Humanities program provides rewarding research experience—and also crucial career prep

Employing Humanities–funded undergraduate students have begun working with faculty in paid research opportunities that connect their classroom curriculum with hands-on training

Employing Humanities–funded faculty-led humanities research projects includes several ling
The faculty-led humanities research projects include several linguistics inquiries, such as one led by Prof. Jaye Padgett focused on conducting ultrasound/acoustic analyses. (Photo by Elena Zhukova)
Watsonville is in the Heart, another Employing Humanities–funded project, is a community-d
Watsonville is in the Heart, another Employing Humanities–funded project, is a community-driven public history initiative to preserve and uplift stories of Filipino migration and labor in the city of Watsonville and greater Pajaro Valley. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)
Okinawa Memories Initiative, another project, is a public history initiative that explores
Okinawa Memories Initiative, another project, is a public history initiative that explores the postwar history of Okinawa, Japan, from a global perspective through collaborative storytelling. Students recently traveled to Okinawa to conduct food-history research. (Photo by Jessica Guild)
Claire Wellwood (left), Max Xie (middle), and Tony Butorovich (right), all undergraduate s
Claire Wellwood (left), Max Xie (middle), and Tony Butorovich (right), all undergraduate students, presenting on linguistic ultrasound research last June at the Linguistics Undergraduate Research Conference. (Photo by Yaqing Cao)

For student Madeleine Powell, working as a research assistant on an applied linguistics project has not only been a worthwhile experience; it's also helped her build self-confidence as she prepares to move into the job market—an important detail for the graduating senior.

The project, "Corpus in Paraguayan Spanish and Guaraní," with Assistant Professor of Languages and Applied Linguistics Josefina Bittar, aims to build and publish a database of interviews (a corpus). 

Powell is working to correct the transcriptions and anonymize the audio; then she'll coordinate with the manager of the California Language Archive to upload the interviews and transcriptions.   

"Listening to the interviews of people with different life experiences and various linguistic and cultural backgrounds has been very enlightening," said Powell (Merrill '24, double major in applied linguistics and multilingualism and Spanish studies). "I learn a lot of new Spanish vocabulary through the interviews and improve my attention to detail by identifying small transcription errors."

Powell's position is part of Employing Humanities, an initiative to make stronger, more explicit links between what students do in their coursework and what they'll do when they graduate. Supported by the Helen & Will Webster Foundation and a $1 million grant from the Mellon Foundation, the initiative connects Humanities Division majors and minors with faculty-led research projects in paid experiential learning opportunities that connect their classroom curriculum with hands-on training. 

Employing Humanities also aims to connect students with local organizations through community-engaged internships that not only broaden student experiences but also directly impact society. Its goal is to equip students with the skills to succeed as socially just leaders in professional, academic, and community settings. 

"The humanities can be seen by the general population as impractical for the job market," said Bittar. "Experiential learning in the humanities can help challenge that idea, as students use the skills they learn in their courses to perform a wide range of tasks that are valuable in the academic and non-academic world."

Beneficial for both students and faculty

Humanities research has traditionally been solitary, so experiential learning opportunities are a challenge to this tradition, said Jaye Padgett, professor of linguistics, whose project, "Ultrasound/Acoustic Analysis," employs a team of four students. But these kinds of activities are often keys to student success.

"We know that students who participate in research or experiential learning are more engaged and more likely to succeed as students," said Padgett.

And, he added, it's not only advantageous to students. 

"Faculty doing experimental work frequently benefit from having undergraduate researchers on their projects," Padgett said.

Associate Professor of Literature Zac Zimmer, whose project is "Artificial Intelligence and Human Imagination," agreed on the mutually beneficial aspect of the initiative. 

His students are getting research skills and developing the ability to go beyond the news headlines and media hype cycles about artificial intelligence, and to ask the kinds of humanistic questions Humanities Division faculty bring to any kind of critical inquiry, he said. 

"It allowed me to take students who were working at a very high level in class with me and to continue the momentum they had in final projects, allowing them to go deeper into the areas that they were interested in," he said. "Continuing to work with these students has been very helpful in advancing my own research goals."

Claire Wellwood (John R. Lewis College '24, linguistics and psychology double major) worked with Padgett and two fellow student researchers, using ultrasound equipment to aid their analysis on tongue positioning. They presented their findings at the Linguistics Undergraduate Research Conference in June 2023.

"This was my first opportunity to conduct research with a linguistic focus, and it proved to be an enriching experience," Wellwood said. "I found value in collaborating directly with Professor Padgett and conducting research alongside other linguistics students with similar interests. Throughout the process, I developed a deeper understanding of how to appropriately manage and present research analysis."

Transferable skills and envisioning careers

Humanities fields provide countless opportunities for students to develop transferable skills that will have value in many different arenas, said Rachel Walker, professor of linguistics, whose project is entitled "Syllable Structure in Dialects of English." 

"What especially appeals to me about this initiative is the empowering, hands-on nature of the projects and the opportunities for students to gain experience and ownership of what it means to do research," Walker said. "My hope is that it helps students to better understand frameworks for doing research and contributing new knowledge, and that they experience how developing their abilities in leadership, teamwork, and problem-solving contribute to the success of the project."

The types of transferable skills Walker refers to are abundantly evident in the other Employing Humanities undergraduate researcher projects, such as Bittar's. 

"By performing these tasks, Madeleine is practicing her language skills in Spanish, and familiarizing with Guaraní, a minoritized language in South America," Bittar said. "She is also using field-specific software, improving her organizational skills, and becoming aware and being part of the rigor of research. Performing these activities and practicing these skills are in line with the Employing Humanities initiative, as she is learning by doing—experiential learning—and reflecting on future career paths."   

Students also get the chance to see the process behind faculty scholarship, said Associate Professor of History Elaine Sullivan, whose project, "Selling Saqqara," employs two student interns, both history majors who have completed extensive coursework on ancient Egypt with her. 

The students are assisting her with researching the sales of Egyptian heritage objects in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when it was legal to sell these objects on the art market internationally. 

"My students are doing the work—right alongside me—to try and trace these sales and movements. It is exciting for us as a group, because we don't know what we are going to find, so my students are there for the thrill of the discovery process," she said. "They of course are also there for all the other aspects of research—the frustrating part where you don't find what you're looking for, as well. So my students are getting a clear and unfiltered look at the actual research process, the good and the bad." 

She sees this undergraduate research project as a chance for them to use the intensive research and analysis skills that the history major offers and apply it to a real project that will affect humanity's collective understanding of the antiquities market during the timeline they're studying. 

"I hope the training they are getting, learning to do deep searches in museum websites, historic auction catalogs, and archival materials in multiple languages, are all skills they will use in future careers in museums and archives, or the public sector, which is where many of our students in history hope to spend their working life," Sullivan said.

Breaking paradigms

Since 2008, Associate Professor of Literature Amanda Smith has noticed that university students have been increasingly turning away from the humanities to instead choose majors that seem to have clearer paths to a career. 

"Of course, one of the things a humanistic education should do is lay bare the dangers of instrumentalizing education—making it merely a means to an end. Instrumentalization is at the heart of multiple forms of systemic violence—racial, gender, and environmental, to name a few," said Smith, whose project focuses on working with the Biblioteca Amazónica—a public institution in Iquitos, Peru, dedicated to Amazonian topics—to digitize its collections. "It's profoundly dehumanizing, and we must continue to fight against it, to encourage learners to explore ideas for the sake of being critically engaged and thinking beings, in order to put pressure on and break paradigms that cause harm and suffering, toward a more meaningful and more harmonious existence." 

To Smith, the Employing Humanities grant is an important first step in visualizing some of the many opportunities at the intersection of humanistic thinking, gainful employment, and personal happiness.