Emilia Castelao, a junior from New Orleans who speaks fluent Spanish, practiced her introduction in Portuguese so she could show respect to two political science professors from Lisbon, Portugal.
After all, the academics were taking the time to discuss with Castelao the Portuguese view of the 2020 US elections and how it affected their native political, economic and security situation.
“I had cold emailed them and said I was doing this research,” said Castelao, who studies history, global affairs and journalism. “They were so knowledgeable about their field. It goes to show that people are helpful and appreciate that you are interested in their expertise.”
Castelao was one of 20 undergraduate students who spent much of January conducting research about the European response to the recent American elections during this year’s extended winter break. The students worked under the direction of Clemens Sedmak and Anna Dolezal in the Keough School’s Nanovic Institute for European Studies.
The students each wrote a comprehensive report on an individual country, then worked together to analyze and edit what they learned into a single 50-page document that was published on the Nanovic Institute’s website.
The students took a nonpartisan approach and found a diversity of reactions, generally determined by the nature of the European political parties and their aversion or affinity to the leadership style of former President Donald Trump. One theme that emerged was a push toward future European independence—the need to “tend its own garden”—regardless of the victory of President Joe Biden, because the “European community no longer views the US as a reliable long-term ally.”
“Despite the hope expressed throughout much of Europe, many leaders also recognized the need for the European Union and other European countries to focus inward and take a greater role in managing elements of their own affairs that typically rely on US support,” the report concluded. “The 2020 election campaigns, the election itself, and its aftermath sparked a reevaluation of Europeans dependence on their American allies.”
Sedmak, a theologian and philosopher who specializes in social ethics, is the interim director of the Nanovic Institute for European Studies. When Provost Marie Lynn Miranda issued a call for ideas to engage the students over the COVID-adjusted long winter break, Sedmak and Dolezal, Nanovic’s student programs assistant manager, were inspired to create this research project.
“We saw one of the challenges of the virtual world is loneliness,” Sedmak said. “You sit in your living room and you have a little computer and you do your little things. So that’s why we thought we have to offer something which could be a joint project, which would be of interest to a number of students from different disciplines.”
The US and Europe are the two most prominent defenders globally of democracy and liberal freedoms, and the effectiveness of the effort to further liberal ideals worldwide depends, in large part, on their ability to maintain a close and productive relationship.
Given their roles, the European connection was natural, and the timing dictated that the upcoming US election would be a worthy topic. They had no idea the election aftermath would be so “unprecedented,” he said, but wanted a topic with the breadth to bring in many countries and the linguistic skills of different students.
The relationship between the US and Europe also has worldwide reverberations.
“The US and Europe are the two most prominent defenders globally of democracy and liberal freedoms, and the effectiveness of the effort to further liberal ideals worldwide depends, in large part, on their ability to maintain a close and productive relationship,” the report notes. “The ability of the new administration to work productively with Europe, as well as Europe’s ability to decrease their dependence on the United States, particularly in the areas of security and economic affairs, will have an enormous impact on the stability and trajectory of the world order in the years to come.”
Sedmak said more students than expected wanted to participate, which necessitated a “more precise” research design, from gathering sources to writing 24 country reports and from thematic analysis to editing. It began with a group Zoom meeting to discuss guidelines and build a sense of team. Many students had their own connections, ranging from one spending the break in Vienna, Austria, to others who had studied abroad or knew of potential sources.
The students looked at media reports, government and political party statements and research publications. They also conducted interviews, often in English, while some were fluent enough to converse in the native language.
Catharina Brunner Lopez, a first-year student from Austria and Spain, took advantage of her German fluency. She said she enjoyed reaching out to experts and learned to stay focused on the original research question.
“It was quite interesting and sometimes surprising,” she said, “to see how different the responses could be when I asked someone in an academic field for their country’s perception of the US election compared to when I asked someone focused more on the possible economic impacts that the election results could have on trade and trade relations.”
I got to talk to experts in the field of European politics, which provided me with real-world experience that helped me apply analytical skills I had learned in the classroom.
The students spoke with foreign politicians and academics about the political, social and economic ramifications of the US election in Europe, where most people are more attuned to the US impact on their lives than the average American is to European affairs.
Sedmak said people in his native country, Austria, can’t ignore American policies. But US students can broaden their education by considering other viewpoints, a benefit limited by the inability to travel during the pandemic’s restrictions.
“I got to talk to experts in the field of European politics, which provided me with real-world experience that helped me apply analytical skills I had learned in the classroom,” said Bridget Paulmann, a sophomore from Connecticut who studies international economics and Spanish. “I spoke with a political adviser in the European Parliament over the phone and had a Zoom call with a professor of political theory and European studies at the University of Salzburg.”
The next step in the project was for each student to write individual reports on their assigned countries, which ranged from tiny Luxembourg to heavyweights like France and Germany. Many of these countries have a variety of political parties, including far-right parties sympathetic to Trump. Hungary’s leadership enthusiastically supported Trump. Others, like Poland and Turkey, have authoritarian leaders but also specific areas of common cause or dispute with the US.
But not all the reactions split along expected political lines. For instance, Sedmak noted that German Chancellor Angela Merkel objected to a global company restricting freedom of expression by shutting down Trump’s Twitter account.
The initial student reports of about 2,000 words, Sedmak said, were often more descriptive than analytical.
“But research is more than data gathering, so we had to encourage them to also make some analysis and summarize and give us an assessment,” he said. “And then Hungary’s response was obviously quite different from Germany’s response. Then what are the reasons for that?”
“We wanted to have a comprehensive report at the end that captured the essential without approaching book-length,” Sedmak said. “So we prepared the students for this painful exercise of letting go, because only the tip of the iceberg can enter the comprehensive report.”
The students formed teams to read and edit the country reports into very short summaries and pull out common themes for the next section. These themes ranged from European trust in democratic institutions to the rise of the populist far-right and from climate change to the need for European self-reliance on security.
“They learned how to work together,” Sedmak said. “They learned how writing can be a painful process, where it’s not about the number of words that you write but about the clarity of your expression, and maybe they learned how to use non-US news sources.”
Castelao, who researched Portugal, said she appreciated the emphasis on independent work with occasional guidance.
“I had never done official research before, and so I learned a lot about how to begin organizing, how to conduct interviews and how to put all of my research into words,” she said. “It taught me more about how I like to work and if academic research could be a good career choice for me.”
In the final editing stage, four students volunteered to extend past the three-week course to continue editing—making the report’s style more uniform, improving the flow and writing short introduction and conclusion sections. Sedmak said he was impressed with the students’ commitment throughout.
The final step was to publish the comprehensive report on the Nanovic and Keough School websites in April and leverage the Nanovic network to distribute the report to students and faculty scholars at Notre Dame and elsewhere. “The goal is to get it to a broad audience,” Dolezal said. “I doubt something this extensive exists in the world.”
Will Forsen, a sophomore from St. Louis who studies global affairs, liberal studies and German, appreciated getting to practice his German and working as the sole editor at the end. He said he couldn’t single out just one highlight.
“I found the project to be engaging and informative at every stage,” Forsen said, “from researching to outlining to drafting to late-stage editing.”
Sedmak said he is a strong believer in undergraduate research even for students who don’t plan to pursue academic careers.
“Research is first and foremost a way of listening: listening to texts, listening to real people, listening to sources, listening to the planet, listening to your experience,” he said. “Listening brings a sense of humility because you don’t define what you hear.
“Number two, being able to be honest to reality is a sign of intellectual integrity, which you need wherever you go and whatever you do.”
Originally published at nd.edu on May 13, 2021.