Samuel Harper, the Search for Answers, and the Heart of Research

– written by Griffin Creech, SURF Recipient

A 1916 photo of Harper attached to his passport. Photo courtesy of University of Chicago Special Collections Archive, Samuel N. Harper Papers, Box 3, Folder 2.

A 1916 photo of Harper attached to his passport. Photo courtesy of University of Chicago Special Collections Archive, Samuel N. Harper Papers, Box 3, Folder 2.

The Cold War. American intellectuals. The Russian Revolution. What do these terms make you think of? Your mind probably flashes to duck and cover drills, men wearing bowties and monocles, and Lenin. In order to get to know a man who probably wore a monocle and, certainly, a bowtie, I spent this summer in the University of Chicago’s Special Collections archive examining thousands of documents dated between 1916 to 1921. This intellectual was Samuel Harper, professor at the University of Chicago from 1915 to 1943, the first American to devote an academic career to studying Russia, and the protagonist of my senior honors thesis in history.

I set out to examine Harper’s intellectual role in forming American attitudes towards the Soviet Union. As I stood in front of the archives before beginning my research, I thought I knew what I would find inside: a record of every lecture and exam that Harper ever gave at the university. These documents, I believed, would show me how Harper interpreted the Russian revolutions of 1917 to undergraduates in his classes and how he used his academic position to form a strictly intellectual framework for interpreting Russia that would become important during the Cold War. I had a preconceived answer to my research question, yet no evidence to confirm it.

Yet, that day I found letters linking Harper to American corporate tycoons including Henry Ford and International Harvester Corporation executives. As my search continued, other similar documents emerged until I was at an impasse. Was Harper really just a university professor, or was his intellectual and political legacy more complex?

The University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library and the home of the Samuel N. Harper Papers. Photo courtesy of Griffin B. Creech

The University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library and the home of the Samuel N. Harper Papers. Photo courtesy of Griffin B. Creech

It turned out that Harper was far more than a professor. He spent most of 1916 acting as a go-between for American business interests, informing them on how to claim a stake in the economic renaissance that he believed was transforming Russia’s “backward” economy and political traditions. Optimistic over the country’s prospects for democracy, Harper broadcasted his analysis in American newspapers, speeches to civic groups, and a shockingly small amount of university lectures. His interpretation, I discovered, had little sympathy for far-left parties like the Bolsheviks, who came to power in 1917. So, Harper had helped to construct the Cold War’s intellectual framework; he simply hadn’t done it in the way I expected.

This conundrum perfectly encapsulates the research experience that my SURF made possible this summer and summarizes what I would change if I could repeat my experience: not beginning my research with a preconceived notion of what I would find. If I had to leave my readers with a message, it would be that the foundation of research lies in understanding what we don’t know or in disproving that which we accept. Having one’s preconceived notions challenged is a positive thing, and I would argue that it is exactly this that a SURF makes possible. So, apply for one, get ready to have your ideas challenged, and accept that knowledge stems from being open to an array of answers.

A Different Kind of Semester — Research at a North Carolina Field Site

– written by Andrea Stewart, OUR Ambassador and Environmental Science major

The Institute for the Environment at UNC is praised for its network of field sites, where students can venture for a semester in North Carolina or abroad and do coursework, take field trips, hold internships, and perform group research projects. As an environmental science major with a concentration in natural resources and conservation, I chose the Highlands Field Site, a beautiful place in the NC mountains known for its high biodiversity. Little did I know that through this program, I would have the opportunity to study at Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory, home to one of the oldest continuous environmental studies in North America.

A waterfall in the experimental watershed

A waterfall in the experimental watershed

I was assigned a research internship at Coweeta and visited the lab several times each week in the fall semester of my junior year. My mentor was an ecologist who is interested in studying the effects of logging on forest vegetation dynamics. Research at Coweeta usually focuses on one or more watersheds, or areas of land where all the water flows to the same location. In our study, we examined a watershed that was partially logged by researchers in the 1950s. We asked – how was this forest changed over the past 60 years?

To answer that question, I trekked into the field, a mountainous forest that ranged in elevation over 1300 feet. I located large plots that were established in the 1930s to measure vegetation. One by one, I measured and identified all the trees in these plots, careful to record the data accurately, not get tangled in rhododendron shrubs, and watch out for black bears! Considering that Coweeta is located in a temperate rainforest, the work outdoors was not always easy, but it was very informative. I learned to identify many tree species, observe vegetation patterns, and recognize different forest ecotypes, skills that I could not have gained by simply reading a textbook.

Measuring tree diameter at Coweeta Lab

Measuring tree diameter at Coweeta Lab

After completing the field work, we resurrected historical data from the 1930s and 1950s and compared it with our data. We also used similar data from a watershed that was completely logged and a watershed that was unaltered by humans. I was surprised to discover that, in some ways, partially logging affects the characteristics of a forest significantly less than clearcutting. We also observed that forest hydrology is not significantly changed due to partial logging, a finding that has important implications for water sustainability.

My internship at Coweeta Hydrologic Lab through the Highlands Field Site was an exceptional introduction to ecological research. This project elucidated for me what exactly “research” looks like and how it is conducted. Furthermore, it helped me solidify my interest in forest ecology and ecohydrology. I encourage all students to consider a research project or independent study at a field site; the experience outside the typical classroom cannot be matched!