This is the second post in a two-part series about undergraduate research. Last time, I focused on the so-called “hard” sciences, but now I want to write about an area of research that typically gets far less attention—social science and the humanities. In the stereotyped version of research, people in white lab coats stare solemnly into microscopes or operate complex contraptions with unpronounceable names, but this is hardly the case, even in the hard sciences. Things are radically different in social science and humanities, where serious research can consist of talking to someone about the issues in his or her community, or even watching a popular movie or TV show.
As a science major with a primarily quantitative background, I don’t know much about qualitative fields like the humanities, so earlier this month, I talked to Dr. Tom Ferraro, a professor in Duke’s English Department. Dr. Ferraro came highly recommended from a friend who had taken some of his classes. The moment I met him, I understood why. He was the quintessential college professor. The frames of his glasses were wide and round—like a cartoon owl—and he had a thin beard, almost a goatee. Before I could ask my first question, he rambled intelligently about the humanities for at least ten minutes.
“We investigate questions that are about history, the human condition,” he said, “But we also try to embody that in what we do.”
He went on to explain that humanities research attempts to “study a moment in time” by approaching it from a variety of perspectives—reading historical documents, looking at art, thinking philosophically, and doing lots and lots of writing.
“Writing requires time by yourself,” he said. “There’s a kind of monastic, scholarly end of it.”
Although I have never done humanities research, I know about taking a diverse approach that involves lots and lots of writing. My senior thesis deals with the social side of ecology, and the research is primarily qualitative. It is a case study of the environmental beliefs, knowledge, and practices in the rural South African community where I did my DukeEngage project. Over the course of that project, I gathered as much information as possible about people’s interaction with their environment, using methods such as focus groups, interviews, surveys, and personal observations. Now I’m analyzing all that data, and once I’m finished, I’ll use the results to make recommendations about environmental education and volunteer programs in the community.
Working with qualitative methods has been a fascinating departure from what I’m used to, and it’s introduced me to new and exciting realms of academic research. According to Dr. Ferraro, relatively few undergraduates enter those realms, especially in his field.
“We have only 400 humanities majors,” he said.
That’s less than 10% of undergraduates, yet what they lack in number, they make up in creativity.
“They’re overrepresented when it comes to cool stuff,” he said.
Thanks to a new grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, students will have a lot more support for all the cool stuff they’re doing. And faculty, too. Under the Humanities Writ Large initiative, the humanities at Duke will get $6 million over the next five years, which will go towards interdisciplinary projects, inter-institutional work, residency for visiting faculty and post-docs, and of course, undergraduate research.
“Humanities Writ Large is an organized effort to bring specialized attention to the kind of collaborative and creative work that is already going on in the humanities,” said Dr. Ferraro.
Later he added, “For me, what would be most exciting about what Humanities Writ Large makes possible is the involvement of the undergraduates with the faculty who are really good at this type of work…It allows for a kind of coming together that revitalizes what the liberal arts were originally supposed to do.”
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