Before she was awarded an undergraduate research fellowship from the Wolf Humanities Center—Penn’s hub for interdisciplinary humanities research and programming—Roseline Gray, C’23, had little experience collaborating with scholars in the arts.
“I hadn’t really engaged with researchers in art history or literature, and I had never come into contact with musicology at all,” says Gray, a senior majoring in international relations and Russian and Eastern European Studies.
The opportunity for academic interaction with peers from different disciplines is the biggest perk of being one of the 11 Wolf Humanities Center Undergraduate Research Fellows for 2022-2023, according to Gray. Every year, these fellowships support about a dozen undergraduate students’ independent research projects stemming from widely varying subject areas but rooted in one overarching theme, with the program culminating in a day-long conference during which they present their work. In the months leading up to this year’s conference, held March 31 and titled “The World We Inherit,” fellows met weekly to share and workshop their research on the theme of “heritage.”
“Hearing how researchers in other areas pull from the humanities to build arguments about the visible impact of the past on the present brought fresh perspectives to the table and made a huge difference in the way my project turned out,” says Gray, whose presentation focused on historical narratives tied to the Russian decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022.
Julia Verkholantsev, Associate Professor of Russian and East European Studies and Director of this year’s Undergraduate Humanities Forum, says “capacious” themes are chosen intentionally.
“It’s not about everyone’s projects fitting in perfectly with the category,” she says. “The theme encourages applicants to think about their research in terms that might not have been obvious at first. It’s about making connections so that among their broad interests in the humanities, they find some intersection when they engage with each other, regardless of discipline.”
In addition to pursuing their research projects, Wolf Undergraduate Fellows participate in a series of events connected to the forum theme. This year, those included a visit by Pakistani-American visual artist Shahzia Sikander, whose work explores cultural identity and colonial and postcolonial histories; a tour of Penn’s Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts; and a trip to the Penn Museum to learn about collecting, preserving, and displaying archaeological finds and artifacts.
“Staying engaged in so many ways was heartening,” says Aili Waller, C’24, a junior majoring in art history with a global medieval studies minor whose project involved using genealogy to develop biographies for unrecognized 19th-century American women artists. “A lot of academic research is solitary—you’re reading at the library alone, or researching in an archive alone, or at your computer writing alone. It’s been very encouraging to realize that everybody else is doing that same solitary work, so then when you come together as an academic community, you feel this new camaraderie.”
Beyond creating this sense of community, Waller says, the forum helped her hone a new skill: evaluating her own and her peers’ work.
“At our very last workshopping meeting, we all kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Wow, we’re really good at this now,’” she recalls. “We now understand how to analyze a draft—how to look at the structure and figure out the most constructive pieces of advice, where an argument could be clearer, and what parts should be expanded on. These are important skills, and I don’t know of anywhere else I would have been able to build this ability to critically analyze my own and other people’s works in progress.”
The theme for the 2023-2024 Wolf Humanities Forum is “revolution.” To learn more, visit wolfhumanities.upenn.edu.