they have to go together."

The four years that most students spend in the Honors College isn’t enough to learn everything that they want to know. So perhaps the greatest gift that Dr. Cook brings to his students is the ability to learn on their own. “Research is where undergraduates find out that the highest form of learning doesn’t take place in the classroom,” he said. “It takes place when you are engaged one-on-one with the discipline in independent research.”

And generous mentors like Dr. Cook are essential to creating those experiences for Honors College students.