The Intersection of Research and the Humanities

By Veronica Backer-Peral ’22, Film Production & History double-major

Before this semester I had never heard what soon became a quite common sound – the iconic ‘humanities research’ jokes. At first it was a polite but noticeable flash of disappointment or underwhelmed “oh” whenever I mentioned the topic of my research project. Then, as I got to know the other researchers, the jokes became more overt. The STEM researchers laughed at the idea that I would be presenting next to their highly sophisticated, technologically advanced cancer-solving research, but even the other humanities researchers played along, refusing to attend science-based presentations and scorning the pretentious STEM majors. Of course, it must be noted that in general the jokes were never ill-intended, meant to tease rather than degrade my work. In fact, more often than not, I went along with it and failed to challenge the idea that STEM research was more important than my work as humanist.

It was not until my last day at Harvard’s National Collegiate Research Conference that I began to look at the situation from a more critical light. The day had finally arrived where I would present my own research on the history of the modern Middle East in front of judges, students, and scholars alike. My project, The Story of Time: A Study of the Modern Middle East, specifically addressed the role of U.S. involvement in the area commonly known as the Middle and Near East and the broader implications of U.S. foreign policy in the region, including its relation to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. After disproving the notion that the United States has been guided by any moral goals of promoting democracy, my research analyzed the three main motivations guiding U.S. interventionism and how these are directly reflected in the response of multiple Middle Eastern states to the United States.

My project went smoothly, but what completely threw me off guard is when a man came up to me all of a sudden and thanked me. Then another older man. Then a young woman who vehemently took my hand as she expressed genuine gratitude for bringing to light so much of the bigotry and latent prejudice that she had felt her whole life as a Muslim-American. It was at that point that I realized that while my peers were trying to cure cancer or solve string theory, the value in connecting to and understanding other human beings’ experience in itself too has an inherent and incalculable worth. My research had been able to trace connections between the past and the present that not only continue to be relevant to the policy choices that we make today as a nation, but also shape the understanding people have of an entire region of the world.

I ended up winning Second Prize in my category, but I’d like to think that what I got out of the conference was far greater than that. I was given a deeper understanding of the value of connecting to underrepresented groups. Of giving people a voice. Of making people feel understood. Even more so, I realized that while research in the humanities is often demeaned and dismissed, if we only focus on learning everything there is to know about cells, computers, and stars, then we might forget what it means to be human.

Note: I must thank my mentor, Professor Ali Olomi, as well as the head of the LMU History Department, Professor Elizabeth Drummond, for their continuous support and mentorship during this entire process.