By Jess Dankenbring, ’17
Amanda Haislip, ’14, has often questioned the intersection of science and spirituality, and how the relationship has evolved over time.
“I’m really interested in how people before us thought about the same kind of questions that we think about every day,” she says.
This past summer, Haislip received an Arts and Sciences Summer Research Fellowship, part of the UR Summer Fellowships program, to delve into the intersection of scientific advancements and religious movements, as well as psychology as a developing field of science. Her research focused on John Armstrong Chaloner, a writer who performed psychological experiments on himself during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After Chaloner’s family committed him to a psychiatric hospital, he fled to Virginia to continue his experiments and write a book about communicating with an old friend he believed to be in hell.
“I enjoy finding how people deal with reconciling new scientific and technological advancements with how they’re already living their lives,” Haislip says. “John Armstrong Chaloner embodies a lot of these bigger questions dealing with the larger cultural movements in America during this period. I’m using him as a lens through which I can look at the greater picture of how people reconciled new scientific advancements; the emergence of psychology as an academic discipline and as a popular idea; and their religion and the big questions people ask — ‘Why are we here? What’s our purpose in life?’”
Part of her research involved visiting the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond, Va., to uncover primary sources for her project and then analyze them in a very different context.
“It’s different from a classroom setting because you’re not given the sources — you have to find them,” she says. “And second of all, you’re really not given any direction. You’re coming up with your own research questions and nobody’s telling you what to look for in the primary sources. It’s a lot of close reading and analyzing specific word choices and what they reveal about my studies, American cultural and intellectual history.”
In her search for source material, she found one key piece of evidence from David Leary, a psychology professor at Richmond and a William James expert. James was a well-known American psychologist who, as Haislip discovered, had a connection to Chaloner.
“The letter I have in my primary source from William James to John Armstrong Chaloner in defense of his sanity isn’t in the official collection of William James’ letters,” she says. “That was kind of exciting to find another newer connection to somebody as important as William James during this period.”
Throughout the summer, Haislip came to understand the amount of work that goes into studying history — and the challenges that can arise. Reading for eight hours a day can take a lot of energy, she says, but the results are worth it.
“Being a historian or a researcher in a historical field is definitely more difficult than I feel most people would think,” she says. “You’re asking different questions about the sources and you’re constantly having to take in a lot of information and not let it overwhelm you and set you off track of the focus of your essay or research project.”