Developing an Intellectual Project

Students discuss ideas for their intellectual projects.

How do scholars decide on the focus of their research projects? Berkeley Connect mentor Robert Connell began his academic journey far before he began the PhD program in African Diaspora Studies at UC Berkeley. Even before he entered York University as a Environmental Studies Major, his experiences and family background were shaping his academic interests.

Connell recently received his PhD for his research project, “Between Sovereignty and the State: A Comparative Study of Maroon Survival.” The word maroon is used to describe the runaway slaves who, as early as 1655, formed independent communities and developed a resistance against Spanish or British captors. Connell’s interest in maroon communities was piqued  when he heard of the environmental issues that impacted the Accompong tribe in Jamaica. Not only was Connell’s mother a descendant of Jamaican maroons, but Connell grew up less than an hour from Flint, Michigan, where local residents were infamously exposed to lead in their drinking water. Connell felt a personal connection to the Accompong and the environmental threats they faced.

Connell endeavored to understand the social organization and governance of Accompong, but the research proved challenging. The maroon communities in Jamaica and across the Americas often possess a secretive culture, suspicious of outside interference. Connell faced the challenge of researching these communities with minimal secondary data and a sensitive line of questioning. His project proved difficult, but having personal ties to fuel his curiosity, Connell persisted in his research. Connell resided within the Accompong community for six months, conversing with locals and understanding ways he could assist them. Eventually, he developed documentation and maps for their future court battles.

Connell helped his students to understand that often the most compelling research ideas are directly within our personal experiences.

For the rest of the afternoon, Berkeley Connect students brainstormed ideas for their own intellectual projects, drawing from issues or interests connecting back to their personal identities. I’ve heard that “the personal is political”–now I know that the personal can become scholarly research too!


posted by Gloria Choi


Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant