Exploring heritage in all corners of the humanities

Fellows of the 2022-2023 Undergraduate Humanities Forum share their collaborative research on ‘The World We Inherit.’

Before she was awarded an undergraduate research fellowship from the Wolf Humanities Center—Penn’s hub for interdisciplinary humanities research and programming—Roseline Gray 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 fourth-year majoring in international relations and Russian and Eastern European studies.

Roseline Gray.
Fourth-year student Roseline Gray. (Image: Brooke Sietinsons)

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 in March 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.

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, a third-year 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.

This story is by Karen Brooks. Read more at OMNIA.

Homepage image: Detail of “Pleasure Pillars” by Shahzia Sikander.