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Undergrads Help Advance CASBS Projects

Apr 25 2020

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For Sean Chen, Nathan Lee, and Sunwoo Lee, opportunity arose from purposeful investigation. For Angela Lee and Tony Hackett, it arose from serendipity and happenstance.

The opportunity? All five, and several other undergraduates like them, gained (or continue to gain) valuable experience while getting paid to work for one of CASBS’s multi-year projects. They aren’t just office assistants pushing papers around or doing clerical work; they are true research assistants contributing in meaningful ways to CASBS projects.

Two of the five are now published authors thanks to their CASBS experience.

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Summer Research College (SRC) is one entry point. SRC is a program administered by Stanford’s political science department, though undergrads of all majors are eligible. Students apply and rank their preferred project appointments among those listed on the SRC site. For a ten-week period and a stipend, selected students work with a faculty member and engage in some aspect of that faculty member’s research project.

"Since CASBS integrated with Stanford, we have been trying to figure out how to absorb the extraordinary Stanford undergrads into our work,” said CASBS director Margaret Levi. “SRC provides us one way to do that.”

Sunwoo Lee

Levi, also a faculty member in the political science department, co-leads the Center’s project on “Creating a New Moral Political Economy,” which is motivated by a desire to fundamentally rethink the prevailing political-economic system and its supporting institutions. She listed the project on the SRC site.

“It was definitely my top choice,” said Sunwoo, a philosophy major graduating this spring. “It was most relevant to my course of study compared with other projects.”

“And also because I could see it was a very ambitious, grand project.”

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Another ongoing CASBS project, “Understanding the iGeneration,” or iGen, explores the values, behaviors, and worldviews of those who have never known a world without the internet. The iGen group, including CASBS senior research scholar Roberta Katz and CASBS research affiliates Sarah Ogilvie, Jane Shaw, and Linda Woodhead, searched for help more informally, through word of mouth.

Tony Hackett, a sophomore at the time majoring in anthropology, trekked up the CASBS hill in early 2017 to meet with CASBS fellow Noelle Stout, an anthropologist then on leave from NYU, to discuss her work. That alone was pretty sweet for Tony. But upon learning about Tony’s broad skills and interests, and with an awareness of CASBS projects, Stout referred him to Roberta Katz. The two eventually met, and Katz outlined the iGen project’s core principles and over-arching goals.

Read an extended version of this article, with more comments from the five students, here.

“From there, I was completely hooked! The way the concept of the generation plays into regimes of identity, technology, and conceptions of power was immediately interesting to me on both an academic and personal level,” said Tony. He joined the project.

During her freshman year, Angela Lee had written a class paper on how digital media affects relational conflicts and the potential role text communications play in exacerbating conflict or even leading to relationship abuse. Phil Taubman, her pre-major advisor, took a look at the paper and recognized that some of the questions of interest to Angela likewise were of interest to an old friend of his – Roberta Katz.

Taubman connected the two. For Angela, meeting and talking with Katz was “like mind melding – of being immediately on the same page and with similar perspectives on so many issues and questions of mutual interest.” Katz described the iGen project and asked Angela to be a part of it.

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Under the guidance of Levi and the moral political economy project’s other co-leader, CASBS program director Federica Carugati, the research assistants help some of the moral political economy project’s working groups move forward. In summer 2019, Sean started assisting the project’s pedagogy working group, which seeks to understand how moral and political economy courses currently are taught in universities around the world. He compiles lists of relevant academics and other professionals in the field, and then surveys them for course content and opinions regarding the state of moral political economy education. The information he obtains is foundational material for a free-access website, currently under development, that will share syllabi, metadata, and other general trends – critical because pedagogy itself likely will be one area where enduring change occurs.

“I learned Qualtrics and familiarized myself with surveying best practices,” he said. “Surveys are a primary form of data-gathering; exposure to survey design and distribution is useful both for conducting my own research and analyzing existing academic texts.”

Sean Chen

Sunwoo, during summer 2019, and Nathan since then, have worked with the project’s values working group, tasked with building (and eventually, sharing) a separate database that documents instances of real-world social problem-solving efforts (policies, initiatives, social movements, and community projects) undertaken in ways that suggest an alternative to the prevailing neoliberal paradigm.

Sunwoo came in at an early stage, before the contours of the database were firmly set. She coded and ranked some 250 examples she unearthed – through online search and reading papers, critiques, and policy briefs – and was encouraged to ask questions about process.

“A big challenge was trying to figure out the scope and determine categories,” she said. “I met with Federica nearly daily, and had an idea of what she, Margaret, and their fellow project members wanted to track. But a part of the job was to be critical about what we were looking for and whether it would be helpful.”

And the challenge was not Sunwoo’s alone; rather, she was part of a collaboration.

“Margaret and Federica always were so down to hear what I and other student researchers had to say,” she said. “They didn’t have all the answers, either; we were in it together, asking questions. It felt more like an ongoing conversation instead of ‘OK, you need to do this to get those results.’”

Nathan has continued much of Sunwoo’s work, building the database of case studies and constantly analyzing and rethinking the database itself. But as the database matures and the team refines it, he’s being asked to probe deeper.

“I describe my database work as closer to investigative journalism,” he said. “I’m considering fewer cases, but writing about them in greater depth.” The results will contribute to an analysis of what has made some real-world efforts succeed while others have not.

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One big part of CASBS’s iGen project involves listening to college-age students talk about their personal histories, activities, values, relationships, and ideas about the future. Basically, letting iGen’ers speak for themselves – to other iGen’ers.

Angela was on a team of research assistants trained to conduct interviews. Tony joined the team a year after Angela. Once equipped with the skills, they each recorded interviews with dozens of individual Stanford students, and groups of them, for the project. Each interview was an intensive commitment of two-to-three hours, consisting of about 20 main questions but with lots of open-ended follow-ups to elicit in-depth, personal perspectives. The transcribed audio files contain a trove of data to be poured over by the project’s linguists, sociologists, anthropologists, and historians. Analysis of that data is helping shape the narrative of a forthcoming book by Katz, Ogilvie, Shaw, and Woodhead.

Nathan Lee


“It was really fun,” said Angela. “I really enjoyed talking to peers about things. “And for them it turned out to be an awesome experience. It kind of surfaced all these invisible thoughts and feelings and beliefs everyone has but that few are asked to share most of the time.”

For Tony, facilitating focus group dialogue was “by far one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling experiences in my project work…I played the role of facilitator, asking probing questions and breaking the silence when things got awkward or the conversation reached a natural conclusion,” he said. “It was really interesting to listen to what others had to say collectively about issues I had been thinking about for my own research and with iGen team members during meetings.”

"We simply could not have done our project without the involvement of Angela, Tony, and three other research assistants,” said Roberta Katz. “Their work was invaluable, for they could act as superb cross-generational translators as they conducted their interviews with other students, helped build the language corpus, and then brainstormed with us as we analyzed all our data. We were very fortunate to have such talented undergraduates be part of our project."

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Tony was pretty involved in the social activist scene in his hometown of Sacramento, particularly the housing justice and Black Lives Matter communities. Through his work with the advocacy organization Housing California he got to know Terry, the protagonist in Tony’s essay on smartphones as survival tools for the poor and homeless, and the generational differences in how those devices may be perceived. Tony “vividly” recalled Terry’s description of how a cell phone changed his life.

Fast forward from there, to when Tony’s iGen experience helped him see the bigger patterns and picture that his published essay conveys.

“I didn’t quite know how the pieces fit together into a generational or social context until I started working on the project and began thinking in a more concerted way about conceptions of technological necessity and their variance across experience,” he said. “It was then I was able to make the link in my mind between younger people, not knowing a life without cell phones and the internet, and what I hypothesize is a much larger degree of empathy on their part toward unhoused people possessing electronics.”

“And it was then that I felt I had a question that really exposed one of the core issues of the iGen project, in a really powerful way.”

Katz knew Angela’s story was deeply personal, and was supportive if Angela was willing, and entirely understanding if not. She was willing.

Angela Lee

She composed a first-person essay reflecting on her eating disorder as a young teenager, how her well being was both helped and harmed by participating in online communities, and how she’s “proud to be part of a generation that will be tackling these issues to create a healthier future.”

“You know, it’s the process of self-disclosure – in the years before the essay and with the essay itself – that has helped me feel good. So from a personal perspective, I’ve already felt a huge benefit from it. And I feel pretty proud to be able to represent my generation in the series.

It’s this story that, sure, is a meaningful part of my life story, but it’s also kind of grounding and a reminder to myself of why I’m doing the work that I’m doing.”

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Great news for both Nathan and Sean: Their research assistant experience at CASBS continues.

Moreover, the moral political economy project is shifting into a higher gear. It recently brought two more undergrads on board, this time through the Academic Year Undergraduate Research Assistant Program offered by Stanford’s King Center for Global Development. The program funds students for three academic quarters and connects them with King Center faculty affiliates working on projects that align with the King Center’s broad concerns. Margaret Levi is a King Center faculty affiliate. And the project will bring on two more undergrads via SRC in summer 2020.

And more student research assistant positions with CASBS lie on the horizon. The expanded opportunity generally coincides with the emergence of multi-year projects and their institutionalization into the fabric of the CASBS landscape (alongside its renowned fellows program) under Margaret Levi’s directorship.

Given the growth of projects, Levi is ecstatic about the Center’s ability to both tap into a pretty deep pool of talent in the Stanford student body as well as play a role in further cultivating that talent for the benefit of the students themselves and the university.

“The intelligence and imagination these students bring to our projects is just so inspiring,” she said. We are learning from them as we help teach them new ways to think about research."

The students not only agree – they want other students to know.

“I tell my friends CASBS is the best kept non-secret at Stanford,” says Sunwoo. “They should get to know its work, the stuff that’s happening there, and maybe get involved.”

Written by Mike Gaetani

Read an extended version of this article, with more comments from the five students, here.