Two English Undergraduates Find their Voice through Humanities Research

by Pascale Joachim, ’23 (CLAS)

In November of 2022, Sarah Bradshaw (CLAS ’23) and Judah Berl (CLAS ’23) presented at the Connecticut College, Trinity College, and Wesleyan University (CTW) Undergraduate Symposium in the Arts and Humanities, hosted at Wesleyan University.

Bradshaw presented on the concept of hell versus Hell in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The idea arose while taking an undergraduate course called Romantic Shakespeare with Professor Charles Mahoney in which students looked at Shakespeare source texts alongside the works of Romantic critics. Bradshaw focused on an essay by Thomas De Quincey that discussed a possibility to sympathize with Macbeth because of the ways Shakespeare reveals his internal distress to readers.

According to De Quincey, the Porter Scene, which occurs about halfway through the play, reintroduces Macbeth as human as opposed to being centered on his internal hell. When Bradshaw analyzed the language of the play, she thought there was much more to it than just that. She compared Macbeth to a popular story from the Middle Ages titled ‘The Harrowing of Hell’ to argue that readers might be able to sympathize with Macbeth by tracing his development as a character throughout the play.

Berl presented on the oracular value of writing and coined the term ‘crystal ball poems’ to appropriately describe this genre of poetry. She believes poems that fit this category can either predict the future or reveal enough of it in fantasy form to allow the writer to avoid certain outcomes. “I believe that as much as a poet creates a poem, that poem creates itself, and more importantly, creates the poet. As a poet, I know that every poem I’ve written, even the terrible sonnets for my tenth grade boyfriend and emotional vomit I wrote in my first workshop, has an important place in my life, not just as a marker for where or who I was when I wrote it, but as a harbinger for what would come. The most poignant example of this in my writing exists in a poem I wrote two years ago about a fictional suicide following a wedding. Only a year after I wrote that poem would I actually attempt suicide, shortly following my sister’s wedding.”

Berl acknowledged that this could come across as a self-fulfilling prophecy or a “horrible, drawn out plan”, but believes it’s actually much more than this. To Berl, writing can be stronger than spoken words. During her presentation, she argued that writing can allow you to explore a fictional reality and decide if you want to venture down that path at all.

This was both Bradshaw’s and Berl’s first time presenting at a research symposium. They shared with me that they weren’t prepared for what it would actually be like, but once they began presenting they felt confident in what they had to say and validated in their work.

PJ: As an undergraduate, can you talk about the value you find in humanities research?

SB: My thesis was about constellating Shakespeare, so this idea that we can use individual texts and ideas and connect them to create a broader image goes beyond the realm of English and is a great skill to have. There was also a Q&A portion at the symposium, so being able to have constructive conversations with people who have different points of view was huge. I don’t like trying to force my perspectives on others, I like that back and forth. It’s about learning to bend, you know? Sometimes your first impression will be wrong, and it’s good to know you can change that and question that.

JB: This was my first time attending a research symposium, so just being exposed to all the different topics and outlooks that people explored was super interesting. It was great to hear what others are passionate about, and I think it’s important to recognize the value in the variety of interests that are out there. It can be overwhelming, but seeing others find their niche and present on them was reassuring, in a way. Everyone’s work was unique and valid, and I thought that was really valuable.

PJ: If you could give a piece of advice to a student considering pursuing research in humanities and presenting at a symposium, what would you say?

SB: First and foremost, be confident! One of the best things about research in the humanities is that there is no right answer. It’s freeing. Your idea won’t be the same as other people’s ideas and what you have to offer is unique and valuable. You deserve to have that space to think about things in your own way and share that with others and have those conversations. Doing this is what’s going to push you further. If I didn’t do this symposium, I wouldn’t have signed up for this next one. Do it, jump in with both feet, and don’t be afraid to share your opinion. It matters.

JB: Do it, even if you’re on the fence. I made a lot of last minute changes to my presentation and even considered pulling out, but I think committing and following through was super rewarding. Present what you’re passionate about. If you’re knowledgeable and passionate about a topic, that will speak for itself when you present. Of course, be prepared, but those two factors are important and will show when you’re up there.