Humanities Fellows Program

An interdisciplinary community of students and scholars exploring critical questions about human experience.

Fellows Updates in Trying Times….

Hello Fellows!

I’m sorry I’ve been a bit out of touch. This has been a WEEK! It’s been simultaneously highly stressful and totally boring… #LousyCombinations

In this post I want to update you all on how we’re approaching next week’s switch to remote instruction, which will probably involve a lot of &^#%$&#%#&%.

But as Drew reminds us, “We’ve got this.” #GoodRemindersFromDrew

I’m using a list format in the hopes that it will make this information easier to digest. Let me know if it doesn’t:

  1. Please confirm that you’ve received my email, via email. I’d love to hear back from you with confirmation of receipt and answers to my questions by 5pm today. 
  2. In general, I’ll be using email to communicate since the amount of information I have to share is prohibitive over texting. Please do confirm receipt and respond quickly to emails, especially during this transitional time. I’m nervous that stuff isn’t going through and I don’t want you all to disappear. You’re the Fellows! I want to make this period a success for you.
  3. Since we are only 10 and most of you report reasonable internet, I’m hopeful we can use ZOOM for synchronous teaching. Could you meet online during our usual class time on Tuesday (3pm EST), adjusting if you’re in a different time zone? Let me know if we can try next week and adapt if it isn’t feasible.
  4. Please install ZOOM on your laptop/computer/ipad/mobile phone: We’ll use it for one-on-one meetings even if we can’t try to meet as a whole class. I’ve linked a Student Guide to Zoom. Spend some time this weekend familiarizing yourself with the format.
  5. I’m in the process of updating the course blog with information, assignments, and the like.
  6. Would you would be available to do a practice ZOOM session on Sunday afternoon (3.22) at 4pm EST? If we can get a good sized number I’d like to try it out. I could then record that session so those who couldn’t attend could get the information. Let me know.

There will be more soon, but I want to avoid a TL;DR situation. So this is enough for now. REMEMBER: communicate with me! Keep me posted. I want all of you to be successful and productive as we deal with this next phase. The questions I’d like you to answer in your email are:

  1.  Confirm your email
  2. Can you meet on Tuesday during our class time?
  3. Can you do a practice session on Sunday at 4pm?
With affection,
Dr. Cheever

Elise Johnson McDougald, “The Double Task”

The following is a quote from Elise Johnson McDougald’s “The Double Task: The Struggle of the Negro Women for Sex and Race Emancipation.” First published in March 1925 in Survey Graphic magazine, the article was then retitled and published in Alain Locke’s anthology The New Negro–a selection from which we read earlier this semester. This quote will be useful as we think about Larsen’s Passing:

Like women in general, but more particularly like those of other oppressed minorities, the Negro woman has been forced to submit to overpowering conditions. Pressure has been exerted upon her, both from without and within her group. Her emotional and sex life is a reflex of her economic station. The women of the working class will react, emotionally and sexually, similar to the  working-class women of other races. The Negro woman does not maintain any moral standard which may be assigned chiefly to the qualities of race, any more than the white woman does. Yet she has been singled out and advertised as having lower sex standards. Superficial critics who have had contact with only the lower grades of Negro women, claim that they are more immoral than other groups of women. This I deny. This is the sort of criticism which predicated of one race, to its detriment, that which is common to all races. Sex irregularities are not a matter of race, but of socio-economic traditions. Research shows that most of the African tribes from which the Negro sprang have strict codes for sex relations. There is no proof of inherent weakness in the ethnic group.

Gradually overcoming the habitual limits imposed upon her by slave masters, she increasingly seeks legal sanction for the consummation and dissolution of sex contracts. Contrary to popular belief, illegitimacy among Negroes is cause for shame and grief. When economic, social, and biological forces combined bring about unwed motherhood, the reaction is much the same in families of other racial groups …

We will discuss this amazing paragraph today.

Layla & Sana, on “Box Seat” from *Cane*

“Box Seat” may be one of the most intriguing and perplexing pieces in Jean Toomer’s Cane. However, in a short 1988 article, Sandra Flowers argues that the usage of imagery in this piece is used to denounce Black middle class values at the time. In the piece, Flowers remarked that there were three main types of imagery: enclosure, locking and positioning. Enclosure imagery is used throughout the piece, most notably when Dan is entering the house and must pass through an iron gate, symbolically representing the separation between him and Muriel. The use of locking imagery is also used frequently, such as when Muriel and Ms. Pribby sit down and “click” into place in their seats, showing the way that are locked into their class. The use of positioning imagery is mostly used during the theater scene, such as when Muriel symbolically tells her friend Bernice (who is of a lower class) to sit behind her, literally showing the class difference between them and emphasizing her superiority. This positioning also shows the way that Muriel was close to the underclass, but tried her best to outdistance her past by placing it behind her. Therefore, the coalescence of these different types of imagery in “Box Seat” represent Toomer’s disdain for the way that the Black middle class was unwilling to cross class lines.

Flowers, Sandra. “Solving the Critical Conundrum of Jean Toomer’s ‘Box Seat.’” Studies in Short Fiction 25, no. 3 (June 1988): 301–6.

Cameron & Josh on “Fern” from Toomer’s *Cane*

The Yellin article takes the form of a brief analysis of Toomer’s story “Fern,” and a greater analysis of Toomer himself. Yellin focuses on the self-loathing relationship that seems central to Toomer’s grappling with his own identity, and how this intersects with the Jewish-American experience found in Waldo Frank’s Our America.  In “Fern” Toomer frames Fern, the title character, as an African American woman, and as Jewish through her last name, Rosen. Toomer does this because both groups share a history of slavery and suffering, which Toomer alludes to by mentioning a “common river delta.” However, the two authors differ on the value of suffering. Yellin explains that Frank views suffering as positive and something redemptive. Toomer instead frames suffering as a necessary price for forming one’s identity. Yellin finally manages to communicate his greatest point, that to Toomer, “Fern” was simply too personal for him to even discuss it. Fern, the character, seems to embody the confident, and knowledgeable portion of Toomer’s identity, trying to reconcile with his mixed heritage. Yellin supports his point by citing the editing of the book, where Toomer flat-out refuses to discuss “Fern”, showing it was simply too personal for Toomer to even discuss.

Yellin, Michael. 2009. “Visions of Their America: Waldo Frank’s Jewish-Modernist Influence on Jean Toomer’s ‘Fern.’” African American Review 43 (2/3): 427–42.

Maky and Johanna, “Blood Burning Moon” from Toomer’s *Cane*

In the essay Myth and Narrative Fiction in Cane: “Blood-Burning Moon”, Alain Solard uses the various settings and motivations of the characters to examine whether Toomer uses the story to initiate protest or if the motif is utilized to depict the passions of the “southern collective soul”. Solard uses the first part of the essay to delve into the heightened interplay of visual and auditory contrasts, especially Black folk symbols like the “Blood Burning Moon” which symbolizes impending doom and evil. Another element of Black folk tradition that Toomer draws on, according to Solard, is the incantation that is rooted in the repetition of slow and drawn out sounds, words, and rhythms that interact with each other to create a soulful effect. Solard emphasizes how the “Blood-Burning Moon” is a tale of Southern Blacks with a vernacular reminiscent of the blues to symbolize the “inescapable tragedy of Negroes in America”. Solard argues that the white character that Toomer uses (Bob Stone) represents an intersection between folklore and history because his actions reflect his “nostalgia for a vanished supremacy and his own yearning for a fusion with blackness”, which is portrayed through his attraction to Louisa. Overall, the essay draws on the duality of the humanity, the race, the natural, and the mythical elements of “Blood-Burning Moon” to show contrasting elements of awareness for racism, whilst also romanticizing the elements of Black folklore. 



Solard, Alain. “Myth and Narrative Fiction in Cane: “Blood-Burning Moon”.” Callaloo, no. 25 (1985): 551-62. Accessed February 27, 2020. doi:10.2307/2930826.

Micaela and Drew on Jean Toomer’s *Cane*

In his analysis of Cane, William Ramsey fixates on the significance of Toomer’s dual perspective on the South and how that affects the deep southern religion and culture visualized in Cane. Ramsey discusses that Toomer is both an outsider and an insider when it comes to the South; he possesses familial roots within southern states like Georgia and Louisiana. So, despite spending little of his life living there, he is not a stranger to the “Black South.” Ramsey pinpoints Toomer’s dual-perspective as the reason for the “two Souths” presented in Cane: the “temporal” South and the “eternal” South. Ramsey acknowledges that Toomer’s position is unique and significant to the reading of Cane.

Ramsey highlights the points Toomer makes about religion in the Black South. He argues that Toomer aligned himself with this community for their rejection of the “spiritual vacuity of modernism,” which Toomer found to be stifling compared to the transcendent southern Black folk culture. Toomer believed the “temporal” South was the history of oppression and stagnation while the “eternal” South was the everlasting culture that ascended past oppressive social mores. Ramsey writes about how Toomer admired the black southern communities for embodying this “eternal” South and resisting oppression while remaining full of life. On the other hand, Ramsey notes that Toomer did take issue with the black church which he believed was corrupted by white theology and was leading those in the community to repress themselves.

Ramsey, William M. “Jean Toomer’s eternal South.” The Southern Literary Journal 36, no. 1 (2003): 74-89. Gale Literature Resource Center (accessed February 28, 2020).

Shira & Natalie, on Hughes, “The Weary Blues”

In “By the Pale Dull Pallor of an Old Gas Light,” Steven Nardi argues Langston Hughes’ “The Weary Blues” speaks to a “disjunction” between poets and musicians, as well as a sense of loss for a culture changed by modernization (Nardi 256). Nardi marks the influence of modernization at play in Hughes’ “The Weary Blues” by noting the transition from gas to electric lighting at the turn of the century. Nardi argues that the musician represents an older generation left behind by the modernization of the city, as he plays alone in the dark without electricity and is later described as a “rock” or a “man that’s dead” (Hughes). Nardi highlights the sense of disconnect between Hughes’ narration as a poet and the musician by noting the “rhythmically distinct” natures of poetry and music, as Hughes employs “mostly iambic couplets” for the speaker’s voice while utilizing a “four beat, ballad stanza” for the musician’s voice (Nardi 258). According to Nardi, the rhythmic distinctions between Hughes’ and the subject of his poem demonstrate an “unbridgeable difference” between Hughes’ poetry and jazz music, which speaks to a larger disconnect between Hughes and African American folk culture (Nardi 257). Nardi argues “The Weary Blues” was written at a time in which Hughes “found a balance between the competing demands of his own poetic voice, and the voices of the silenced black culture that Hughes found himself excluded from” (Nardi 255). Through analyzing the technological context, rhythmic differences in the speaker and musician’s voices, and the poem’s interplay with blues and jazz music, Nardi argues that “The Weary Blues” encapsulates the dilemma between the folk and modernity, a pressing issue for Hughes and his contemporaries.

Nardi, Steven A. “‘By the Pale Dull Pallor of an Old Gas Light’: Technology and Vision in Langston Hughes’s ‘The Weary Blues.’” In New Voices on the Harlem Renaissance: Essays on Race, Gender, and Literary Discourse, ed. by Australia Tarver and Paula C. Barnes. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005. 253–68.


Some quotes for our discussion of Toomer’s “Cane”

Hello Fellows,

I want to post a handful of quotes that I think will be useful for the continuation of our discussion of Toomer’s Cane on Tuesday. I take both from J. Martin Favor’s book, Authentic Blackness: The Folk in the New Negro Renaissance (Duke UP, 1999). The first is from a letter that Toomer sent to Claude McKay in 1922:

“from my own point of view I am naturally and inevitably an American. I have strived for a spiritual fusion analogous to the fact of racial intermingling” (56)

The second is Favor’s own analysis of how geography, the movement of peoples, and The Great Migration shape and guide Toomer’s representation of African American culture and identity. Referring to Toomer’s time spent teaching in Georgia, Favor writes:

“Far from being an utterly organic, inevitable occurrence, Toomer’s connection to ‘black’ geography was noticeably planned. His adoption of a folk geography is as much a type of consumption as a reconnection; Toomer goes south to gain access to a part of the matrix of discourses he is creating both in Cane and in his developing theory of “American.” In consciously seeking out a southern geography, he is engaged in the performative act of ‘widening’ and ‘deepening’ his own notion of identity. Concurrently, he is also acting out a reverse migration that mirrors the historical Great Migration of the period.” (61)

The final quote I will provide is taken from literary scholar and critic Walter Benn Michaels’s book on American modernism titled Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism (Duke UP 1995).  This quote is a little complicated, but I think it will help to bring out some of the questions that we’ll be working over in our discussion. For our purposes, we can think of culture as being the beliefs and practices of a particular group:

“The fact, in other words, that something belongs to our culture cannot count as a motive for our doing it since, if it does belong to our culture, we already do it and if we don’t do it (if we stopped, or haven’t yet started doing it) it doesn’t belong to our culture…. It is only if we think that our culture is not whatever beliefs and practices we actually happen to have but is instead the beliefs and practices that should properly go with the sort of people we happen to be that the fact of something belonging to our culture can count as a reason for doing it. But to think this is to appeal to something that must be beyond culture and that cannot be derived from culture precisely because our sense of what culture is properly ours must be derived from it. This has been the function of race…. Our sense of culture is characteristically meant to displace race, but … culture has turned out to be a way of continuing rather than repudiating racial thought” (page to come).

Have a great weekend and I look forward to a thoughtful discussion on Tuesday!

ponder denzel washington GIF by Entertainment Tonight


Dr. Cheever

Sustainable Solutions Challenge!


Reilly Geritz informs me about the Sustainable Solutions Challenge happening at UR:

The 1st annual Sustainable Solutions Challenge is an opportunity for students to brainstorm ideas of how to address single-use plastic bottle (SPB) consumption on campus. If you are interested in participating, please make a 2-4 person team and sign up at by Wednesday, February 12th. The full-length “case” of information related to SPB consumption on campus, including stakeholder interviews, can also be found at the link above. If your team’s idea is selected, each participant will win $500 and a chance to be part of the implementation next fall. Reach out to Reilly Geritz ( if you have any questions!
This sounds like a great chance to put your minds towards a worthy and exciting cause. Contact Reilly if you have any quesitons!

Dr. Cheever

Sample Research Application Paragraphs

Hello Fellows!

Below please find some sample research application paragraphs for you to take a look at and on which to model your paragraphs. Your next draft of your paragraphs is due on Thursday, Feb. 6th, at 5pm. 

Please note a few things

  • These paragraphs are longer than that which you are expected to produce. Because there are 10 Fellows this year, you will need to write paragraphs that are approximately 50 words shorter than these. Aim for 200 total words.
  • Notice the form and structure of these paragraphs. They include 1) an introductory few sentences that explain what you are looking at; 2)  questions that will guide your research; and 3) the types of sources and methodologies that you will use in your analysis.
  • Please include with your next draft a list of 5 sources that will help you with your research.
  • IMPORTANT: these paragraphs are not locking you into anything. All of these projects changed significantly from the time of the application to the final proposals written in April, and then AGAIN during the research period over the summer. You are writing about the project as you currently conceive of it. It will change!

Here are the examples.

Chris Barry’s project on slavery and migration:

I propose to research African American communities in the North prior to the Civil War, looking specifically at communities with significant abolitionist presence to explore how these communities developed in antebellum America. My project questions how the movement between Africa and North America, the south and the north, affected an individual’s identity. I would like to examine how African Americans claimed citizenship, what role the abolitionist movement played in those claims, and how those claims formed and changed over time with regard to migration and identity.

Questions that will guide my research include: How did the experience of former enslaved people, free blacks, and abolitionists relate to and challenge the period’s conception of race? What did the abolition movement represent to these communities? How did former enslaved persons, free blacks, and abolitionists imagine African American citizenship and membership in the nation? Did the intersectionality of race and gender affect understandings of citizenship and migration in antebellum America?

I plan to use online archives such as the American Abolitionism Project (Indiana U./Purdue U.), and the Black Abolitionist Archives (U. of Detroit) to gather primary sources and perform close primary analysis. I will draw from American Slavery as It Is: a critical text in abolitionist literature that utilizes slave narratives to push for abolition. Additionally, contemporaneous abolitionist literature such as Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin will be read. In addition, to gain a more complete understanding of the African American experiences at the time I plan on examining the work of other scholars to develop a framework for my analysis and understand broader historiographical trends regarding African Americans and the abolitionist movement.

Raven Baugh’s oral history mapping project on gentrification:

The Church Hill district of Richmond has a rich history of race-related migration stemming from economic fluctuations. My research project will focus on the effects of gentrification in this neighborhood to answer questions about migration, location, and identity. I will ask: Who is moving into the community and where do displaced residents end up? Has this type of movement occurred in the past? How are areas like Church Hill selected for gentrification and who benefits from that gentrification? How does gentrification affect the community’s identity and how do long-term residents respond? At the end of my research, I hope to answer these questions and learn more about the Church Hill community’s reaction to gentrification.

To conduct this research, I will analyze historic newspapers, housing projects, and oral testimonies, visit museums and local archives, and interview residents in the community. In particular, the Valentine has oral testimonies and exhibitions that discuss community reactions to gentrification. Urban planners such as John Moeser will help me understand the complexities of city development. These primary and secondary sources will then be combined to produce a comprehensive reaction to gentrification in Church Hill, culminating in a digital mapping project and a paper explaining the project’s findings.

My previous course work has prepared me this research. In my SSIR Human Rights and Modern Day Slavery I learned how to analyze primary documents as well as study the effects of racial migration on community. Additionally, the Introduction to Digital Humanities taught me tools for the creation and implementation of digital mapping and Documenting 1960s America course taught me skills in the visual analysis of photographs and films.

Karen Fleming’s paragraphs on migration, movement, and literature:

A double major in English and dance, I am interested in exploring the experience of migration through texts and movement. In the summer, I plan to engage in a comparative study of literary works that span the 20th century and address significant human migrations: from the Harlem Renaissance, during and after World War II in Europe, and from the Cold War in communist Cuba. Comparing the experiences of migrants from different contexts, I will explore how the act of migrating affects the individual’s sense of self. I will ask: how do these literary works represent the movement of individuals and its impact on identity? How are those impacts understood in different cultures and historical moments? To explore these questions, I will close read and analyze both fiction and nonfiction, building off of my coursework in English and the Fellows Seminar. I also intend to read scholarly literature about those texts to gain a better understanding of the academic conversations regarding literature and migration.

The second component of this project, to be completed during the 2019 – 2020 academic year, will take these commonalities and communicate them through dance. I intend to choreograph a work which explores the emotions that come with arriving in an unfamiliar place as well as the obstacles faced when one’s identity is challenged. Ultimately, I want to explore migration through literature and dance because both are powerful forms through which one can express meaningful stories. I hope to be able to translate the words and emotions of these texts into movement as a result of my summer research.

And finally, Emmie Poth-Nebel’s project on the Nazar:

The Evil Eye talisman, also known as a nazar, originates from the curse of the evil eye, which causes harm of varying degrees. In one of its simplest forms, a circular eye with a blue iris, the talisman is said to ward off this curse. The image has traveled across the globe but neither its cultural resonance nor its migration is extensively researched. Focusing on ancient Near East/Mesopotamia migration patterns, I will explore the birth, creation, and expansion of the eye’s image and meaning. I will explore how its origin exerted influences over different regions, how geography and climate (coastal, desert, mountainous, etc.) altered its meaning and value, and how it permeated various cultures and thrived within them . Lastly, looking into the evil eye’s value and what meaning could illuminate universal values and beliefs in Mesopotamia from 3,300 BC in Syria (the origin of eye imagery), 1,500 BC in classical Greece (when the blue eye emerged), across the Ottoman empire, and the present. As a History and Archaeology major/minor, I particularly hope to consider this topic not only through a Western lens—in which civilization is “passed over” to Europe—but rather as a migration from a “mother culture” to descendant cultures in the middle east.

My methodologies include the interpretation of both primary and secondary written sources as well as visual analysis of archaeological evidence of evil eye amulets and representations. Ultimately, I seek to explore how the image changed as it was integrated into Western practices. In particular, I am intrigued by its adaptation to the cultural environment in Turkey. I hope to answer questions such as: what was the evil eye’s original intended meaning? How was the image transferred and how did it migrate (through trade, looting, intermarriage, etc…)? How has its interpretation changed as it migrated through space and time, and do the renditions of the image share any commonalities? Ultimately, what can be determined about the transmission of cultural beliefs and practices through the Eye’s migration?

Take a look at these and bring any questions with you to class tomorrow!


Dr. Cheever


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