Research Beyond the Lab: Emory Oxford College

It’s not all about labs and microscopes. Increasingly, Emory students are pursuing undergraduate research in the humanities to gain a deeper understanding of the human condition as they prepare to set out on career pathways that range from medicine, business and law to nonprofits, teaching and public policy.

The work allows them to pursue big questions about ethics, beliefs, language and behavior — the very things that make us human — in an increasingly complex world.

“Studying the things that are fundamental to the human experience does not mean studying abstract ideas. To be able to do the work they want to do, and to do it well, our students know they need to think about their careers in human terms,” says Erin Tarver, co-chair of the undergraduate research program at Emory’s Oxford College and an assistant professor of philosophy who has written about how sports fandom shapes identity.

As a leading research institution, Emory provides the resources that help students make connections between the areas they’re studying. That in turn empowers them to ask interdisciplinary questions, creating better thinkers and leaders, says Cora MacBeth, Emory College’s assistant dean for undergraduate research.

“There is recognition that our access to these unique research opportunities is what sets Emory, and our students, apart,” she says.

A sampling of humanities research projects Emory students have pursued this year is as wide-ranging as the human experience itself: fresh insights on activism in Atlanta during the AIDS crisis; how college students sort themselves into friendships; new theories on the lack of minority representation on the highest court in the land; and future doctors who are tackling cultural issues to better inform their understanding of patient needs.

“Undergraduate research across the arts and sciences offers our students the chance to understand how what they learn in the classroom can have an impact on the world,” says Michael A. Elliott, dean of Emory College of Arts and Sciences and Charles Howard Candler Professor of English. “These opportunities give students a chance to hone competencies in communication, organization and analysis that will serve them well regardless of the path they choose after Emory.”

Emory junior Andy Paul


As technological advancements increasingly influence the world, humanities research also offers a window into understanding the human dimension of major changes.

For instance, junior Andy Paul thought he knew all about the theatrical protests, such as staging “die ins” in the streets, that proved to be a turning point for activism and LGBT visibility during the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and early 1990s.

After inquiry-based courses at Oxford College, he decided to engage in a deeper exploration as part of the Oxford Research Scholars Program his second year.

Paul discovered a gap in coverage of AIDS activism in Atlanta. Reading through items in the HIV/AIDS Crisis collection at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library revealed an older sort of activism in the birthplace of the civil rights movement. In Atlanta, activism also focused on lobbying and forming non-profits such as Sister Love, an organization focused on supporting women with HIV.

“The national media coverage was focused on white gay men while Atlanta had more people doing work for their specific communities being affected,” says Paul. “So the question wasn’t about what kinds of AIDS activism were going on in Atlanta. The question, which I now ask about everything, is ‘Whose story is missing from what I think I know?’”

Senior philosophy major, Mawuko Kpodo


Finding missing pieces also drove the research of Mawuko Kpodo. The senior philosophy major, who always wanted to be an attorney, wondered why no black women had been elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court.

When a professor couldn’t tell her how many white men versus black women had been law clerks for the nation’s highest court – a common feeder pool for judgeships – she sought the data on her own.

As she switched majors from political science to anthropology to philosophy, Kpodo began to examine the issue from different disciplines. Her conclusion: Black women understand their identity from a different history than the Supreme Court’s reliance on precedence.

In a nation where slavery and misogyny were legal, black women and the court therefore occupy oppositional histories. To Kpodo, that means the question should be focused on the Court and whether it can change its very identity to understand why justice means something different to black women.

Kpodo’s thesis as a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow explores the tension by citing a scene where Annalise Keating, a lead character from the popular TV show “How To Get Away With Murder,” talks about racism being built into the nation’s DNA during a closing argument before the Supreme Court.

“It’s a TV show that explains how the court thinks, namely by its past,” says Kpodo, who was also an Oxford Research Scholar. “Yet the very use of precedent is incomplete when it means the Court brings a very problematic past to today’s questions.”

Such provocative research is often the focus of doctoral research, which Kpodo plans to explore in her pursuit of a philosophy PhD. She also wants to attend law school, on her way to becoming a legal public scholar.

Mellon Mays coordinator Dianne Stewart, an associate professor of religion and interim chair of African American Studies, sees such humanities research as achieving more than honing thinking, writing and interpretation skills to a deeper level.

That work creates empathy, a skill that cannot be understated in our interconnected world.

“When you’re reading a book or watching a movie, if you can identify with the protagonist, you can understand how they confront challenges,” she says. “Examining the way human beings solve problems and create meaning – especially in the midst of suffering, struggle, contradictions and disappointments – humanistic inquiry supports that empathetic engagement with others.”

“All students need to develop empathy, and the opportunity to think critically and creatively about the human condition builds students’ intellectual and social competencies and prepares them for professional success in any arena,” she adds. 

Text and photos courtesy of Emory University.

Please visit​nd-the-lab-QrnVjWHXKP to read the full article and learn more about the orignial research, undergraduates at Emory University are conducting across the humanities discipline. 


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