A Question of OriginsPosted by admin on 11/08/10 • Categorized as Fall/Winter 2010
…and other compelling research adventures with McNair Scholars and their mentors.
By Susan Kasten
A provocative question about race prompted Ken Hodges’ research project: Were the ancient Egyptians black?
At first, the burgeoning sociologist and Beloit College junior felt drawn to investigate the debated heritage of King Tut and his contemporaries. After wading into this politically charged question, he emerged with a surprising conclusion. It was far more interesting to consider how the idea of Egypt as a black civilization symbolizes black pride and blackness for some African Americans today. What this past means to people, and how that meaning is expressed through the consumption of Afrocentric goods and ideas—those are the questions that drove Hodges through eight intense weeks of research as a McNair Scholar this past summer.
Because Associate Professor of Anthropology Shannon Fie’s archaeology and prehistory course led him to think about these ideas in the first place, Hodges asked her to serve as his mentor for the McNair Institute, a summer research program. In Fie’s course, students had briefly considered different representations of King Tut, ranging from ebony-skinned sculptures to a fairly recent forensic reconstruction with fair skin.
This comparison piqued Hodges’ interest. An African-American, he grew up encountering images of black pharaohs in clothing and artwork in the homes of family and friends, though he hadn’t stopped to fully consider their meaning.
“I started realizing that this was representing something,” Hodges says. “Why do people consume these products?”
Hodges had a chance to peel back the layers through The Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program, which prepares undergraduates to enter doctoral programs. After taking a spring semester course on research methods, Hodges drafted his proposal, and started working with Fie in earnest last summer.
“At first I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’” Hodges says of the McNair Institute. “But Shannon gave me room. She didn’t tell me what to do or how to think. She helped me figure out how to approach the topic and guided me toward a concise research project.”
Fie beams when she talks about Hodges’ accomplishments over the summer.
“He started out with the idea of evaluating whether the history of a black Egypt was true,” Fie explains. “But he ended up finding out that that question wasn’t nearly as interesting as who was proposing it, who was taking part in the counter arguments, and how people participated in the discussion, sometimes through the consumption of objects.”
Like many of her colleagues who worked with students at the intersection of more than one academic discipline, Fie says Hodges’ project steered her toward ideas she wants to pursue further, both in her scholarship and her teaching.
“It was fun working with Ken because he’s dealing with sociological literature that is related, but also slightly different from the anthropological literature that I’m comfortable with,” says Fie. “So it was a place to explore and reexamine some of the connections between sociology and anthropology.”
Twenty Beloit College students participated in the McNair program last year. Eight, including Hodges, were McNair junior scholars, who completed spring semester research workshops, paired up with a Beloit faculty mentor, and spent eight weeks on campus over the summer refining their research. As their projects evolved, students gave weekly updates to the larger McNair faculty-student community. In those settings, students say constructive criticism helped them prepare for a final symposium, in which they presented their work and fielded questions from a broader all-campus audience.
Twelve students completed their second year in the program as senior McNair Scholars, most going off-campus to serve as research assistants to faculty working at other institutions.
Beloit started offering the McNair program in 1995, when it received funding through the U.S. Department of Education’s TRIO program. The program targets either first-generation college students who meet federal low-income guidelines or students who are underrepresented in graduate education. All of the program’s efforts, including special workshops that help participants choose, apply to, and pay for graduate school, support one goal: to open doors to graduate study.
Full-time Beloit students are eligible if they fit TRIO criteria, maintain a minimum 3.3 GPA, and have a strong desire to pursue doctoral work.
“It’s unusual to have a McNair Program at a liberal arts college,” says Aurora Chang, Beloit’s McNair program director. “Beloit has one of the highest ratios of sending students to graduate school. I think we’re so successful because so much attention is paid to students here.”
Although Beloit’s program may seem relatively small, McNair supports two of the college’s foundational values—the importance of a diverse academic community and strong faculty-student mentoring relationships. As Beloit prepares to implement changes to its curriculum next fall, which will include—among other things—a required capstone experience of all students, programs like McNair also offer a chance for younger faculty to strengthen one-on-one mentoring skills.
“When you’re training to be an academic, you go through graduate school and most of your work is about how to research your own topics,” says Jennifer Esperanza, an assistant professor of anthropology who joined Beloit in 2008. She mentored her first McNair Scholar this year.
“It was a great experience for me because Beloit is one of those institutions that prides itself in small student-to-teacher ratios and working with students more intimately,” she says. “This was my chance to get that kind of training because I’d never worked with a student that intensely.”
Esperanza mentored psychology major Dominique Clayton’12, who was in one of her first courses at Beloit. Esperanza later became Clayton’s advisor for her anthropology minor.
Dominique Clayton’s McNair project focused on elementary school teachers’ perceptions of African American Vernacular English, a hybrid dialect rooted in African American history and spoken mainly by African Americans today.
Clayton came to Beloit straight from the Chicago Public Schools, with initial plans to prepare to become a pediatrician. But her own experiences and those of her classmates growing up also sparked her interest in improving the quality of elementary school education.
“I grew up speaking the African American dialect, and my teachers had a negative perception of it,” she says. “That affected how I learned and how I interacted with my teachers. Other students who spoke it shared those experiences.”
Clayton’s research found that teachers sometimes develop low expectations of children who speak AAVE. This persists, Clayton says, even though AAVE contains its own lexicon, phonetics, word structure, grammar, and syntax. Her findings showed that awareness about the dialect is growing, but many teachers still don’t fully understand or acknowledge it.
After learning more about different dialects and languages in Esperanza’s Linguistic Anthropology course, Clayton saw the McNair Program as a way to fully investigate this topic, but her closeness to the subject sometimes made it more complicated.
“There were times when I had a strong emotional reaction to what I read,” she says. “I had to accept my own experiences and use them to my advantage. That’s something my mentors really helped me get through.”
Partly because Esperanza was expecting a child last summer, and also because her project had clear applications in education, Clayton had the good fortune of working with two Beloit faculty mentors.
“My role with Dominique from the beginning was one of getting her to articulate what it was she wanted to know,” says Kathy Greene, associate professor of education and youth studies, Clayton’s second mentor. “This is how I lead an inquiry project in my introductory education class, and that’s what my science methods course is all about: figuring out how to ask, identify, articulate—sort of unpack your question,” she says. “Only after you do that can you start your actual inquiry.”
Greene smiles as she talks about “the incredible journey” she saw Clayton make last spring and summer. “She was the epitome of a McNair Scholar,” Greene says. “They are not students who merely do what they’re told, or study what they’re told to study. I feel like we didn’t lead her as much as we walked along with her as guides and sounding boards.”
Clayton’s other mentor seconds that admiration.
“It’s been wonderful watching Dominique blossom,” says Esperanza. “She developed a research project, tackled it, and was able to exude a kind of confidence about her research skills and her data in a way that I wouldn’t see as much over the course of a regular semester, because it was intense.”
Death and Dying
For his part this past summer, junior McNair Scholar Nico Salas’12 explored how America’s health system shapes death and dying.
“I wanted to find out where the cultural attitudes behind death come from and how we choose to opt for end-of-life treatments,” the health and society major says.
The subject reflects his interests in health care and his intention to practice medicine someday, although Salas’ summer project helped him see that alternative rather than traditional medicine would suit him best.
Salas was already working with Professor of Anthropology Nancy Krusko as his academic advisor, so she was a natural as his mentor.
Krusko mentored two students this summer and also “mentored the mentors,” Fie says. Krusko’s extensive involvement in McNair, which started in 1996 and has included working with eight students, is probably the reason so many anthropology faculty members follow her lead by also participating in the program.
Salas says Krusko helped him identify his research project, pointed him to sources, and in general, kept him on track. “I respect Nancy a lot,” Salas says. “She was great about making sure that I was very clear about what I was going to talk about every week, how I was going to present it, and what was most relevant.
Salas adds that the weekly updates required by McNair could be intimidating. Faculty grilled students, he says, but it helped them tighten their research focus.
“They don’t go easy on you,” he says. “Sometimes the program was exhausting, but I felt so much better by the end of it. You just feel like you’ve reached a higher level.”
Along with his cohorts, Salas got to see for himself how much he had accomplished in eight short weeks. At a Milwaukee conference of McNair scholars from many schools, students presented conference-style posters about their research.
“All of us from Beloit were doing our presentations, and we were excited to talk about our projects,” Salas says. “We were like, ‘Ask us any questions you want.’ We wanted to be grilled!”
After recently studying alternative medicine in China, Krusko suggested that Salas think about applying his research question there as a senior McNair Scholar next summer. Salas is considering it, since he’s always wanted to go to China and is currently in his third year of studying Chinese at Beloit.
“Last summer, I looked at how the American hospital culture shapes how we manage death and dying,” he says. “A lot of it has to do with the presence of medical technology and the different things that are available to us and our expectations of them,” he explains. “It would be interesting to look at traditional Chinese medicine without these technologies. How do they manage death and dying?”
Like Salas, many McNair Scholars find that their projects lead them to questions that, in turn, raise more questions, which is exactly the point.
In the midst of his project, for example, Ken Hodges remembers feeling conflicted about why he—and many black academics—seem to be drawn to research topics that center on race. Fie sees this kind of self-questioning as further evidence of just how far Hodges transcended his original research question.
“Many of the faculty would have these same kinds of stories,” she says. “This is a place where students develop their interests and invest so much into their research that they start breaking through to other questions.”