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Announcing the first Reveley Interdisciplinary Fellows

The first six teams of W. Taylor Reveley III Interdisciplinary Fellows, funded by a $2.6 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, have been chosen.

In keeping with the grant, the Fellows’ projects are focused on integrative and interdisciplinary teaching, as well as a research and scholarship components. The teams will receive an annual stipend for three years – the first year for course development and the second and third years for course instruction.

The grant is named in honor of William & Mary President Taylor Reveley, who served for 21 years on the Mellon Foundation Board of Trustees, his last three as chair. Reveley, the university’s president since 2008, retired from the Mellon Board in 2015.

"The impact of these unique fellowships cannot be overstated," Provost Michael R. Halleran said. "The Mellon Foundation grant enables us to advance our priority of unique and important interdisciplinary scholarship, led by creative faculty, to the enrichment of some of our most extraordinary students. I could not be any more excited to see the impact of these fellowships."

The teams, and their projects, are:

Daniel Parker, Maurits van der Veen

Daniel Parker, associate professor of English and linguistics, and Maurits van der Veen, associate professor of government.

The issue: Every day, more than 2.5 quintillion bytes of new data are uploaded, including existing books, newspapers, audio and video recordings. This also includes vast quantities of social media, digital pictures and videos. These are known as “big data.”

Although big data overwhelms the analytical ability of any one person or group of people, a growing arsenal of computational techniques and tools allows researchers to unlock and uncover the patterns hidden within. Until now, these tools and techniques have been largely inaccessible to those without an extensive computer science background, which includes the vast majority of students in the humanities and social sciences.

The proposal: To develop a course on big data analysis targeted specifically at those students. It will develop the skills to collect, process and analyze vast collections of texts, without requiring prior programing skills. The course advances the university’s strategic priorities in three ways: by teaching state-of-the-art computational skills that can be used to address real-world problems; by making computational tools more accessible to non-computer science students, and by reaching across all three knowledge domains of the new COLL Curriculum.

Martha Lee Alexander, Christopher Ryan Vinroot

M. Lee Alexander, visiting assistant professor of English, and Ryan Vinroot, associate professor of mathematics.

The issue: On the surface, literature and mathematics may seem like disparate, even near-opposite, subjects of study. Over the years, however, a number of authors have drawn on various mathematical ideas in order to shape classic and contemporary literary works. In these works, the language of mathematics plays a central role in the development of symbol, plot and theme, and becomes integral to the works’ meaning.

The proposal: To explore examples in a number of genres – short story, novel, play, poetry, film, even video game – to discover how the blending of word and number inform one another and result in a unique interplay that becomes greater than the sum of its parts. The course will trace this growing trend from the Victorian era, with works such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, to contemporary films and the recent genre known as “mathlit” to discover why this seemingly paradoxical overlap is becoming increasingly popular, and where it may be headed in the future. At the same time, the course will look at some of the mathematical concepts involved, along with their social settings and historical significance.

Silvia Tandeciarz, Betsy KonefalSilvia Tandeciarz, associate professor of modern languages and Betsy Konefal, associate professor of history.

The issue: The leaders of Argentina’s last military dictatorship (1976-1983) saw themselves as saving the nation from the threat of communism by ordering the abduction, torture and “disappearance” – a euphemism for secret executions – of tens of thousands of political opponents. In Guatemala’s internal armed conflict (1960-96), there was a brutal and eventually genocidal state murder of a generation of young leaders working for change, along with 200,000 mostly Maya civilians. These histories were meant to be unknowable, deniable and forgotten. They are not.

The proposal: The creation of a research agenda and an undergraduate course that opens students to study a subject with no clear disciplinary boundaries. Cultural and historical documents can be powerful tools in shaping recollection. Art, literature and film offer impassioned interpretations of events that not only reflect and intervene in the debates of their time, but seek to move their audiences and generate action; official paper trails, witness testimony, legal trial proceedings and even exhumed bones reveal detail; and nuance and causation, factors that often challenge established emblematic narratives of the past. The course will offer an exploration of the multiple ways Cold War-era violence and terror are being unearthed in Argentina and Guatemala and the “memory-work” being done by a new generation of Argentines and Guatemalans recovering histories of opposition and remembering their protagonists.

John Riofrio, Jeremy Stoddard
John Riofrio, associate professor of modern languages and Hispanic studies, and Jeremy Stoddard, associate professor of secondary education.

The issue: Specific efforts like the university-wide diversity committee and the President’s Task Force on Race and Race Relations have opened up important and necessary spaces for faculty across campus to discuss the wide range of diversity issues that are relevant to William & Mary’s community and beyond. Concurrently, the university has seen a growing number of courses that seek to address these same issues as well as inter-student dialogues initiated and sustained by the Center for Student Diversity.

The proposal: The creation of a course – Unequal by Design: Race and Education in the U.S. – that would seek to address these issues by bringing together faculty and students from Arts & Sciences and the School of Education.

Riofrio’s work will focus on the ways in which cultural products (film, literature, political discourse) craft and reflect society’s overall understanding of both race and education. Stoddard’s teaching, research on teaching and learning about controversial topics provides opportunities to explore how race emerges within the vast educational enterprise in the U.S. This includes educational policy related to the charter school and standardized testing school reform movements.

The course will provide opportunities for students to engage in thinking about how race is constructed in a society and the effects of these constructs in American schools.

Dorothy Ibes, Tanya Stadelmann
Dorothy Ibes, lecturer of environmental science and policy, and Tanya Stadelmann, lecturer of film and media studies.

The issue: Effective communication of environmental science is essential for informed policy-making, generating support for scientific research and inspiring eco-critical thinking and political activism. Documentary films are uniquely positioned to not only evoke empathy in the viewer but also to bring insights from scholarly research into practice, and to navigate the space between hard scientific data, politics and policies and those who are affected by them. Yet, there is disagreement about which mode of documentary – the one that evokes empathy or the one that informs -- affects more awareness and change in the viewer.

The proposal: Bring together an environmental scientist and a documentary filmmaker to explore this tension and expand their own scholarly research with a collaborative film project and innovative new course, Communicating Environmental Science with Documentary Film.

In the first year, they will research and produce a short film exploring the capacity of various documentary styles (expository to experimental) to tell the story of the emerging science of ecotherapy. The course will guide students in communicating environmental issues via different modes of documentary, and help them learn how to select a meaningful and timely subject matter, compile and translate relevant scientific research, discuss their ideas, constructively critique their fellow students and structure a visual narrative.

Annie Blazer, Jaime Settle
Annie Blazer, assistant professor of religious studies, and Jaime Settle, assistant professor of government.

The issue: Increasing polarization in American politics has changed how citizens view other actors in the political system. There is growing evidence that liberals and conservatives have different moral foundations and that political ideology can act as a form of motivated social cognition. Political scientists have explored how these differences manifest in contemporary culture, as Americans signal their political identities in ways that are not explicitly political. For example, scholars have found that liberals and conservatives have different food preferences, summer habits and tastes in art. Many of these cultural associations are highly correlated with religious practice and religious expression.

The proposal: A project entitled “Social and Cultural Signaling in Contemporary America,” with three components: a survey of W&M students conducted through the Social Science Research Methods Center, a new course for the COLL Curriculum and two proposed opportunities for students to share their work at conferences and through publication.

The project seeks to introduce students to, and allow them to apply, methodologies from two disciplines. It also aims to investigate how contemporary college students use cultural codes and social signals to infer religious and political affiliations.