By Laurel Carney
My advisor told me that, once, while observing a walking tour for incoming UC Davis students, she overheard the tour guide claim that yes, UC Davis is a great school for research, provided that you’re a student of the sciences. “I don’t think they do any research in the humanities,” the guide said, much to my (English) professor’s horror. When many of us hear the word “research,” we think about lab coats, fluorescent lights, and sad mice with three ears. So, then, what does undergraduate research in the humanities look like? And how does one get started?
Well, for me, it took on many forms! But first, it began with a question—when checking out the Wikipedia page of Anne Bonny, a famous female pirate, I came across a term I’d never heard before: “pleading the belly.”
I did a little digging, and what I found fascinated me. It turns out that “pleading the belly” refers to a clause in early modern execution law that stated that a woman convicted of a capital offense could receive a temporary stay of execution if she could convince the court that she was pregnant. I was particularly interested in the role that story-telling played in such a practice, given that the court reached its decisions based on their “readings” of these women’s bodies, as well as the oral testimony and literature surrounding the case.
As an English major with a double emphasis in Creative Writing and Literature, Criticism & Theory, I designed a hybrid project that would allow me to use historical and literary research to inform a collection of short stories, exploring the role that fiction played in reading women’s bodies, as well as in the “facts” of their crimes, deaths, and pregnancies.
Although these are not exactly research questions that require a lab coat, I still wound up engaging in a lot of experimentation to reach some answers. Under the patient guidance of my faculty advisor, I spent a lot of time in libraries, both here at UC Davis and, after applying for and receiving funding to travel to London, the manuscript archives at the British Library! There I was able to find the handwritten, nearly 400 year old notes of the physician who attended one of the women I was researching.
Of course, my research was to inform a series of short stories, so I was sure to step out of the library and take in as much of the physical environment as possible. I took advantage of in-depth walking tours and neighborhood historians. I was even able to visit a (previously) unmarked mass grave for early modern female criminals and their children, and speak with locals who had been passing down stories about these women for generations. In an attempt to honor those who had been cast aside so ruthlessly centuries before, vigils are held once a month at the Cross Bones Graveyard. Participants sing songs, read poems, and tell stories about themselves as well as the “outcast dead.” Talk about bringing the past to life!
Since my research was related to detecting signs of pregnancy in early modern women, I was curious about the state of medicine (particularly obstetric and gynecological) in the 16th and 17th centuries. So I was sure to pay a visit to archives at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, as well as the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret, where a number of medicinal herbs, surgical tools, and documents are preserved. There, hundreds of years ago, physicians could watch as men and women endured operations and amputations without the aid of anesthesia or disinfectant.
I also visited the site of Tyburn Tree, the very spot where many of the women I had been researching had been executed—the name refers not to an actual tree, but a gallows from which the condemned were hanged to death.
Of course, some of your research can be gastronomical, and you can’t go all the way to London without visiting the world’s greatest consulting detective:
The people who tell you the food in England is bad just want all of the halloumi and beer for themselves.
So that’s what research in the humanities looked like to me! But what about you?
The truth is, there are a number of programs and resources available to UC Davis undergraduate students that are interested in conducting a research project of their very own, be it in the humanities OR the sciences! Is there a professor you’ve always wanted to work with? The MURALS program (Mentorship for Undergraduate Research in Agriculture, Letters and Science) will pair qualifying students with a faculty mentor that will help guide them through the process of formulating and conducting a research project of the student’s own design. I was really nervous to ask my chosen professor to work with me on this project, but I’m really happy I did! Try to find someone whose class(es) you loved, whose interests match yours, or whose own research you admire!
Does your research require you to have access to rare materials, tools, or specialized equipment, or perhaps to travel to a specific museum, library, lab or historical site? The Provost’s Undergraduate Fellowship funds the independent research of many students each year, with awards of up to $1,800! And once you’ve finished your project, you can present it at the Undergraduate Research Conference, and publish your findings in Explorations: The UC Davis Undergraduate Journal!
All in all, having the opportunity to ask my own questions and (quite literally) travel the world in search of answers was the absolute highlight of my life as an undergraduate. Maybe my whole life. I got to work with professors that I greatly admired, handle centuries-old documents, take on both academic and creative writing, eat lunch in a crypt, take a nap in a castle, and even try to sneak into Hogwarts. If you’ve got an idea for a research question, or even just the desire to ask one, seek out the assistance of a favorite professor or the people at the Undergraduate Research Center. My experience is proof that no project is too strange, and no question too trivial, provided that you’ve got the passion and drive to back it up! What have you got to lose? Good luck, and happy hunting!