Humanities Research Opens Students’ – and Professor’s – Eyes

Catherine LeBlanc and Leah Thirkill spent last summer reading Victor Hugo’sNotre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame).

Although you may picture them sitting by the beach leisurely paging through the novel, the scene and purpose for their reading was much different. Instead, the students were on campus conducting humanities research alongside Briana Lewis, assistant professor of the Department of Modern and Classical Languages.

LeBlanc and Thirkill, both freshmen at the time, conducted this research as part of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant for Collaborative Undergraduate Research in the Humanities, a grant the College received in 2013. Each six- to 10-week grant supports student-faculty collaborative research in the humanities.

“Being on the Steering Committee and seeing the variety of projects encouraged me to think about how it could apply to my work,” Lewis explains. “In the foreign languages, we have an extra hurdle when involving students in research, because the students need to have the necessary language skills. I was motivated to create our own model of how this could work, and it ended up going very well.”

For their research project, Lewis tasked the students with reading Notre-Dame de Paris – in French – and looking for certain themes. The ultimate goal was to connect their findings with Lewis’ past research.

“The first week, we did a really intensive study on background information about author Victor Hugo and my past research,” Lewis says. “Then we spent four weeks reading and taking notes chapter by chapter. We studied themes such as women, vision, who’s seeing whom when and how that is gendered. It took other directions too, such as the ambiguity between the living and the dead. It was all interconnected.”

When LeBlanc, a French major and history minor, first learned about this research opportunity, she admits that she didn’t know how she would conduct humanities research.

“When you think about research, you usually think about microscopes and test tubes. Humanities is different, so I wondered what I really would be doing,” she says. “But I quickly learned valuable research skills. I had some previous experience analyzing text, but I had never done it with so large of a text with so much depth.”

“Research isn’t typically thought about in the languages. But this experience – as a freshman – allowed me to see what I can do with language in a master’s program or beyond,” adds Thirkill, who is double majoring in French and psychology.

Although the students are taking a break from their research this summer, they will be digging back into it this fall as they work with Lewis to prepare for a conference at Princeton University in November. According to Lewis, the conference, “the Nineteenth-Century French Studies Colloquium,” is the top conference for 19th century French studies in the country.

“I probably wouldn’t be presenting on Notre-Dame de Paris if it weren’t for the work Catherine and Leah did last summer,” Lewis says. “This was my first time doing summer research with students, and it pushed me in a different direction as a scholar. Their work definitely advanced my research.

“Working with Catherine and Leah also helped me as a teacher,” she adds. “In the fall, I am teaching a new research methods course for the modern languages department, and this experience has very much informed the way I will teach research at a much more student-focused level. I have a clearer sense of what I need to articulate in the form of a course.”

Learn more about student-faculty humanities research at Allegheny.

— Heather Grubbs