Bridging Research and Public: Humanities Students Engage Diverse Audiences

Bridging Research and Public: Humanities Students Engage Diverse Audiences

Photo of Humanities students and staff

By María Carrasquilla
The 2024 UChicagoGRAD’s Research Speaks and Transcending Boundaries Symposium: Resilient Research: Diverse Approaches, Unified Solutions, provided essential forums for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars to present their research to the university community, their peers, and the broader public. This year’s events featured presentations from students across campus, including notable contributions from four Humanities graduate students: Natalie Cortez, Caitlin Kropp, Yin Cai, and Yves Cao. Cortez, Kropp, and Cai gave presentations for Research Speaks, which was held in partnership with the Field Museum, while Cao spoke at the Sixth Annual Transcending Boundaries Symposium, organized by UChicagoGRAD’s Diversity Advisory Board. 

Research Speaks

Natalie Cortez
Cortez, a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature, presented the early stages of her dissertation proposal on representations of milk in Latin American literature, film, and performance art. During a Research Speaks presentation exercise, Cortez was paired with a PhD candidate in Immuno-engineering. This exercise required students to present their research to each other.
 “When I explained my research to my partner for the first time, I could tell by my partner’s reaction that I wasn’t clear about why my work mattered outside my own field,” said Cortez. “During my second attempt, I had to think of a better way to describe my research. So, I drew from auto theory and autoethnography, which intertwine personal experience with scholarly theory. By linking milk with colonialism and development and illustrating how these concepts affected my family’s history, I could communicate more effectively with my partner.”
A question from a UChicago alumnus about her research methodology led Cortez to a critical realization. “My topic required more time and expertise than I possessed,” she said. “The breadth of my focus, drawing from literature, the arts, history, and anthropology, was challenging to manage within my timeframe and academic goals.”
Inspired by the narrowly focused research of a Physics student, Cortez refined her approach to concentrate on avant-garde Latin American artists, such as Flávio de Carvalho, whose artistic and literary body of work offers a critical perspective on modern society, the human condition, and the nature of consuming and eating other animals. “I realized that a more field-specific approach could significantly benefit my work,” she said.
Caitlin Kropp
Kropp, a PhD candidate in Egyptology in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) Department, focused her presentation on demystifying The Egyptian Book of the Dead—a compendium of spells intended to protect Egyptians in the afterlife. Kropp’s dissertation involves a cross-comparative analysis of Egyptian templates of The Book of the Dead, examining the transmission and customization of these texts and the mediums in which they were produced.
During her presentation, Kropp engaged her audience by gauging their familiarity with The Book of the Dead and explaining its purpose and the use of placeholders for personalization. “These spells were commissioned, and numerous copies derived from a master template, which included placeholders like ‘John Doe,’ allowing scribes to accurately replicate spells and inserting the name of the individual who commissioned the spell,” she explained. “A spell with a name was that much more powerful.”
Engaging with peers from diverse academic backgrounds, including Biomechanics and Chemical Engineering, Kropp found significant value in describing her work to a general audience. To make her research more relatable, for example, Kropp shared a sandwich metaphor used by her mom to explain it to her audience.
Your final, commissioned The Book of the Dead is like your final sandwichindividual spells are like the different ingredients you can swap in and out,” she said. “The Book of the Dead is not a ‘book’ per se, but made-to-order items, spells, that were different for every person.” In her Research Speaks and future presentations to the general public, Kropp aims to shift perceptions of museums as static entities, highlighting them instead as dynamic spaces where ongoing research continually yields new discoveries.
Yin Cai
Cai, a PhD candidate in the East Asian Languages and Civilizations Department, presented her research on material culture and the engagement of nature in textile productions from the 18th and 19th centuries in what is now modern-day China. Having worked at the Field Museum before starting her PhD at UChicago, Cai was excited to present at the museum’s China Hall, where she had contributed research previously.
“Coming back to the Field Museum to present my current research felt like a homecoming,” Cai said. “It was stimulating to find new connections with the objects.”
Part of Cai’s dissertation focuses on a set of textiles made of special natural materials, which are not currently on display but are also in the Field Museum’s collection. She was able to draw parallels between her dissertation and the objects she discussed during her presentation, highlighting the significance of understanding early-modern China as a multi-ethnic empire where the Imperial family was an ethnic minority.
“I study the textiles and materials that belonged to the imperial family and also to ordinary people, examining how representations of animals and nature varied through motifs, vocabulary, and meaning,” she said.
During her presentation, Cai acknowledged that her scholarly work resonated with a public audience. “Speaking only with other academics, we sometimes feel our research is focused on the past, lacking practical relevance in the present day,” she said. “However, this presentation to the public was reassuring. My audience was genuinely interested in learning about historical textiles and sustainable practices in early-modern China; they were intrigued by peacock feathers from hundreds of years ago, which I thought might only interest historians. People who attended my presentation were eager to learn more and explore potential connections between historical textiles and the everyday objects of their own, which was a very positive outcome.”

Transcending Boundaries Symposium
Resilient Research: Diverse Approaches, Unified Solutions


Yves Cao
At the Transcending Boundaries Symposium, Cao, who was a master’s degree student in Art History and now a recent graduate, presented their research on Jimmy De Sana, a queer artist who was marginalized in post-modern art historical discourse from the 1960s through the 1980s. Their research interrogates the intersections of Queer Theory and post-modern art history, which Cao argues are inadequately theorized together, emphasizing De Sana’s use of photography to depict gender as performative. This approach resonated with other post-modern artworks and artists from that time, including Cindy Sherman, but had significantly less exposure.
Cao highlighted the importance of being more mindful of academic jargon to enhance accessibility. During practice presentations, UChicagoGRAD mentors provided critical feedback, aiding Cao in refining their language for broader comprehension, which was helpful to their audience. “Stripping away Art History academic jargon helps clarify and break down my argument, especially as I think of my PhD applications and being aware that some selection committee members might not have a modern or postmodern art history background,” Cao said.
"The value of understanding how to present to a general audience allows researchers and presenters to share their work with individuals who may not be in their field of study or clearly understand the research topic by title and name alone,” said Loreal E. Robertson, Assistant Dean of Students for Diversity and Inclusion in the Division of the Humanities. “The presenters then have the opportunity and ability to share their amazing work with everyone in an approachable manner that can be understood and appreciated by the public, regardless of educational background or knowledge."
UChicagoGRAD's Oral Communication Programming helps graduate students and postdocs build public speaking skills and increase the impact of their scholarship. Research Speaks provides opportunities for UChicago graduate students and postdocs to share their findings with the university community and the wider public. Participants refine their communication skills and gain experience articulating complex problems and arguments through brief, accessible talks. By communicating their work beyond their intellectual communities, participants make a lasting impact on the world around us.
UChicagoGRAD’s Diversity Advisory Board’s (DAB) Transcending Boundaries Symposium is a student-led and organized research symposium designed to highlight the work of underrepresented minority graduate and postdoctoral scholars at the University of Chicago while building community among scholars of color on campus. DAB advises UChicagoGRAD and other administrative leaders in developing programs and resources related to diversity in graduate education and experience while also connecting campus-wide graduate student groups with each other and University leadership.
Related Content:
Research Speaks at the Field Museum: UChicagoGRAD hosted an afternoon of gallery talks and exploration at the first-ever Research Speaks event at the Field Museum of Chicago on Friday, April 5, 2024. Learn more.>>
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June 24, 2024