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Undergrads Help Advance CASBS Projects (extended version)

Apr 25 2020

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 research experience while getting paid to work for one of CASBS’s multi-year projects. Thus far the results have been so rewarding that many are sure to follow in their footsteps.


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

“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.”




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.”

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.


Levi listed the project on the SRC site. It was a big draw for many, including Sunwoo, Sean, and Nathan.


“It immediately caught my eye,” said Sean, an economics major now in his junior year. “For some time I’d wondered about the philosophical foundations underpinning my economics education. I hoped to delve deeper into the intellectual turns that formed modern mainstream economics, as well as the problems and discontents that arise from it – inequality and climate inaction, to name just two. Economics as it plays out in the real world is, of course, inseparable from politics, history, and many other fields that define human social interaction. I was interested in a project that challenged the foundations of those interactions.”


Sean came to the right place. And since many fields and disciplines indeed are involved – for that matter, in just about everything CASBS undertakes – the moral political economy project appeals to more than just poli sci and econ majors.


“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.”


Agreement on all counts from Nathan, another graduating senior majoring in symbolic systems, and who felt a strong pull after watching Sunwoo discuss her work with CASBS at a SRC gathering. “The moral political economy project captured my interest because it focuses on tackling and challenging the frameworks countries and individuals view the world with,” he said. Other projects I’ve worked on concerned themselves with important, but narrow, issues. I was excited by the chance to consider systemic issues and the values underlying economic and social choices.”


*          *          *


Another ongoing CASBS project, “Understanding the iGeneration,” or just iGen, explores the values, behaviors, and worldviews of those who have never known a world without the internet. The iGen group, organized by 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 made the connection as a result of searching out a CASBS fellow whose work he admired. For Angela Lee it unfolded as one big “happy accident.”


Tony, 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.


“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. Soon after he joined the project.


During her freshman year, Angela 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 (and a former New York Times bureau chief), 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, then in an early phase, and asked Angela to be a part of it.


“Things kind of snowballed from there,” remarked Angela in retrospect. She wasn’t kidding.



The student workers aren’t just office assistants pushing papers around or doing clerical work; they are true research assistants contributing in meaningful ways to CASBS projects.


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.


In addition to reading a lot of syllabi from around the world and gaining awareness of great books and articles he didn’t know existed, Sean has picked up some useful skills.

“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.”


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 provide or 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. As a result, the database grew not just vertically but also horizontally.”


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.’”


She learned a lot and, indicative of a philosophy major, left with more questions than when she started.


“There’s a lot of ambiguity because everything is connected. So many things coexist with neoliberalism and have a sort of parasitic relationship with it. The process also opened my eyes to how many disciplines intersect that I need to learn more about.”


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 (representing a shift from the prevailing paradigm) succeed while others have not.


The investigations dovetail with Nathan’s interest in the value of community, the informal ways people look after each other, and how we might better design ways to care for others in society.


“Especially as I consider the ways that business and government have failed to address issues such as healthcare and eldercare, through the project I’ve been able to learn valuable insights about how we might better respond,” he said.


*          *          *


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 Lee 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 the forthcoming book by Katz, Ogilvie, Shaw, and Woodhead.


“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.”

It didn’t end there for Tony, Angela, and their fellow interviewers. “Once a week we would meet with Roberta and share all the interesting things we’d been seeing and hearing,” said Angela. “It was actually the first stage of the analysis process – observing patterns and discussing possible similarities and variations across people or populations or cultures. And constantly asking ourselves: ‘Are we missing people? Are there pockets of people at Stanford that we’re not hearing from for some reason? Are we aware of gaps?’ Do we need to do some ‘target sampling’?’”

It became part of an iterative practice that played out over about two years for both of them.

“It was a pretty long process. But it didn’t feel really long because we were constantly building on something. I could see we were gathering this momentum and getting closer and closer to something that felt right,” said Angela.


"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."




Yet Tony and Angela’s experiences working with iGen didn’t end there, either.


In 2018, when the iGen project entered into a publishing partnership with Pacific Standard that included the commissioning of three-dozen essays about various aspects of iGen’ers experiences, Roberta Katz knew Tony and Angela both had hooks for essay contributions.


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.


“Part of doing qualitative work in general, and with iGen in particular, is awareness of where you personally come from and how that might influence your perspective,” Angela said. “One of the stories that drew me to this field of work was my own.”


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.”


The essay itself was not all that difficult for Angela to write – the associated emotions “are not raw or harmful, as they were in the past,” she assured. And people close to her already knew the story – and the much more personal, detailed story behind the story.


“So, honestly, I think I just directed my friends to other cool articles in the Pacific Standard series.”


But what about her essay’s message for readers she’d never meet and what she hoped people would take away from her piece?


“Yeah, that was a little scary. It was very scary to do. I mean, that’s a big question, right? I can write it, but is anybody going to care?”


She does hope some do. But, regardless, she puts it all in a healthy context.


“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.”


Angela graduated from Stanford in 2019. She’s now pursuing a PhD in Stanford’s communication department.




Great news for both Nathan and Sean: Their research assistant experience at CASBS continues. After Sean’s ten-week term under the SRC program expired, CASBS kept him on the moral political economy project through grants it secured. Nathan is working from a CASBS grant as well.


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. Just a few years ago, students could engage the Center’s programming only by attending its public events, of which there are only a few per year.


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 about that “best kept non-secret” Sunwoo Lee mentioned earlier.


“Opportunities for involvement exist and are incredibly fruitful! I met one of the most important sources of academic and professional mentorship through my work on the iGen project and at CASBS more generally,” said Tony Hackett. “The researchers are world-class, their topics are interesting, and they want more students to come and experience how awesome their work is – even if it means the hike up the hill.”