Duke Students’ Humanities Research Helps Triangle Partners Tell Their Stories

In Story+, student researchers use storytelling to help make humanities-based research come alive

A Story+ presentation on RTI.
Undergraduate history major Lola Telo presents research on the origins of Research Triangle Park.

Did a pope write a dictionary? And can research be “groovy”? 

Student researchers sought to answer those and other challenging questions in Story+, a recent six-week pilot program sponsored by the Franklin Humanities Institute and Bass Connections in partnership with Versatile Humanists@Duke. The program, which culminated with a presentation June 28 at Smith Warehouse, featured student-led projects showcasing dynamic, humanities-based research.

Story+ kicked off in May when five teams of undergraduate student researchers set out on a six-week journey to explore the difficult problems they’d been given, guided by a graduate student mentor. Projects varied in discipline and scope, but all aimed at using humanities-based research to address complex, real-world questions.

Throughout the six weeks, students used a variety of qualitative, humanities-based research techniques such as visual analysis, archival research and personal interviews. Each team produced distinctive projects: Some created websites and interactive story visualizations, while others combined qualitative and quantitative analysis to produce substantive policy recommendations. Participants were encouraged to communicate their research using effective storytelling techniques. On the end-of-program evaluation survey, all 14 undergraduates indicated that they would recommend Story+ to peers.

“I had never had true experience in archives before,” said student participant Jessica Chen. “It was fascinating to see, touch and hold actual documents from 1930, 1950 and 1980 – items that ranged from memos to advertisements to letters.”

Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies Edward Balleisen said the program showed the value of collaborative, project-based inquiry.

“The teams all learned a great deal about interpretive research methods, while crafting impressive narrative outputs for their community partners or faculty sponsors,” Balleisen said.

Among the projects was one focused on RTI International, a Triangle-based research organization. A team of undergraduates and a graduate student mentor worked to develop new and “groovy” ways to commemorate RTI’s 60th anniversary.

With the help of archival research at Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State universities, the students recovered numerous instances of university collaboration and a strong history of women in leadership at RTI, and highlighted both by creating an interactive timeline. The resulting narratives will guide RTI’s 60th anniversary celebration.

Another project worked with Duke’s Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising, and Marketing History to study race and ethnicity in marketing.

The Hartman Center acquires and preserves advertising materials concerning the social and cultural impact of marketing on society, including materials that highlight racial disparities in the advertising and marketing worlds.

A Story+ class holds a discussion on the history of Research Triangle Park. Students created virtual exhibits and online collections to showcase the collection’s materials. “Black is Beautiful” describes how African Americans were portrayed in popular media in recent history; “Marketing to Minorities: Expansion and Development (1950s-1990s)” explores the techniques U.S. marketers used to target people of color; and “Closing the Gap: Professionals of Color in Advertising” highlights minority representation in the marketing profession.

Other projects  included “A Pope Wrote a Dictionary: You Figure Out How,” which examined how ancient lexicographers reused each other's work; “Suckers and Swindlers in American History,” which examined the history of business fraud in America; and “Talking Wages: The impact of Fight for 15,” which examined the impact of political discourse on minimum wage debates in four states.

Christina Chia, director of the Story+ program, said the experience honed collaboration skills among students from a diverse array of disciplines, including classics, English, history, philosophy, evolutionary anthropology, political science and sociology, among others.

“Watching the students from week to week, I saw how they developed and fine-tuned systems of sharing ideas and discoveries, how they integrated each person’s individual work within a larger collective project,” Chia said. “That experience is invaluable regardless of what sort of academic path they take in the future.”

Balleisen said Story+ dovetails with the university strategic plan adopted this spring, which calls for more collaborative research opportunities for undergraduates and graduate students.

“In light of the high quality of this pilot, we will be looking for ways to expand Story+ for Summer 2018,” Balleisen said.