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Undergrad teams helping transform humanities research at University of Toronto

Photo of: students in a circle on the grass at Victoria College

The students spent mornings and part of their afternoons working as teams on their individual projects. Photo: Diana Tyszko.

A select group of University of Toronto undergrads are now among the world’s foremost authorities in their respective fields, thanks to a ground-breaking initiative to bring science-like teamwork into humanities research.

A month-long pilot project by Victoria College and the Jackman Humanities Institute saw 20 students, divided into four teams, become “Scholars in Residence” this May, in some cases even discovering print and handwritten documents unseen for 200 years.

Sophisticated research results especially after only a few weeks

“There were some very sophisticated research results, especially after only a few weeks,” said Victoria College Principal Angela Esterhammer, who led a team examining the work of Scottish-Canadian writer John Galt.

Although standard practice in scientific fields, research teams are much less common in the humanities, where scholars tend to work in isolation.

“What we’re hoping to do is transform humanities research at the University of Toronto,” said Esterhammer, a professor of English and Comparative Literature. “There is something really important to be gained here.”

The relative obscurity of the writers and ideas studied, largely through primary and secondary source research conducted online, in archives and in rare book libraries, made the students the de facto preeminent experts on their subjects, even if the knowledge gained was modest, given the short time they had to work on their projects.

Oonagh Devitt-Tremblay, a third-year English specialist student on Esterhammer’s team, discovered an “unconventional” handwritten short story by Galt in the Archives of Ontario. Students in Professor Anne Urbancic’s project “Mario Pratesi: The Unpublished Notebooks” also made unexpected discoveries in their archival work.

The close-knit research community that developed over the month with her fellow students, and the chance to work with professors as peers rather than authority figures, was like nothing she had experienced.

Talking, thinking and bonding

“Every day from early morning to well into the evening, we were together as a group, talking and thinking about our project and helping each other,” said Devitt-Tremblay.

“Whenever you went off on your own, it felt like you had cut the umbilical cord.”

The students spent mornings and part of their afternoons working as teams on their individual projects. All four groups lived in residence and came  together in the evenings for extracurricular activities and field trips to places such as the Hot Docs film festival.

One of the rewards for project organizers was seeing students from diverse backgrounds bonding and thinking through research problems and challenges together.

“It was a really unique and fabulous opportunity to put students in a position to specialize in something, and own the knowledge,” says Ira Wells, Undergraduate Research Program Coordinator for Victoria University.

Christopher Geary, an English specialist student who has now graduated, says he had never done archival research before joining the project.

“It was really fascinating exposure to what doing research is like”

Geary and the other students on his team will also get an acknowledgement in the forthcoming book by their professor, Thomas Keymer, on press censorship in the 18th century.

“It was really fascinating exposure to what doing research is like, going to primary sources, interrogating the secondary sources, and chasing down leads like a detective,” said Geary.

While most of the students honed their research skills working on literary figures, some also gained insights through cutting-edge approaches to data collection and electronic surveillance, and how it’s used to classify and market to consumers.

Using theatrical techniques to explore and act out this surveillance and its effect on individuals, Elliott McMurchy, a fourth-year physiology and human biology student, gained a new perspective on research through his group’s project led by Professor David Phillips.

Those techniques, like creating an improv skit to convey emotions that might be clear to one person, but completely misunderstood by another, was a fascinating way to discover “the humanity” at the core of the often technical and impersonal system of data surveillance.

“Coming from a science background, I’m used to going into a lab and repeating a certain procedure meticulously for month after month,” said McMurchy.

“Now I’m walking away from this experience with a completely different idea about research, and how it can be organic, and influenced by the person, not just the project.”