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A Summer Dive into Research

Story by
Nancy Joseph
September 2014Perspectives Newsletter

After two ferry rides and seven hours of driving, Tahoma Wrubleski was having second thoughts. He was headed to Bella Bella, British Columbia to attend the Qatuwas Festival, a gathering of Northwest tribes to mark the end of their annual Tribal Canoe Journey. Event organizers had invited Wrubleski to attend as a volunteer, but as an outsider he still had misgivings. Then he remembered his UW professors encouraging him to take risks. “I could have turned back and headed south,” he says, “but I knew I’d never forgive myself if I did.”

 UW Summer Institute in the Arts and Humanities

Students listen as a classmate rehearses her presentation for the research symposium held at the end of the Summer Institute. Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

Wrubleski, a UW senior majoring in Latin American and Caribbean studies, ventured to Bella Bella to engage in research as part of the UW Summer Institute in the Arts and Humanities (SIAH), now in its eleventh year. Created by the Undergraduate Research Program in collaboration with the Simpson Center for the Humanities, SIAH is a rigorous nine-week introduction to research in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. A team of four faculty members works closely with 20 students as they pursue individual projects around an annual theme. Past themes have included disease outbreaks, borderlands, and the media’s impact on the individual. This year’s theme, Native Modernities, encouraged students to explore issues of indigeneity in the contemporary world.

“We wanted to resist the idea that Indigenous or Native peoples are somehow anachronistic or out of place in this time, and to rethink the way that Native peoples are part of everyday politics and culture,” explains Tony Lucero, associate professor of international studies, who developed the theme with María Elena García, director of the Comparative History of Ideas (CHID) program and associate professor of international studies and CHID. Joining them on the teaching team were Dian Million, associate professor of American Indian studies and Canadian studies, and Annie Dwyer, CHID lecturer and a recently minted PhD in the Department of English.

The students were a diverse group, ranging from sophomores who had never done individual research to seniors who had completed senior theses. Some jumped at the unusual research opportunity; others had to overcome considerable self-doubt. “Many students, especially some who are first-generation college students, take themselves out of programs like this,” García explains. "A few actually came up to me and asked, ‘Is this summer institute really for me?’ We wanted them to realize that they can take risks and find support for this kind of work.”

 UW Summer Institute in the Arts and Humanities

María Elena García offers a suggestion during a run-through of a student presentation. Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

The first few weeks of the institute involved extensive reading and discussion of Indigenous issues, to provide students with the vocabulary and methodological tools necessary for their research. Then the teaching team advised the students individually as they developed proposals, prepared outlines, composed abstracts, and completed their projects.

The timeline was breathtakingly short for such an endeavor, which is why the focus was on process rather than the final product. “We didn’t want the students to think they had to complete this perfect thing,” says García.  “What they turned in was still a work in progress.  We wanted them to know that this is really about looking ahead, looking at what they’re able to do and where they can go from here. We wanted them to use this opportunity to learn and grow.”

The faculty also wanted the students to view their peers as valuable resources. Group exercises throughout the program encouraged students to share ideas and perspectives. “In the humanities and social sciences, students are often expected to work in splendid isolation and figure things out on their own,” says Lucero. “But it doesn’t have to be that way. One of the things we wanted to emphasize is that learning is always collaborative and collective. Even if you think you’re doing things by yourself, you’re not.”

We didn’t want the students to think they had to complete this perfect thing. ...We wanted them to know that this is really about looking ahead, looking at what they’re able to do and where they can go from here.

Wrubleski certainly found that to be true.  “There is no way I could have achieved as much as I did within such a short amount of time if I didn’t have an amazing group of fellow students and faculty to bounce ideas off of and get feedback from,” he says. “A lot of times I just needed to clarify my own thoughts by talking through my ideas with someone who was researching similar themes but from a different vantage point.”

The trip to Bella Bella, halfway to Alaska, came midway through the program. Wrubleski was researching the impact of the annual Tribal Canoe Journey—reintroduced in the past 20 years—on masculine identities among Northwest tribes, and the Qatuwas Festival was a unique opportunity to interview participants about the experience. Despite his qualms about coming in as an outsider, his passion for the topic carried him through.

Past SIAH participants, speaking to the 2014 students early on, stressed the importance of finding something that matters personally when choosing a research topic. “That message got conveyed loud and clear,” says Lucero. “A lot of students switched their topics entirely as a result of that advice, and it made all the difference.”

 UW Summer Institute in the Arts and Humanities

Tahoma Wrubleski, center, poses for a photograph with fellow Qatuwas Festival attendees Dennine Reid (Heiltsuk) and Thomas Wamiss Jr. (Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw). Wamiss was one of the young men that Wrubleski interviewed for his research project. Media credit: Natasha Wilson

One such student was Anna Nguyen, a double major in political science and history. Nguyen explored the complicated relationship that Native American veterans had with the U.S. military during and after the Vietnam War. “Deciding what I wanted to focus on, there was this pull between what seemed doable and what I was truly interested in,” says Nguyen. “I picked what I was truly interested in, and that made my experience in SIAH infinitely better.”

Nguyen’s source materials included veterans’ memoirs and Vietnam War documentaries. Other students—whose topics ranged from the debate over wild horses on Yakima tribal lands to Palestinian Indigenous identity—studied scholarly texts, reviewed media coverage, conducted interviews, and often incorporated their own experiences.

A symposium on the final day of the summer institute brought together all 20 students to share their research in 10-minute presentations for an audience of faculty, staff, family, and friends. For both the students and the teaching team, it was a fitting culmination to the intense nine-week experience.

“There was a sense of anticipation, a sense of excitement in the air that final day,” says Lucero, who admits that the teaching team was nearly as nervous as the students. “We’re not exactly proud parents, but not too far off from that. Some students were real revelations in terms of what they were able to produce. Many of them started with very conventional ideas of what a research project could be, but when we encouraged them to take risks, they really took that seriously. We’re just so proud of how far they’ve come.”