Undergrad scholars soar in new program

HUMA 495 student Ella Reedman presents her research on the impacts of Harry Potter character Hermione Granger on young women’s self-identity and academic futures. Credit: Kevin Tunnicliffe.

At a small TEDx-style conference hosted at UVic earlier this summer, a dozen or so undergraduate students took to the podium to share with the audience the capstone research projects they had created in an upper-year Humanities course, HUMA 495: Sharing Humanities Research. 

Unbeknownst to the audience, this was the first-ever cohort to complete the Humanities Scholars program — a rather singular academic program launched in September 2020 that promises exceptional students unique learning opportunities, hands-on experiences and direct mentorship from award-winning faculty.

What the audience did notice was that the projects being shared were as creative as they were sophisticated: a Dungeons and Dragons-style role-playing game based on an epic poem from the 16th century; an interactive art installation through which participants engage in a critique of Enlightenment ideals in philosophy; a policy brief for elected officials that outlines common practices undermining women’s reproductive autonomy in Canada’s medical system; and the list goes on.

A photo of the audience, applauding.
Ovations from the audience. Credit: Kevin Tunnicliffe.

Sage Benet, a fourth-year French and Francophone Studies student, chose for her capstone project a meta-analysis of another project she had completed for a Jamie Cassels Undergraduate Research Award (JCURA) the semester before, titled “What's In a Name? The Impacts of BIPOC Names on Self-Perception and Experiences in the Workforce and Academia.” For that project, Benet had interviewed students who identified as Black, Indigenous and Persons of Colour (BIPOC) about their experience of other peoples’ reactions to their names in various settings. She then wove these reported experiences together with accounts of her own to create an autobiographic and auto-ethnographic reportage littéraire — a genre better known in English as literary journalism or creative nonfiction.

For her capstone Scholars project, Benet revisited this earlier work by measuring her readers’ responses to it to determine the creative format’s strengths, weaknesses and unique impacts. “I wanted to show why creative research deserves the same respect and prestige in the world of academia as traditional research papers,” Benet says.

Few students at this point in their academic journey would have the perspicacity and control over their subject matter—let alone the chutzpah—to question the very foundation upon which traditional Humanities degrees are built: the academic essay. And to do so as a final project for a Humanities degree? Clearly, this ain’t your Humanities of old.

“HUMA 495 is very much a student-centered and student-driven course, which helps to push the boundaries of traditional academic teaching and research in new directions,” says literary theorist Stephen Ross, who designed and taught the course. “In the past, Humanities researchers disseminated their work only in scholarly journals or books, whereas today we work with a much wider range of audiences, platforms and approaches. It’s essential that our courses provide students with the skills and independence of thought to thrive in today’s world.”

A recipe for success

For Maya Linsley, a fourth-year English major, the course’s formula was certainly a recipe for success.

“No other course has given me such complete freedom to pursue my intellectual interests,” she notes. “What’s amazing about the Scholars program is that instructors trust students to carry their visions to completion — and, while we do receive guidance from our professors, we’re ultimately responsible for our own work. And I love it!”

Student Maya Linsley stands in front of a powerpoint presentation, sharing her research
Linsley. Credit: Kevin Tunnicliffe.

With three courses taught by some of the Faculty’s leading scholars, including Associate Dean Research Alexandra D’Arcy and celebrated historian John Lutz, the Scholars program teaches students from varied academic and social backgrounds how to combine their different perspectives to find solutions to complex cultural, social, political and environmental problems.

Last semester, HUMA 495 welcomed nine guest presenters from across the university to help realize this interdisciplinary vision — including Ry Moran, associate university librarian - reconciliation at UVic and founding director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation; Chase Joynt, gender studies professor and celebrated filmmaker; Charlotte Schallié, Chair of Germanic and Slavic Studies and world-renowned holocaust historian; and Jordan Stanger-Ross, historian and nationally recognized public scholar.

The overall result is an education that complements and enriches training in other more technically oriented disciplines, and sets students up for success throughout their academic journey and beyond.

“The Scholars program enables you to meet professors and students from all over the university and learn from many different disciplines while gaining skills that will carry you throughout your degree,” says Jami Gisel, a fourth-year history major. “This was something I would never have gotten to do otherwise. I had such a great time in the program and I am eternally gratefully to have been given this opportunity.”

A survey about the Scholars program as a whole produced many similarly ecstatic reviews.

“The student-oriented approach to teaching fostered a really close relationship between everyone in the program, and to this day I feel very grateful for the friendships and academic growth I’ve seen as a result,” says fourth-year philosophy student Ella Cuskelly.

“The program not only taught me about academic research, but introduced me to a passionate, lively community of scholars—undergraduates and professors alike—who inspired me every day to pursue my passions and make the most of my university experience. If any readers get the chance to participate in the Scholars program, I have two short words: do it!”

HUMA 495 students pose for a quick group photo after their end-of-year research fair in April. Credit: Kevin Tunnicliffe.

To learn more about the Scholars program, visit www.uvic.ca/humanities/scholars/


Article by Philip Cox