Thinking Like a Humanist

December 23, 2015
Humanities majors learn how to see the world from all angles

On a warm fall day, Sydney Niegos, ’16, steps off the subway and walks through Astoria, Queens, a neighborhood just across the East River from Manhattan. The area was an early center for American filmmaking, and you can still catch glimpses of that heritage in former studio buildings now converted to movie theaters and museums.

As Niegos walks along 35th Avenue toward the Museum of the Moving Image, she sees possibility. She’s a Texan by birth, but wonders if New York holds her future. Maybe she’ll work in film production, using colors, fabrics, music, and history to weave together a story. Maybe she’ll research the technology and narrative techniques of old films, trying to revive an appreciation for the artistry she believes is often lost in today’s blockbusters.

She’s starting to think like a humanist — a person who seeks to understand human life in its many forms, from philosophical knowledge to artistic expression to political structures.

Niegos is one of the University’s first Undergraduate Humanities Fellows, a new program that pairs a summer of faculty-mentored research with a semester-long collaborative course with English and film studies professor Abigail Cheever, history professor Joanna Drell, and students representing the full spectrum of humanities disciplines. Students are exposed to discussions and experiences that can broaden their thinking in their individual areas of focus. The course included a fall break trip to cultural institutions in New York City, which is how Niegos landed in Astoria.

Niegos’s research looked at freedom, power, and gender in the Alfred Hitchcock films Rear Window, North by Northwest, and Vertigo. When someone spends the better part of a year with such a narrow focus, one expects she has a hypothesis to guide her. Niegos had a purpose, of course, but small moments along the way — a conversation with a classmate, a guest speaker, seeing a play, or looking at a painting — have revealed new ideas.

“As humanities majors, we tend to say that we don’t really go out looking for knowledge,” she says. “Through research, we let all of these different things come together. We try and let knowledge find us.”

For instance, in a conversation with classmate Victoria Charles, ’16 — a political science major whose own research explores the history of black students at predominantly white universities like Richmond and questions what it means to exist in the margins of an institution’s narrative — Niegos learned how to make her research relatable to someone who had never seen Vertigo. Charles, in turn, was inspired by a visit to the Schomberg Center in Harlem, where an exhibit featuring movie posters, books, songs, and magazines that showcased black culture gave her a fresh perspective on freedom of expression in popular culture.

There’s also Rebecca Tribble, ’17, who spent her summer at an archeological site in Turkey and her fall trying to contextualize the terracotta figures found on site within ancient material culture. For her, a tour of the Frick Collection, an art museum on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, offered new insight into ideas of decorative arts and conceptions of visual culture, and the blurred lines between high art and craft. “As an art history major, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at high art,” she says. “However, craft objects have the potential to say a lot about the people who used, viewed, traded, and made them.”

Tribble could then lend her expertise to Emily Whitted, ’16, an English major who studied the treatment of handicrafts in Victorian literature during the industrial revolution. Whitted knew her work could only benefit from teasing out connections with other disciplines like art history and material culture.

These threads of knowledge helped each student find their way to new paths of inquiry in their research, but also a way of thinking that professors Cheever and Drell hope will stay with them well beyond published research and final grades.

It’s certainly playing out with Niegos. She’ll graduate in a few months, but she doesn't have that intensity that can so often consume seniors without a firm plan in place. She’s open to the unexpected, the possible paths she doesn’t yet know exist.

“I’m definitely attached to the idea of going a more creative route,” she says. “But, you know, professors always explain to you that your life does not always end up where you expect it to.”