I was first introduced to the process of discovery and research as an undergraduate at American University during the tumultuous years 1969-1973. I had distinguished myself in an undergraduate philosophy class and the professor subsequently offered me the opportunity to work under his guidance on a research project involving existentialism in the writings of Jean Paul Sartre. I jumped at the chance, especially because the subject matter greatly interested me. The quagmire in Vietnam, followed by the Watergate scandal, led many college students to develop feelings of alienation towards what we identified as “the establishment.” I was trying to figure it all out and I hoped that this opportunity to conduct original research on existentialism would allow me to experience what William Blake referred to when he wrote, “In the universe, there are things that are known, and things that are unknown, and in between, there are doors.” To this day, I have never stopped believing that opening doors is the essence of the research experience and at the heart of mentoring undergraduates in the research endeavor.
When I initially met with my philosophy professor, he suggested that, rather than summarizing or synthesizing Sartre’s work, I should set as my goal writing an analytic paper offering a new interpretation or application of Sartre to the times in which we lived. He warned me, however, that research was a process requiring a plan, but also a great deal of patience with doors that would not easily open or that opened in the wrong direction. Professor Scribner suggested I spend the first two weeks of the project re-reading Sartre and developing some research questions to drive my inquiry. He stressed that these questions should be empirical rather than normative and broad enough to generalize from. He also said that whatever questions I came up with really had to interest me because “you should never spend sixteen weeks of research on something you don’t really care about, that you are nor passionate about!” On this count, he had little reason for concern.
Professor Scribner served as my first mentor, leading me through the initial flirtations and excitement that come with discovering something new. I was enthralled by the process of discovery, the freedom it gave me to reflect and reset intellectually. My mentor taught me the rudimentary foundations of designing research, developing a hypothesis, theorizing and selecting a methodology. The goal was to produce a critical, thoughtful and analytical piece of writing. My research paper on existentialism (which I still keep in my files) aimed to gather and analyze a body of information in order to extract new meaning or to develop an innovative solution or interpretation to a problem. In this way, the goal of my paper over forty years ago is similar to that of the papers published in this volume of Explorations. I also learned that the research undertaking cannot be completed at the last minute, or even in a few weeks. It requires great forethought, planning, and organization.
This introduction to research as an undergraduate opened another door—I abandoned law school so that I could pursue graduate study in political science at Princeton. There, I was fortunate enough to start a lifelong mentoring relationship with Professor Fred Greenstein, a preeminent internationally acclaimed presidency scholar who brought me into his world of discovery at the intersections of political phenomena, historical forces and personality. The “Greenstein treatment,” as I came to know it, began with an always open door, a curious mind and inclusion in my mentor’s professional orbit. Greenstein involved me in his intellectual life, which meant embracing the value of collaboration and interdisciplinary work, the excitement of intellectual engagement, and perhaps most importantly, doing so with a decency of character and temperament that has served as a model for my own interactions and engagement with UC Davis undergraduates for the past thirty-four years. He taught me to understand research design, to develop sound hypotheses, to plan strategies for alternative arguments and options, to test arguments and to appreciate the role of theory in research. From Greenstein I learned that most research is grounded in relevant scholarly literature and history and usually results in generalizations. I learned how to write literature reviews, and to conduct probing interviews and archival research.
Learning to write a research paper is one of the major benefits of being at UC Davis, for students as well as for faculty members. Since my first day on campus in September 1977, I have invited undergraduates into my world of research engagement. The Acknowledgements sections of my books give ample testimony to the creativity and value of undergraduate research at UC Davis. Moreover, in my years as Director of our campus’s experiential learning program in Washington, D.C., I have mentored dozens of students who were writing research papers, several of which have been published in previous editions of Explorations. The adjective experiential is crucial, for it acknowledges that students only learn by doing. As their mentor it is my job to help them learn how to develop and write a research paper, a skill that will serve them well in life, no matter which doors they open. Just as my mentors, Professors Scribner and Greenstein, did for me, so have I enjoyed helping students frame a research question, develop hypotheses, select a methodology and research strategy, collect data, and analyze and interpret findings. Engaging with students in this way allows me to watch a process of intellectual growth.
Perhaps most enjoyable is listening to students present and defend their research at UC Davis’ annual Undergraduate Research, Scholarship & Creative Activities Conference. There, UC Davis experts serve as discussants on panels related to their area of expertise. Students benefit from the opportunity to present papers in a professional setting and to face one of the most difficult challenges in the research endeavor, to defend one’s research and respond to constructive criticism. It is all part of the process of writing an excellent research paper, of learning to identify and to open the right doors.
At the end of the day, I can say unequivocally that I have learned so much from my students and their research projects, which is truly one of the great benefits of mentoring. For me, as a professor at UC Davis, the best part of the deal is knowing that there are still so many doors to open, so many questions awaiting the journey of discovery. My door, like that of professors across the university, will always be open to those motivated students with the curiosity to join me and my colleagues for the ride.