“ … in a remarkable reversal of roles, my student became my teacher.”
Summer research at Williams College took an exciting turn for several Social Sciences student assistants, and probably none more so than Tyler Hull ’08, an economics and English major from Newtown, Conn., who worked with Professor of Humanities Susan Dunn.
During a trip to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library at Hyde Park, Hull uncovered an important trio of discoveries that included politically charged letters and an FDR-issued invitation to a politically motivated “stag party” at the Jefferson Island Club in Chesapeake Bay.
“You really have the chance to discover things that others haven’t yet,” Hull said. “I’m very happy with this, thrilled, really. I think it’s good to be able to immerse yourself in a project like this. It’s a rare opportunity.”
Dunn is focused on former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his 1938 attempt to “purge” conservative senators and congressmen from the Democratic Party. She is writing a book about Roosevelt's relations with the Democratic Party and especially with southern politicians.
“Hull is doing incredible, original research,” Dunn said. “He grew so knowledgeable about Roosevelt and his psychology that he became my guide as we studied FDR’s actions and maneuvers during the summer of 1938. In other words, in a remarkable reversal of roles, my student became my teacher. We shared information and interpreted it together; we learned from each other. For me, this is the ideal model for education.”
Shining New Light on FDR
His discoveries included a communication from Roosevelt’s son Jimmy Roosevelt that urged the President to aid incumbent Florida Senator Claude Pepper, a liberal, during a 1938 state primary election. Pepper’s challenger was Rep. Mark Wilcox, who campaigned on an anti-New Deal platform.
“This is a key document that helps explain FDR’s reasons for his unusual and controversial decision to intervene in Democratic primaries,” Dunn noted and added that Pepper won the primary and remained a Florida senator until 1951. Pepper was then elected to the House of Representatives and remained in office until 1989.
Another letter Hull discovered will be reproduced as is and included in Dunn’s book. The letter, penned by Democratic National Committee Chairman Jim Farley, who opposed Roosevelt’s planned ouster of political conservatives from the Democratic Party, was sent to Jimmy Roosevelt. Dunn described the contents as “startling.”
“Farley writes that he is leaving for Alaska to get as far away from Washington as possible,” Dunn said.
The “stag party” included nude swimming, clay pigeon shooting, and fishing. Invitations were sent to nearly all Democratic senators and congressmen in 1937. The party followed several 1937 Congressional bill defeats and was designed to make peace with fellow Democrats, Dunn said.
The only Democrats snubbed were all six of the women in Congress, Arkansas Senator Hattie Caraway and the five women in the House of Representatives, according to Hull’s research.
“It was great,” said Hull about his summer of research. “To know that my work will be included in a book, to know my work has a larger purpose, that’s very exciting. And I’m thinking of going to law school, so having this type of research experience under my belt is very good.”
Not only was the work extremely rewarding, so was the chance to work with internationally acclaimed historian James MacGregor Burns, who accompanied Hull and Dunn on the trip.
“I had to keep pinching myself,” Hull said. “Just sitting next to Professor Burns was incredible. People kept coming up to him and asking to shake his hand.”
Joseph Song ’08, an economics and chemistry major from Millburn, N.J., said he opted to tackle research because of an interest in the topic.
“I knew I wanted to invest my time in something I cared about, something worthwhile,” he said. “I remembered how passionate I was about the topics we discussed in my tutorial, ‘Poverty and the Public Policy’ with Professor Lara Shore-Sheppard. I was truly interested in public policy and welfare programs.”
Shore-Sheppard is an associate professor of economics. Her research titled “The Political Economy of Public Health Insurance for Low-Income Children” was motivating, he said, trying to answer which states engaged most intensively in expanding access to public health insurance to low-income children through Medicaid eligibility expansions and the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) and why those particular states were the ones to do it.
“I remember during this summer reading a news article on the new bill to expand the SCHIP funding and being able to discern the facts from the political propaganda that surrounds all public policy debates. It was a refreshing moment.”
“I find the summer research assistant program extremely valuable,” said Shore Shepard. “I accomplish more in a summer than I would working alone. Williams student research assistants gain a deeper knowledge about a particular subject and experience the process by which knowledge is accumulated. I think this helps them in their studies and in their post-Williams lives because they accumulate skills through hands-on research that they typically don't get any other way.”
Charles Dougherty ’09, a history and music major from Montvale, N.J., assisted Associate Professor of Political Science James McAllister.
“This is, without a doubt, my most intellectually stimulating summer,” Dougherty said.
McAllister’s research is focused on the Vietnam era and the United States government’s inability to create a successful South Vietnamese government. Dougherty’s research involved former U.S. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker and his Vietnam involvement, he said.
Dougherty’s research partner was Anouk Dey ’09, a political science major from Toronto, Canada. The duo examined materials offering a distinctly South Vietnamese perspective, Dougherty noted. The research altered everything Dougherty believed about the Vietnam conflict and its aftermath.
“This research, combined with a course in Vietnam that I’d already taken, well, basically I’ve thrown almost everything I’d thought [about Vietnam] out the window,” he said.
Dey’s work focused on former U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge. “He’s not considered among the greatest ambassadors,” she said, “but he did have some great ideas; he just didn’t follow up.”
The research opportunity provided numerous benefits, she said. “This has been so different from what I’m used to,” Dey said. “I’ve never written a paper longer than 15 pages so to be able to do this on a grand scale gives you a feeling of accomplishment and an intimate knowledge of something. This is great for any kind of independent study or thesis.”
Social science summer research projects cover ten 40-hour weeks and provide a stipend as well as housing.
Remaining on campus allowed the students to share in a Northern Berkshire summer. “There is no other place that compares to Williams during the summer,” said Song. “There is so much to do, from hiking to the Williamstown Theater Festival to swimming in the Green River.”
“For the whole experience to be rewarding, having a few friends up here is a part of the puzzle,” Hull said. “To be able to take part in the Williamstown summer, the golfing and the bicycling, it's a real advantage.”
Dougherty’s and Dey’s work is destined for inclusion in a book McAllister is writing and Song’s work will be part of a comprehensive paper planned by Shore-Sheppard, the students said.
“The ability to participate in an extensive research project is a bonus of being a Williams student,” said Dougherty. “The research I’ve been involved with has definitely been among my best experiences at this school.”
“I didn’t really think about how much I would end up interested in this topic,” said Dey. “I would encourage people to try this and especially to take a chance on something that they may not think they are interested in.”
“I got to work with a professor who is one of the top researchers in her field on a one-to-one basis, day in and day out,” Song said. “There aren't many undergraduate students at the big schools who can say that they actually worked with a published scholar and took part in getting a paper published.”
Twenty-three faculty and 24 students took part in the 2007 Humanities and Social Sciences Summer Research Projects.