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Undergraduate Scholars and Performers Shine at Stanford’s Humanities Showcase

May 16, 2017

The university’s first major exhibition of undergraduate work in the humanities highlights students’ deep intellectual and creative engagement across a wide range of subjects


by Simon Firth

Some two dozen academic presentations, performances, poster displays, and readings were featured at Stanford’s inaugural undergraduate Humanities Showcase, highlighting achievements in research, analytical, and creative studies by students across the full spectrum of the humanities at the university. 

The event, held April 22nd at the Stanford Humanities Center and open to the entire Stanford community, saw students detail archival and scholarly research, play their own musical compositions, read from plays, and share films, photographs, poetry, dances, and virtual environments. Participants were chosen from an open call for submissions and a survey of faculty who had mentored humanities projects over the last year. 

Each featured project grew out of the participating students’ deep intellectual and creative engagement with their studies, explained organizer Petra Dierkes-Thrun, assistant vice provost of strategic initiatives for the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning (VPTL) at the event. 

“The humanities are one of VPTL’s areas of strategic focus this year, and we wanted to showcase not only what we teach in the humanities at Stanford, but also what students learn,” Dierkes-Thrun said. 

A number of seniors presenting their work are current Hume Fellows at the Stanford Humanities Center, noted center director, Caroline Winterer. Hume Fellows receive a stipend to support their honors research and participate in Humanities Center activities through the year. 

“The Humanities Showcase gave the Hume Fellows an opportunity to present their thesis research to an audience of both faculty and other undergraduates,” Winterer said. “It was wonderful to see these impressive presentations by our undergraduate fellows draw a crowd of students and faculty to the Humanities Center."

Debra Satz, senior associate dean for the humanities and arts and professor of philosophy, pointed to both the breadth and complexity of the work on display.

Steve Rathje

"Stanford students are pursuing an incredible array of research in the humanities, and they should be proud of their work in advancing our understanding of and engagement with literature, history, and culture,” she said.

The showcase, which was cosponsored by VPTL, the Stanford Humanities Center, and the School of Humanities and Sciences, opened with welcoming remarks from Dierkes-Thrun, Associate Director of the Stanford Humanities Center Andrea Davies, and JeffreySchwegman, Humanities and Arts Initiatives Coordinator in the School of Humanities and Sciences, immediately followed by a ukulele performance by Griffin Stoller, musician, DJ, and senior majoring in the music department’s Music, Science and Technology co-terminal program. 

Further performances punctuated the event at regular intervals, including readings by senior Steve Rathje from his play, Signs, a surrealistic comedy about “love, purpose and the little things that seem to matter so much to us.” Rathje is majoring in psychology with minors in creative writing and symbolic systems and was inspired to begin Signs after learning about Walter Mischel’s famous Stanford “marshmallow experiments” in an introductory psychology class. First workshopped and produced at the Stanford Theatre Lab, Signs has since won the 2016 Oregon Play Prize and will receive a professional production with the Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland, Oregon in 2018.

To one side of the performance area, photographer and poet Elijah Ndoumbé shared black and white portraits from their photo series, The Coffee Shop as the Queer Salon. The portraits, shot in a San Francisco café, honor and interrogate the creative communities that LGBTQ+ people have built around the world. “There aren’t a lot of spaces that we have to be ourselves in,” noted Ndoumbé, a senior majoring in African and African American studies and feminist, gender, and sexuality studies.  

Across the room, senior Vivian Lam presented a project for which she created a set of five fictional case records of suicides, all based on quantitative and qualitative factual research. “My idea was to uncover the human narratives beneath official biomedical and legal language,” said Lam, who is majoring in both human biology and comparative literature. “This helps us acknowledge the who and the why of suicide, beyond the what and the how that you see on a traditional death certificate.”

Multiple takes on multiple disciplines

Many projects revealed a shared interest in using multiple and interdisciplinary perspectives to enrich our intellectual understanding of a topic. 

Sophomores Sydney Hutton, a computer scientist, and Gabri Possard, who is majoring in Science, Technology, and Society, screened a film they began in the freshmen Thinking Matters class, “What is Love?.” Titled A Voice to Isolde, the film offers a commentary on the medieval poem Tristan through dance and spoken word poetry. 

Senior and international relations major Joshua De Leon read from a series of poems he’d written to explore the consequences of the Philippine diaspora, with each poem focused on a different family member’s experience. Where his academic research in the same field tends towards the large scale and expansive, he suggested afterwards, working on these poems helps humanize those abstract facts and figures. “Often some of the most powerful moments are the hyper-specific, and they can sometimes tell you something about a reality than something big and grandiose might not,” he said. 

For Alyssa Vann, who studies comparative literature and computer science, the search for ways to supplement the standard analytical essay took her into virtual reality, designing and coding VR experiences of poems by William Carlos Williams and Oscar Wilde. Because not all humanists have her coding skills, Vann is now working on a content platform called Deep Sea that anyone can use to create their own VR interpretations of literature.  

The next generation of humanist scholars

More traditional humanist research was also well represented at the showcase in the form of several flash talk sessions. 

History major Holly Dayton, for example, shared an overview of her senior thesis, which saw her exploring archives in the UK to better understand the role that London theater played in British lives during the First World War. While many productions were of poor quality and hence have received little scholarly attention, they were tremendously popular. “My thesis argues for an expanded understanding of the purpose of theatre, from one that is purely artistic to one that has social and economic facets,” Dayton said. “Bad theatre is a really a great find for the curious cultural historian.” 

Truman Chen, also a senior in history, combined aspects of history, philosophy, aesthetics, and critical theory to offer a new lens on the failure of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the social and political consequences of that failure. “Discourse on Chinese politics often largely neglects the deeply complex and radically diverse experiences of actual Chinese people,” he observed. 

Among the audience for Chen’s presentation was his thesis mentor, Professor of Chinese History Tom Mullaney, who also oversaw several other projects featured at the event.

“In terms of quality and depth of work, what I’ve seen in the student panels today rivals panels I’ve seen at the American Historical Association, the Association for Asian Studies, and the History of Science Society; it’s that good,” he suggested. 

Key to students’ success has been introducing them as early as freshman year to what high quality humanities research looks like, said Mullaney. That empowers them to go beyond set assignments and start asking their own questions, and gives them the skills they need to reframe their investigations as they unearth material that challenges what they, and everyone else, has always assumed. 

“Sometimes we go to student presentations like these out of a sense of support,” he added, “But I quickly realized today that I’m not here just out of support – I’m here because I’m learning and my mind is being stretched in very different directions.”