Honing in on the Humanities

June 2, 2011, 1:20 a.m.

Research within the humanities can seem like a daunting task. Students are used to quarter sessions, where theories fly by in a conceptual whirlwind of midterms and profoundly caffeinated essay writing. In classes, it’s expected to spend one week analyzing a book, two weeks on a social phenomenon, three on an entire epoch. So, how does one escape the curse of the cursory?

The Stanford Humanities Center is one answer. A reclusive but beautiful study area with a courtyard of whimsical plant life and gurgling fountains, the Center is an often-overlooked intellectual haven that supports undergraduates pursuing research.

Honing in on the Humanities
(CAROLINE MARKS/The Stanford Daily)

Stocked with visiting and on-campus professors, international artists, graduate students, undergraduate researchers and last but not least, luncheons, where students and academics can converse over Indian food and brownie squares, the Center is a bonding site for those who want to engage deeply in research questions.

Four undergraduate students, each paired with one of the Center’s fellows, spend an entire year at the Center developing a single topic. Fellows are academic giants in a diverse range of specialized fields, selected from a pool of nearly 250 applicants annually. Although their academic prestige might seem intimidating, they give the students who work with them the chance to travel deep into the complexities of an intellectual arena, look at a concept squarely in the face and decide if it needs some reconstructive surgery.

Students usually tackle one aspect of their fellow’s research and are paid approximately $1,400 per quarter for 10 hours of work per week. To conclude the experience, the students present their work during one of the Center’s weekly show-off-your-research lunches. These presentations took place this year at a symposium at the Center on May 25.

Undergraduates often reap the benefits of their fellows’ academic connections and extensive access to research facilities on campus. For example, Harley Adams ’11, who is studying colonial archives of the Indian Ocean with fellow Giorgio Riello, has been working on a quantitative spreadsheet of every factory in the Indian Ocean from 1500 to 1800. Under Riello’s tutelage, he was able to work with the Spatial History Lab to digitally render this information on an interactive map, showing geographic and chronological changes.

“What’s interesting is that this information has never been collected in such a way before, centered in one place,” Adams said, describing the approach as a new way to consider a place’s history. “Through just looking at the Indian Ocean, you can see the entire world.”

This project provides students with an extensive research opportunity without having to commit to completing an honors thesis.

“I ended up not doing an honors thesis, because I’m double majoring, so this is my way of doing a mini thesis,” said Richard Sajor ’11, who is currently researching the perception of death in Medieval London with fellow Amy Appleford.

For Sajor, the chance to explore his topic at the Center helped satisfy his intellectual curiosity in a way that classes could not.

“I’m somebody who has taken all the Medieval courses that I could…this filled in a lot of places where I felt like there weren’t enough classes,” Sajor said.

Similarly, for Elizabeth Rasmussen ’12, the Center was an academic jackpot for her interest in political trends in Peru. Rasmussen worked with fellow Cecilia Mendez to investigate civil wars in 19th century Peru, which she said she would have been unable to explore through traditional coursework.

Having exhausted Stanford’s language courses, Rasmussen found an opportunity to advance her language skills at the Center by completing her reading, writing and conversations with Mendez in Spanish.

Although some students come to the Center with highly specific research interests, many find a niche through the help of their mentor. Elias Rodriquez ’13 started his first research project without a clear-cut path. However, the guidance of his fellow, Heather Love, led him to a thesis on the transience of identity in Virginia Woolf’s Waves, which relates to her topic, the power of group stigmatization.

“She recognized what I was interested in and pushed me in certain directions,” Rodriquez said. “Now, I feel like a lot of questions she asks are the questions I ask about all my other papers…She helped me figure out a method of better intellectual engagement, just by virtue of interacting with her.”

The fellows not only serve as academic guideposts for students but also give students confidence in their intellectual passions. Adams and Riello look at 17th century drawings of Canton ports just for the enjoyment of admiring and engaging in art. Rasmussen and Mendez typically start off their meetings with conversations in Spanish about the latest in South American politics.

Adams described how the fellows help students see the long-term value of their work.

“As well as giving me actual quantifiable help, it’s also an inspiration to know that if you work on something, you can get to a level where it really is rewarding,” Adams said.

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