Undergraduate Research Opportunity Lays Groundwork for Future Work

Joe Donovan Class of 2011
Monday, February 14, 2011

Before coming to UMass, Sean Donovan ’11 (social thought and political economy) attended Hampshire College, pursuing a self-designed major in political theory and architecture. Through the Five College Consortium he became involved in a joint activist and academic program at UMass and discovered several innovative programs, like STPEC. “At Hampshire the academic support and guidance didn’t match my style of learning,” Donovan recalls. “For me UMass had clearer opportunities—such as the LeBovidge Undergraduate Research Scholarship—to do innovative and creative work.”

That scholarship, established by Alan LeBovidge ’64 (economics) and his wife Carol, allows undergraduates to do meaningful research with a UMass Amherst faculty member in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. A semester-long stipend allows for 10 hours a week of substantive research assistance on a collaborative research project. Five awards are made annually.

Donovan was drawn to the STPEC major, he says, “because it cultivates an interdisciplinary approach to learning that emphasizes philosophy and conceptual tools for learning as well as more worldly concerns from many areas of study. I’ve always worked best as a non-disciplinary and multi-focused learner—which moves against the grain of most of my schooling experiences—so entering the program was exciting. STPEC is one of the most distinctive undergraduate majors in the country; certainly my academic experiences have been extremely engaging.”

In keeping with that interdisciplinary model, Donovan worked with Professor Barbara Cruikshank (political science) for his LeBovidge project. As part of her forthcoming book, Sustained Politics: Reform, Contingency, Activism, that delves into writings from political theorists such as Machiavelli and Antonio Gramsci to explore the limits of political activism and political time, Donovan investigated the origins of key phrases and concepts.

“The collection of data can be arduous,” Donovan says, “but interpretation involves a creative eye for shifts in grammar, ideology, historical reference, and modes of address that emerge from distinct trends of use. Chemists, for example, might research different stages of chemical interactions over time,” he explains. “Our research agents similarly are the mutating concepts and political actors that give meaning to words. At first this might seem vague, but methodology and forms of analysis prove otherwise.”

Donovan cites an example related to the uses of “everything is political” in US popular media and academic journals during the 20th century. “I found its origins in Cold War rhetoric as a derisive reaction to Soviet society. Essentially, the phrase distinguishes the productive, democratic American society unburdened by the bureaucracy and manifestoes of the Soviets. The phrase takes other turns. In generations of feminist rhetoric, it denotes an unlimited domain of political action in a specifically non-derisive way. Charting these shifts helps in understanding how the range of politics is viewed and defined across different perspectives and how usage of words actually forecloses or opens forms of political action.”

Again extending a rough metaphor from organic chemistry, Donovan says, “Mapping these shifts in meaning is like noting occurrences when an element takes a less stable—and more productive—form and when the elements remain stable—when the meaning of a word or the composition of a chemical is inconvertible—which is seldom. When ‘politics’ sheds an electron and binds with a previously disassociated concept, the reaction can be productive, such as ‘cultural politics’ or ‘identity politics.’ In other words, the results Professor Cruikshank and I obtained from distilling information from media sources are a register of these dynamic compounds that produce meaning beyond any of their isolated parts.

“I’m grateful for that opportunity the LeBovidge award gave me to pursue ideas that often were too non-linear and innovative to fit within the coursework of either STPEC or political science. But also, having funded time to expand the mind and produce creative, well-grounded work was extremely valuable. Typically I hold one or two jobs and attend school full-time. For me, the award was both an honor and a relief! It’s great when original research is merited as work that is awarded a wage.

Donovan’s senior thesis too has evolved out of work with Cruikshank. It concerns a Supreme Court case involving homeless activists and explores the complex ways politics unfold within space between political actors holding divergent understandings of space and politics. “Although on different scales of time,” Donovan explains, “both projects rest firmly on the belief that particular uses and understandings of concepts in political life—and the awareness that politics can and will change—are foundational to understanding how they act as political agents. This guiding mantra of our research is something I can apply to future projects and to activism.”

Donovan has many dreams for the future, but isn’t clear on how they might unfold. “I do a lot of writing and research, activist work, and music and performance projects, so my options are very open. I do plan to pursue more school, but after graduation I need some time to decide what type of focus I might choose.”