UC Berkeley News


Making the connections
In the College of Letters and Science, creating opportunities for undergraduate research engages a committed cadre of staff

| 11 July 2007

Last summer a Berkeley student spent several weeks in Great Britain interviewing a film director, a screenwriter, and a descendant of Jane Austen as part of her research into the process of translating a classic novel - Pride and Prejudice - into a film.

The work of a graduate student in English lit, journalism, or rhetoric? In fact, Sharon Tang-Quan is an undergraduate English major who traveled to England as one of 20 Robert and Colleen Haas Scholars for 2006-07. Following her U.K. visit she returned to Berkeley to complete her undergraduate research project, "Jane Austen Meets Hollywood: Narrative Authority in the Adaptation of Novel to Film."

Terry Strathman, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research within the College of Letters and Science oversees the Haas Scholars Program, created by the campus nine years ago. It's clear from Strathman's delight as she recounts Tang-Quan's initiative that she's proud of the student and the program alike.

Terry Strathman (left) and Alix Schwartz (Deborah Stalford photo)

Haas Scholars, housed at L&S, is just one of several initiatives that aim to connect undergraduates with faculty, either in small classroom settings or in mentorship arrangements. Thanks to the vision of some key faculty - and hard work by Strathman and her colleague Alix Schwartz, director of Academic Planning for the Undergraduate Division of L&S - new undergraduates and faculty members have unprecedented access to each other through seminars, interdisciplinary book discussion groups, and in collaboration on research projects.

"That's the spirit of a liberal-arts education," says Schwartz. "The reason students pick Berkeley, whether they know it consciously or not, is that we have the best faculty, and if they don't have contact with those professors then they're not getting the full benefit of what Berkeley has to offer."

Schwartz, a Berkeley Ph.D. herself, knows from first-hand experience that students will seek out mentors on their own under the right conditions. When she was teaching in the Gender and Women's Studies Department, invariably a handful of her students would turn to her for advice and guidance throughout their four years at Cal, and sometimes beyond. But most undergraduates enter Berkeley undeclared, so won't immediately be assigned to a faculty adviser. Furthermore, undergrads may be too intimidated to speak up in a lecture class.

It was factors such as these that led the campus fifteen years ago to create a program of Freshman and Sophomore Seminars: one- and two-unit courses in which 15 students and a professor focus on a subject of the faculty member's choosing. Experimentation is encouraged: Faculty can stray outside their subject areas and teach something else they are passionate about if they like, or approach their area of specialty from a new angle.

Faculty members receive modest research grants for teaching the courses above and beyond their regular load, and they also get free rein with subjects, reading materials, and teaching techniques they couldn't try out in a lecture format. For some departments the program has helped build enrollment, drawing freshmen to study German or Scandinavian languages, for example, who might not have done so otherwise.

One program that links new Berkeley students to faculty across disciplines is On the Same Page, a first-semester program organized around a single text. This fall the selected book is Lincoln at Gettysburg by Garry Wills. Faculty will lead discussion groups about the book (which is being mailed to all incoming L&S freshmen and transfers over the summer) during Welcome Week, and a number of fall courses, including several Freshman and Sophomore Seminars, will incorporate the text.

Research programs that link undergrads to faculty are a particular boon to the humanities. Science students and faculty members may inevitably rub elbows in the lab, but undergrads and faculty interested in literature or languages do not typically get the chance to work together on scholarly research projects.

For a professor in the humanities, more time and effort is required to work with research assistants, Strathman says. But that effort can really pay off for all concerned.

Some 250 professors participate in the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program each semester, supervising undergraduate assistants on projects ranging from helping catalog and analyze slides of Roman coins for art history professor David Wright to assisting comparative-literature professor Sophie Volpp in translating rare Chinese books captured by the Japanese Army during the Sino-Japanese War.

Strathman, who helps professors through the process of selecting student assistants, says it's important that they meet in person. It's a way for faculty and undergraduates to have real conversations and find their shared intellectual interests.

Strathman does frontline advising for another research program, the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF). As a former sociology graduate student, she enjoys the research-seminar meetings and getting to know students one-on-one. These students meet with Strathman in the spring and then spend their summer researching a topic they have defined and refined.

"Sometimes they become frightened by what they've proposed," she says. "Then it's wonderful to watch them solve research problems and come out the other end more confident about their abilities."

Mentorship and access to faculty is clearly paying off for students and faculty alike. "It's clear that students benefit from this, and faculty benefit too," Strathman says. "It's nice to see the increased mutual respect. Students get to see what faculty are doing outside of the classroom, and faculty get to see students with real intellectual curiosity."

For information about these and other L&S programs emphasizing undergraduate research, visit newscenter.berkeley.edu/goto/ls_ugresearch. Links to undergrad-research programs campuswide may be found at research.berkeley.edu.