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February 8, 2001

New study-abroad program to match faculty, Honors College undergrads for field research

A novel new Pitt study-abroad program will match faculty with teams of University Honors College undergraduates, to collaborate on field research in foreign countries.

The Research Abroad Program (RAP) will award each participating student a $3,000 stipend, and each participating faculty member the same stipend plus an expense allowance based on the U.S. State Department per diem rate for the city or area where the research is conducted.

RAP will be Pitt's first faculty-led, team-oriented "research abroad" program for undergraduates, said William Brustein, who became director of the University Center for International Studies (UCIS) last month.

Brustein developed RAP with help from Honors College Dean Alec Stewart and Annagene Yucas, director of Pitt's Study Abroad office. "What we have in mind," Brustein said, "is to encourage faculty members to recruit a small team of honors students and take them abroad for 4-8 weeks to work on a research project, probably one that the faculty member already has in mind."

Ideally, he said, these faculty-student collaborations would continue after participants return to the United States. Undergrads would help analyze data gathered during field work, and would be encouraged to convert their own research findings into senior papers and published works.

RAP is scheduled to begin this summer with a pilot program involving a maximum of two faculty members and six Honors College students. Information on RAP will be mailed to faculty next week. March 15 is the deadline for applying for this summer's pilot program.

Brustein said the pilot program "would be ideal for a faculty member who's thinking, 'My God, I'm not on the payroll this summer. I have this great project I've been thinking of. I'm going to be in the field anyway, and here's an opportunity not only to help fund my research but to involve undergraduates in it as well.' "

If faculty don't come forward with acceptable RAP projects for this summer, Pitt will launch the program in the fall, Brustein said. He acknowledged that a March 15 deadline won't give faculty much time to prepare summer proposals, but admitted he was too excited about the program to wait until fall.

In a Feb. 2 lecture at the Honors College, Brustein emphasized that RAP won't be limited to the humanities and social sciences. "For example, it could involve engineering faculty and students working with German firms or Indonesian firms," he said, "or a scientific project involving environmental research in a less developed country."

Nor will RAP always be limited to Honors College students, Brustein said. Eventually, other Pitt undergraduates will be eligible. But to get the program off to a good start, Brustein said, the Honors College appeared to be the best place to recruit RAP-appropriate undergrads: mature, independent, academically ambitious students who won't goof off or get homesick while spending a month or two overseas.

Last March, when Brustein was being interviewed for the job of UCIS director, he said one of his goals here would be to promote study-abroad experiences teaming undergrads with faculty researchers.

Since beginning work here Jan. 1, he's been working out RAP details during weekly meetings with Stewart and Yucas.

Pitt undergraduates who want to study abroad currently have three basic options: traditional "cultural immersion" programs in which they live and study in a foreign country for a term or two; global studies through the Semester at Sea program, and individual field research projects through area studies units such as Latin American Studies.

Brustein said he's long found it odd that most research universities, including Pitt and his prior employer, the University of Minnesota, have not involved undergraduates in what those schools do best: cutting-edge research.

Addressing faculty attending his Feb. 2 lecture, Brustein said: "Like me, many of you have been graduate students and you know that we're really not trained very much to be great teachers, unfortunately, at major research universities. We're hardly trained to be administrators. What we're really trained to do is research. Then, when we get jobs at research universities ourselves, we work under the premise that, 'Yes, we have graduate students who will be involved in our research. But undergraduates? No, they're not equipped to work on serious scholarship.' "I've often thought, we don't give our undergraduates enough credit."

Brustein credits his University of Minnesota undergraduate research assistants with making possible his critically praised book, "The Logic of Evil: The Social Origins of the Nazi Party, 1925-1933" (Yale University Press, 1996). Through painstaking research of Nazi Party records in Berlin, Brustein and his student team concluded that Germans who supported the Nazis were largely motivated by economic self-interest.

Brustein's book reached some controversial but well-documented conclusions — for example, that contrary to traditional scholarly belief, Nazism was not primarily a lower middle-class phenomenon. Brustein's team found that prior to 1933 (the year Hitler became Germany's chancellor and joining the Nazi Party became a careerist move), 40 percent of party members were blue-collar workers.

Minnesota undergraduates who later analyzed Nazi Party records for gender trends found that only 7 percent of party members prior to 1933 were women, but that 90 percent of those women were single or divorced. Students incorporated those findings in their senior research papers.

"That project convinced me that collaborative research projects involving undergraduates could be beneficial to both the faculty member and the students," Brustein said.

But Brustein also felt frustrated at having to hustle for funding to support his research team, because Minnesota had no programs encouraging undergraduate participation in faculty research.

Contrary to some faculty members' fears that undergraduate assistants require babysitting, Brustein found that his students behaved responsibly and seemed just as excited by the research as he was. Following their shifts at the Berlin Documents Center, the central repository of 11 million Nazi member cards, students would meet among themselves to discuss the project, Brustein said.

"We spent 12 weeks in Germany," he said, "and there was not one issue" of undergraduate misbehavior.

Brustein is currently in his third year of National Science Foundation-funded research comparing anti-semitism in Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Romania from 1899 to 1939. His research team, which includes several University of Minnesota undergraduates, is combing daily newspapers published in those countries during that period. Students are searching for coverage of anti-semitic incidents as well as all references to Jews (who often are alluded to with code words, Brustein noted. Britain's Daily Mail, for example, commonly referred to Jews as "the Izzies living in the East End of London" or "recent Russian immigrants who are plaguing the East End").

Brustein said the book he's working on, to be published by Cambridge University Press, will partly be a response to Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's best-selling 1996 book, "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust." Goldhagen concluded that German anti-semitism was unique in that it argued for extermination, rather than mere ostracism, of Jews.

"Implicit in that argument was that anti-semitism must have been somehow different in other countries," Brustein said. "I reacted: Okay, show me evidence that Germany was different. I realized that there hadn't been a systematic, comparative, empirical study of anti-semitism in the years before the Holocaust."

Brustein said that when his book appears, its preface — like the one for "The Logic of Evil" — will credit his student research assistants, including the undergrads among them.

— Bruce Steele

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