As a political science and pre-law philosophy double major, Michael Behrens figured he would spend much of his senior year writing extensive research papers. He never expected to collaborate with his professor on writing a book.
Behrens and three fellow seniors — Chris Blough, Ian Huff and Eric Stortz — have teamed up with Assistant Professor of Political Science Chad Murphy to research and write chapters for a book on presidential rhetoric.
The project is one of more than dozen research initiatives in the university’s innovative undergraduate research program. This semester’s undergraduate projects delve into such issues as women in Islam; statistical consulting for after-school programs; stress, guilt and eating; the effects of Atrazine in zebra fish; and the effects of exercise and estrogen on mouse hearts.
Still Behrens isn’t surprised to be part of such a challenging project at UMW.
“That’s just the environment that the school’s attitude cultivates,” he said. “If you have a professor who has a common interest, there’s no harm in asking if there is a project you can work on.”
Murphy had no qualms about teaming with his students.
“The undergraduates here are really strong, they can pull off something like this,” said Murphy, who has published articles on the effects of political rhetoric and the media in numerous peer-reviewed journals. “This is the chance to do professional-quality research as an undergraduate. When you go to the bigger state schools, you don’t get that.”
The idea for the book project grew from a thesis written by former student Anne Morris, who graduated in 2011. Her year-long research for a paper about presidential rhetoric addressed some compelling issues.
“She answers the question in a really creative, interesting way,” Murphy said. “I think it has such promise.”
Murphy invited all students from his upper-level political science research methods class last semester to participate in the project. He assigned the students chapters based on the subjects he believed would be most compatible with their interests.
Others in the class tackled a myriad of other political issues that range from social media’s effect on voter turnout to how scandals impact of politicians’ prospects for re-election, with many continuing their projects as independent studies this semester.
One of the students who is continuing her thesis, junior political science and education major Erin Hill, agreed. She said that at other schools, undergraduates typically gather statistics and do the grunt work of the project.
“You aren’t really exploring the question,” she said. “Here, you’re doing the complete thing all by yourself. If I went to grad school, I would know how to fully explore a question.”
Blough, who has applied to several graduate schools to study urban planning, feels more prepared by working on the research for the book.
“You really have a lot of opportunities to do one-on-one research here,” he said. “You have a lot of guidance. It really helps you if you’re applying to grad school. It shows that you have the experience.”
Stortz also believes his research and writing project will give him credibility after graduation.
“It’s one thing to say ‘I’m a good writer;’ it’s another to say, ‘I’m published,’” Stortz said.
But Stortz is most impressed with the amount of faith Murphy has placed in his group of students.
“I think this project shows that Professor Murphy has a lot of faith in Mary Washington students in general,” he said. “The opportunities are out there if you put the effort in.”
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By Anne Elder