Sam Sano is a sophomore politics major. Thoughtful, well spoken, intellectually ambitious and, once you get to know him, idiosyncratically sarcastic, Sano, like many students on the Brandeis campus, was not mentally idle during the latest presidential election. During the election, and especially in its immediate aftermath, he heard gossip comparing the Trump populist movement to the rise of authoritarian regimes.
Skeptical, but not completely rejecting the analogy, Sano thought he ought to do some scholarly research to examine how, if at all, democracies may give rise to authoritarianism. Thus came the idea for the project “Democratic Rise of Dictatorship,” and having a substantial interest in the topic and an ambition to find the answer, as well as a web of connections to resources and professors who could help him find the answers, Sano began exploring how he could turn his idea for this project into reality.
Originally, Sano thought that he could research his project as a semester-long independent study, a program in many departments at Brandeis in which students can earn course credit for working on an independent research project of their choosing. Students work with faculty, and ultimately choose an official faculty advisor, to develop a coherent reading list around a particular topic of interest. The project commonly culminates in a written research paper on the topic of the student’s choosing.
Before Sano began reaching out to professors he thought might be interested in his topic, he thought that he ought to have a more defined idea of what he really wanted to research. He did some background research, sifting through Wikipedia and finding some preliminary sources so that when he went to talk to professors, he had better idea of where he was going.
Now, with a formidable grasp on what he wanted to research, Sano began reaching out to professors who he thought may help him develop his idea. He noted that he had a few professors in mind from the start, having taken classes with them before and thus knowing what they specialized in.
While Sano could have limited his outreach to a professor he knew and envisioned would be his primary advisor, he noted that he talked to many professors who could offer him some specialized knowledge so that he could look at his subject from multiple angles. For example, Sano worked with a professor with a good historical knowledge of authoritarianism to think of more examples of when democracy may have given rise to dictatorship. Initially, he thought only about Nazi Germany, but the professor directed Sano to sources from ancient Greece, and other professors directed him to sources from Latin America. Professors also helped him gain a better theoretical grasp on his topic and to develop more political theory sources.
After having gone through the process of developing his thoughts, source list and faculty connections, Sano, along with his preliminary advisor, made a decision. He was not going to do independent study but instead was going to make “The Democratic Rise of Dictatorships” a senior thesis project. According to Sano, he wanted more than just one semester to develop the idea, and he thought that taking the thesis route, allotting one semester to research and another to writing, would allow him to not only think and learn about the topic more, but would allow him to explore it more comprehensively from multiple angles.
Sano’s experience exploring independent study, while it did not ultimately result in one, shows generally how a vague idea, conceived of in the middle of presidential gossip, can develop into a formidable research project. Although Sano discovered that his idea was too large to be fully explored in independent study, his experience shows that the independent study process is a wonderful way for any student to prevent a vague question they have from fading out of their minds. Instead, independent study allows vague questions to become concrete research and shared answers.