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Research and Scholarly Work


John Tolley, April 30, 2020

What is the light like within the Arctic sea ice? How does a rainstorm appear frozen in time?

These seemingly impenetrable questions are not from a book of Zen koans. Rather these questions form the heart of installation artworks by University of Maryland professor Cy Keener.

Anything but static, his work undulates and percolates with the rhythms of our planet.

"I think the focus of my art right now is really on trying to find these moments that I've experienced outside," says Keener, an Assistant Professor of Sculpture and Emerging Technology. "These moments of abstract beauty; just trying to find a way to share those with the audience, make those more accessible, bring those into a gallery setting or to a museum setting. To enable people to experience these things, or a version of these things that I've seen outside."



An eclectic path of training informs his unique artistic expression. Keener has a Bachelor's in Philosophy and a Master's in Architecture in addition to his MFA. He is as steeped in science, engineering, technology and math as he is in sculptural form, color theory and tone.

It's a background that has served Keener well as he creates pieces of art that weave together raw scientific data and vivid installations of light and motion. It's a feat he accomplishes through sensors and programming of his own design, tools, he says, that are not unlike a camera to a photographer.

"I'm using sensors and scientific instruments and technology to find these moments outside that I can record and that I can recreate inside of a gallery setting," he explains. "I think of the technology as a way to create a portal between two places, whether it's the Arctic or whether it's a glacier in Switzerland, and sort of use satellite communication to link those places so that you get a sense of what's going on in this far off place that you've never really been to."

One of Keener's recent installations, Digital Ice Core, takes viewers deep inside the Arctic sea ice. Traveling with a scientific expedition, he embedded his array of sensors, capturing light and temperature readings, into holes in the fragile ice. The ever-changing light inside the ice fed into an illuminated sculpture that translated it into a haunting glow.

The interdisciplinary culture fostered at Maryland makes such a project, one that shares the core properties of scientific inquiry, possible. The university thrives on and encourages collaboration across its campus.

"The big kind of advantage of Maryland has been just the open access to people in other departments," Keener says. "There's a giant NOAA [ed. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association] facility that's literally on campus. My whole arctic collaboration came about through meeting someone at NOAA through someone at the University of Maryland. There's an oceanography department, there's atmospheric science, I've collaborated with the geologist who works on rivers. To me the opportunity is to really see the university as a kind of tool for making art, and a tool to find people to collaborate with."

Conversely, Keener is able to use his expressive talents to aid Maryland scientists, many of whom are working tirelessly to protect our environment, in communicating their work.

"What I can bring is this ability to help them communicate their story or help them communicate the thing that they're researching," he notes. "One of the researchers, she's working on this sort of sea-ice interface and over her career she's going to spend thirty or forty years working on that. But it's really hard for her to share that with the public, and so then what I can do is come up with these ways of kind of visualizing things in a dramatic fashion that can help her kind of bring these insights to the public."

It's work that looks beautiful to us.



By William Robin

May 6, 2020

“Music Nets Millions for Liberty Loan Drive,” proclaimed a front-page headline in October 1918. A major gala at the Metropolitan Opera had just raised more than $20 million for that World War I bond campaign. The New York Philharmonic had raised another million in its own patriotic concert, with George M. Cohan leading his hit “Over There.”

But further down the page in Musical Courier magazine were bleaker notices: National tours of the Chicago Opera Association and the Paris Conservatory’s orchestra had been put on hold because of quarantines in East Coast and Midwestern cities, a response to the influenza outbreak then sweeping the world.

“One thing can be said for the influenza,” Musical America magazine noted a few months later. “It has taken away the certainty from symphony concerts, with the result that one never knows on starting forth these days whether it will be the soloist, the conductor or the entire personnel of the orchestra that will be unable to appear. The only sure thing is that someone will be ill.”

Click here to continue reading.



UMD Division of Research announced nine recipients of Coronavirus Research Seed Fund Awards, including two from ARHU.




Brooke Liu, Professor, Department of Communication
Universities’ Coronavirus Crisis Management: Challenges, Opportunities, and Initial Lessons Learned

As the coronavirus spread around the world, more than a thousand U.S. universities migrated instruction online. While we do not yet know the full impact of the pandemic, we know that the impact is immense. To meet the challenge of responding to the coronavirus, higher education leaders are rapidly innovating. These leaders would benefit from systematically learning how their peers are managing the pandemic. This project asks: How have U.S. higher education institutions planned for and responded to the COVID-19 pandemic? What challenges do they face, how have they overcome obstacles, and what lessons have they learned? This study answers these questions through longitudinal interviews with 40-50 higher education leaders who are part of their institutions’ crisis management teams. The study also conducts textual analysis of materials provided by these leaders and found online. Findings will inform institutions’ coronavirus responses while they continue to face this unprecedented crisis. Findings also can inform planning for future mega crises, which is especially important given the relative dearth of research on higher education crisis management.

Sun Young Lee, Assistant Professor, Department of Communication
How Companies Are Responding to the Coronavirus Pandemic: Their Roles, Strategies, and Effectiveness in Promoting the Public Good

The purpose of the project is to examine how companies are responding to the pandemic as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities and the effects of their efforts at preventing, controlling, and responding to the outbreak for their stakeholders and for U.S. society at large. Study 1 will examine what kinds of efforts companies have made in response to the pandemic; then Study 2 will test the effectiveness of various types of company messages in promoting the public good.


Click here to read previous ARHU Faculty Spotlights.


By Sunil Iyengar, Arts Endowment Director of Research & Analysis

Kenneth Elpus was a newly minted doctorate from Northwestern University’s music education program when he learned of a research funding opportunity at the National Endowment for the Arts. Though a choral music educator, he had recently whetted his appetite for statistical analyses of large datasets. With music education professor Carlos Abril (now at University of Miami), he already had published a national demographic profile of high school music students.

“It caught on,” he noted, referring to the article, which appeared in May 2011 in the Journal of Research in Music Education. Subsequently, the “idea of figuring out who we serve and what they look like, in comparison to students who don’t pursue the arts, became this important cornerstone of the work that I do.” The preoccupation has led to Elpus serving as a principal investigator on six research grants from the Arts Endowment, and as a consultant on a seventh. It also drove him to pursue and win a $600,000 research grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences—one of only two awards that emerged from a rare call for proposals the department issued on the topic of “arts in education.”

Now an associate professor of music education at the University of Maryland, Elpus views his first Arts Endowment grant as a crucial milestone in his research career—and in his professional development. “I think when you first have a PhD, it’s very easy to not view yourself as an expert, even though you just finished your dissertation,” he said. “You still have a grad school or grad student mentality…. A lot is very new in your first year as an assistant professor.”

A mentor told Elpus about the research grant opportunity at the Arts Endowment. (Formerly known as “Research: Art Works,” the program is now called “Research Grants in the Arts.” Go here for the application guidelines. Applications are due March 30, 2020.) He said, “Applying for that research really helped me establish myself as a kind of authority” in using secondary datasets to inform the public about demographic characteristics and outcomes associated with arts education in the U.S.

For the 2011 journal article, Elpus and Abril had analyzed data from the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002, a sample that permitted them to report, among other things, that one-fifth of the nation’s high school seniors were participating in school music ensembles, according to the most recent wave of the survey. By accessing data so sensitive it requires a research license, Elpus and Abril further concluded that children who were English language learners, Hispanics, or from families with low socioeconomic status, were “significantly underrepresented in music programs across the United States.” More recent analyses have echoed these findings.  

By the time the Arts Endowment funding opportunity rolled around, Elpus had set his sights on another large database—the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (or “Add Health”)—for what it could tell researchers about teenagers receiving an arts education. In particular, the database allowed Elpus to track developmental outcomes associated with those teens.

The Arts Endowment grant “literally enabled that project,” Elpus explained. It supported travel costs so he could perform his analysis at a “secured data enclave,” covered the cost of a data-use agreement, and “started connecting me with a community of likeminded researchers.”

Indeed, at an arts education research conference years later, Elpus found himself presenting results from one of his many Arts Endowment-funded studies. There he met an official with the International Baccalaureate (IB—formerly the International Baccalaureate Organization), and another sort of journey began. The organization, he recalled, was interested in “leveraging their own [administrative] data and doing a global survey of arts teachers in their schools, to help paint a picture of what the on-the-ground reality was,” in terms of how students are served by the arts through the IB diploma program.

This relationship sparked a successful proposal to the U.S. Department of Education in 2018. “Exploring Links Between Arts Education and Academic Outcomes in the International Baccalaureate,” as the study is called, is using IB data to compare the academic achievement of students who took arts courses with the outcomes of students who did not. (The IB database includes over 650,000 U.S. students who took any IB course from 2005 to 2015.)

Elpus and his team are also linking the IB data to National Student Clearinghouse data, to understand the post-secondary outcomes of both types of student. The researchers then will check their findings against Maryland’s state longitudinal data system. Because the IB program offers standardized curricula and testing, moreover, Elpus will have a wealth of data not only about what arts courses the students may have taken, but what they have learned. He will be presenting some of the study results at the International Society for Medical Education conference this August in Helsinki. In a nice bit of symmetry, he’ll be joined on stage by Carlos Abril, with whom he launched his career as an arts education researcher conversant with longitudinal databases.

Click here to browse papers and articles by Elpus that have resulted from Arts Endowment research grants to the University of Maryland and the National Association for Music Education.


In the late 19th century, a small African American community named Lakeland took root just beyond the grounds of what was then called the Maryland Agricultural College, now the University of Maryland. Lakeland thrived for decades, even in the face of historical forces like segregation, suburbanization, school desegregation and urban renewal, which plagued African American towns and cities across the nation throughout the 20th century. 

More than a decade ago, residents and friends of Lakeland began digitally collecting images, documents and oral histories in an effort to preserve their history. 

Now, a new grant will help Lakeland better document, preserve and share its cultural heritage. The $100,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant will make Lakeland’s growing collection of documents and images easier to navigate and maintain. It will allow core audiences like elderly, low vision and low hearing users from the community to tell their own stories.

The project also aims to be a model for other small community-led cultural heritage groups beyond Lakeland. Maxine Gross, the director of the Lakeland Community Heritage Project (LCHP), said the community’s history has national resonance. 

“From the inception of LCHP, community history has been interpreted in the context of broader American life,” said Gross, whose family has lived in Lakeland for at least five generations. “The goal isn’t just to make [the history] available to people associated with the community who already know the story, but also to the wider public.”

In a unique community-university partnership, University of Maryland faculty members and students have been involved in the archive since the beginning. The new grant project is an equitable partnership between LCHP, the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) at the University of Maryland and the UMD Department of American Studies. 

Located between Indian Creek and Baltimore Avenue, Lakeland was settled in 1890. Originally intended as a white enclave, by 1903 it was a “flourishing African American community with two churches and a school,” according to LCHP. Seventy years later, large swaths of Lakeland — 104 of 150 households — were bulldozed as part of a federal urban renewal process, replaced with Lake Artemesia Natural Area, subsidized townhomes, high-density apartments and an elder housing facility. Simultaneous enactment of school desegregation laws intended to promote greater equity further changed the character of the community. Many College Park residents don’t know about Lakeland’s past.

In 2009, LCHP published the book “Lakeland: African Americans in College Park,” using its collection. Beginning that same year, Mary Corbin Sies, associate professor in the American Studies department, ran a series of community-directed class projects with LCHP to contribute to LCHP’s Lakeland Digital Archive. The archive now contains about 100 oral histories and thousands of photographs, newspaper clippings, deeds, maps and other materials. 

“Our first project documented the original settlement of Lakeland — where Lake Artemesia Park is located. We gathered photos and got Lakelanders to help us map who lived where,” Sies said. “The whole idea was to have a record that people’s children and grandchildren could access to understand the history of the community — to help people who grew up in the post urban renewal community understand what was there before and how Lakeland was a historically significant African American community in College Park.”

MITH joined the partnership in 2017 and currently holds a copy of the archive’s collection data in trust. The new archive will demonstrate “minimal computing,” a spare approach that uses simple, inexpensive hardware, doesn’t require a business-grade broadband connection and can even be accessed offline through a thumb drive. 

As part of the grant, MITH will also spearhead the creation of tutorials to teach other community organizations how to build and maintain similar projects using minimal computing.

Photo courtesy of Lakeland Community Heritage Project. Members of the Duchesses Social Club, 1942. Social clubs provided much of the organized entertainment in Lakeland in the 1940s and 1950s. These clubs met monthly at the homes of the members. Dinners were part of the gathering and provided the host an opportunity to showcase both their cooking ability and their tableware.


By Jessica Weiss ’05

For a costume designer who’s spent her career reflecting the African American experience in film and television, it was an intriguing prospect: envision the look of a futuristic African kingdom that’s rich in vibranium, not to mention helmed by a superhero.

The charge to help give the fictional Wakanda a ring of authenticity and make it reflect the depth of African tribal customs and cultures sent Ruth E. Carter on a research odyssey that took her from Los Angeles to Atlanta to the Lesotho nation, working with a team of shoppers, designers, mold and jewelry makers and more.

For her work designing the 700-plus costumes featured in “Black Panther,” Carter won the 2018 Oscar for costume design — becoming the first African American ever to do so. It was an honor she’s long been working toward; since the late ’80s, Carter’s creations have appeared in some 65 film and television productions.

Carter’s first plan was acting, but after losing out on a role in a play during her sophomore year at Hampton University, a professor asked her to try her hand behind the scenes instead, dressing the characters. It turned out she loved it, and after college and an internship at the Santa Fe Opera, she drove to L.A. and started as a backstage dresser for the Los Angeles Theatre Center. That’s where she met indie filmmaker Spike Lee, who invited her to work with him on “School Daze,” his second film. She has since worked with Lee on 10 films, including 1992’s “Malcolm X,” which netted her first Oscar nomination. Steven Spielberg’s 1997 “Amistad” brought a second.

She’s also branching out to new areas of design. This month Carter launched her first fashion line, “Ruthless,” in collaboration with H&M. Inspired by hip-hop fashions of the ’80s and ’90s — a look she helped create with her work on Lee’s “Do the Right Thing — the 11-piece line features the red, black and green of the black liberation flag. Up next, her costumes will appear in December in “Coming 2 America,” the sequel to the 1988 Eddie Murphy classic.

Carter is speaking tomorrow at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center as part of the 2019-20 Arts and Humanities Dean’s Lecture Series. But before that, she talked to us about her love of storytelling, the power of history and the artistry behind “Black Panther.”

When did you first realize your passion for stories?

My brother and I loved to create characters when we were growing up. We would draw them and build a story around them. We had one that was a mouse, and he was kind of a revolutionary. We drew a turtleneck on him, he wore a tam and he usually had a big Black Power kind of fist in the air. We put him in our books and notebooks. He was really like a part of our family. I think being imaginative around these characters was one of the beginnings of me understanding this passion in myself.

There was no costume design concentration at Hampton, your university. So how did you hone your skills?

I had taught myself how to sew and I had a machine in my bedroom, but I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. I went through the work of breaking down the script and figuring out how many costume changes there would be; I went to the local fabric store; I went to the library and got books on costume design and learned I had to do sketches. The university’s costume shop was vacant, so I made that whole shop my playhouse, my workroom, and I soon found out that I could be there for hours and not feel isolated or alone. It was a place where I could actually be creative. So, sophomore year I switched my major to theater arts from special education. I took a couple of fashion courses. By the time I was a senior, everything I was doing centered around being a costume designer. I was doing the costumes for the frats if they had a step show, I was doing plays, I was the president of the drama club. Finally, my last semester of senior year the university offered a class in costume history. But I didn’t get a good grade in it because I was never there.

From “Amistad” to “Malcolm X” to “Selma,” you have worked on costumes from many different historical eras. How do you recreate a period of time through costume?

It’s an in-depth research process. During college I spent summers at Colonial Williamsburg where I was a part of their Living History program. I played a woman named Betty, a seamstress who made dresses for Thomas Jefferson’s wife. She freed herself and was buying her husband’s freedom too. So, I would walk the streets barefoot with a rag on my head and a big basket with a dress in it. I also played Jennie who was a tavern maid, a slave. She had a garden so I would pick beans. The research I had to do on those two people was incredible. I was assigned a historian and he would guide me through a research process and I would write the monologue that I would give to visitors. Back at school, a lot of the plays we did were period pieces, from the ’40s, ’50s, the turn of the century, and I knew how to get into each character and the research of the items based on my experience at Colonial Williamsburg. And that same process serves me now.

But it was your imaginative futuristic designs in “Black Panther” that ended up nabbing you an Oscar.

There are actually a lot of similarities. The film is based in a culture that is so rich. All the costumes in “Black Panther” — the textiles, the elements, the fabrics — had to have a history and an origin. Take African beadwork, for instance. Some beads are made of glass, some of bone, some of paper, some of clay. That lack of uniformity actually tells a story. So, you still have to do your research and get to know what these elements are and how they were made. When you can infuse that into a futuristic model of something, it adds so much depth to the story; it moves it forward as well as keeps it rooted in culture. I think that was the success of “Black Panther.” It opened up the door to the wealth of knowledge that Africa has as far as crafts and arts.

You’ve just launched the "Ruthless" fashion line. What does the collection represent about you?

This collection is my invitation to connect to anyone who feels that they have a unique voice. It’s for anyone who wants to be a part of a community of people who are like-minded and that wants to share their creative self.

The Arts and Humanities Dean's Lecture Series featuring Ruth E. Carter will be held at 5:00 p.m. tomorrow in The Clarice’s Gildenhorn Recital Hall. Tickets are sold out, but more info about the standby line is here. Image courtesy of Netflix.


By Maryland Today Staff

The first book-length ethnographic study of French jazz in English. A deep dive into differing developing-world attitudes toward coal-fired power plants. A multi-method exploration of President Trump’s use of Twitter.

These are some of the projects supported by the first Independent Scholarship Research and Creativity Awards (ISRCA), a new seed grant program instituted by the University of Maryland’s Office of the Provost and Division of Research. It aims to bolster research and creative work in non-STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) areas, which broaden our understanding of the world and make it a richer place.

“The ISRCA award program provides vital support for humanistic scholarship and creative endeavors that, unfortunately, tend to be underfunded,” said Mary Ann Rankin, provost and vice president. “I am delighted to support a rich array of projects that explore critical aspects of our global culture: from 19th century Russian politics, to the heritage of climate change, to topics of exile and immigration, and beyond. This wonderful range of research activity is what makes the University of Maryland great."

The IRSCA awards of up to $10,000 for tenured or tenure-track faculty were announced last month, and cover methods and types of inquiry including historical, humanistic, interpretive or ethnographic approaches; explorations of aesthetic, ethical and/or cultural values and their roles in society; critical and rhetorical analyses; archival and/or field research; and development and/or production of creative works.

"This inaugural group of awards highlights the incredibly creative and diverse research that is happening across the campus,” said Laurie Locascio, vice president for research. “I look forward to seeing what comes of all the unique projects that this program will support. Maryland is really fortunate to be home to such creative scholars and researchers.

Thirteen researchers received ISRCA funding:

Shannon Carcelli, Department of Government and Politics
A book project, “Bureaucracy at the Border: The Fragmentation of Foreign Policy,” will argue that foreign policy decisions are made primarily not by state leaders, but by lower-level domestic bureaucrats, a phenomenon driven by pork-barrel spending.  

Sarah Croco, Department of Government and Politics
“The Twitter Presidency: Who Trump Talks About, How He Talks About Them, and Why It Matters” will explore how President Trump uses Twitter as a political tool through two methods: text analysis of his tweets to spot patterns in his mentioning of people, and nationally representative surveys to gauge Americans’ reaction.

Mikhail Dolbilov, Department of History
A book, “Conundrum of Loyalty:  Dynasty, Governance, and Political Allegiance in Imperial Russia, 1850-1900,” will use the concept of loyalty to study the political crisis tsarist Russia’s Romanov dynasty experienced at the moment of its transformation into a truly enormous, sprawling clan. It will offer a revisionist portrait of the Russian monarchy to help explain the persistence of Russian political authoritarianism in a more imaginative and nuanced fashion.

Claire Dunning, School of Public Policy
A paper, “Funding Black Power: Race, Philanthropy and the Politics of Social Impact,” will investigate how two groups of Bostonians—wealthy white suburbanites and black power activists—combined to launch a philanthropic experiment designed to address economic and racial inequality in the region.

Perla Guerrero, Department of American Studies
“Deportation’s Aftermath: Little LA and Making a Life in Exile” will explore what happens after deportation and return migration to Mexico in terms of inequality, criminalization and stigma, as returnees and deportees negotiate a process of criminalization that begins in the United States.

Jennifer Hadden, Department of Government and Politics
The project “Understanding the Social Reception of Proposed Energy Infrastructure in the Developing World” will examine the social reception to proposed energy infrastructure in the developing world, particularly focusing on coal. Public opposition to coal in some places is an important factor in project development, while in other places, support for coal is more widespread. The origins of such differing viewpoints, however, are not well understood.

Siv Lie, School of Music
A book project, “Django Generations: Ethnorace, Citizenship, and Jazz Manouche in France,” will look at how ideologies of ethnoracial and national belonging are generated through musical performance and discourse, applying humanistic and social scientific theory on the politics of race, expressive practices and cultural citizenship.

Ryan Long, School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures
A book project, “Hannes Meyer, Post-Revolutionary Mexico, and the Poetics of Place and Displacement,” will focus on the Swiss-born Meyer (1889-1954), an architect and urban planner whose peripatetic career took him across Europe, from Switzerland to England, the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany, the Soviet Union and Mexico.  

Lauren Porter, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice
A study, “Identifying Crime Hot Spots: A Multi-source Investigation of Crime Distribution in Peterborough, England,” will triangulate multiple data sources on crime distribution to better understand discrepancies in crime "hot spots,” and leverages unique sources of data, including police perceptions and self-reported offending, to examine crime concentration in Peterborough, England. 

Kathryn Lafrenz Samuels, Department of Anthropology
A book, “Anthropogenic: The Cultural Heritage of Climate Change,” will offer a “cultural heritage of climate change,” connecting the historical development of anthropogenesis with current responses to climate change, to privilege both past and present within the same analytical frame. 

Krishnan Vasudevan, Philip Merrill College of Journalism
A film, “One Driver, One Mic: How Immigrant Taxi Drivers Formed a Co-op to Take on Uber, Lyft and the Taxi Industry,” will depict an ethnographic study examining how a group of immigrant taxi drivers in Austin, Texas, formed their own cooperative after years of enduring abusive labor conditions by the taxi industry and being unheard by local government. 

Katherine Wasdin, Department of Classics
A book, “Fabricating Catullus: Catullus' Reception by Postmodern Women,” will study the reception of the Roman poet Catullus in the works of five contemporary female writers and artists: the poet Bernadette Mayer, the novelist Kathy Acker, the poet Anne Carson, and the artists Elaine Reichek and Sophie Calle. It will argue that Catullus is uniquely influential because he is an authoritative canonical model, yet one also deeply concerned with expressing female voices and formal experimentation. 

Edlie Wong, Department of English
“Empire and the Black Pacific: A Record of the Darker Races” will focus on the “Black Pacific” as a generative site for thinking about racial formations, post-national literary forms and cultural histories in the period spanning the end of Reconstruction to the onset of World War I. It will examine the formative yet largely underexamined role of black periodicals—specifically, the illustrated literary monthly—in the development of black American political life and literary practice. 




In 1834, a 22-year-old Yoruba man who would come to be known as Manuel Vidau was captured as a prisoner of war and sold to slave traders in Lagos, today the largest city in Nigeria. A Spanish ship transported him to Cuba, where he was sold to a white man who forced him to roll 400 cigars a day (if his pace slowed, he recalled, he would be “stripped, tied down and flogged with the cow hide”). A decade later, however, Vidau secured permission from a new owner to hire himself out, and with his earnings he bought a share in a lottery ticket—and won. That allowed him finally to buy his freedom. He married a fellow former slave, Maria Picard, and they adopted a young relative whose parents had died of cholera. Vidau supported his wife and son by continuing to roll cigars, eventually making enough money to cover their passage to England.

Vidau’s stroke of fortune is known today only because he had a chance encounter with a representative of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. The organization recorded his story in its journal, which was later shelved in a university library, digitized and eventually collected in an online database called “Freedom Narratives.” Enslaved people like Vidau—torn away from their communities of origin, deprived of the ability to write about themselves and treated as cargo or property in official documents—often left little of themselves to the historic record. Still, even a few facts can shape the outline of a life of sorrow, adversity, perseverance and triumph.

“One of the biggest challenges in slave studies is this idea that people were unknowable, that the slave trade destroyed individuality,” says Daryle Williams, a historian at the University of Maryland. “But the slave trade didn’t erase people. We have all kinds of information that’s knowable—property records, records related to births, deaths and marriages. There are billions of records. It just takes a lot of time to go look at them, and to trace the arc of an individual life.”

1767 slave inventory

A detail from a page in a 1767 slave inventory from Maranhao, Brazil. It lists the household slaves belonging to a judge in the city, including their ages and birthplaces. (Walter Hawthorne III)

Williams, a specialist in the African diaspora of Brazil, is one of the principal investigators of a massive new online database called “Enslaved: Peoples of the Historic Slave Trade,” which will launch in 2020. It aims to serve as a clearinghouse for information about enslaved people and their captors. Headquartered at Matrix, the Center for Digital Humanities & Social Sciences at Michigan State University, and funded by a founding $1.5 million grant from the Mellon Foundation, Enslaved will serve as a hub for many smaller digitization projects, Freedom Narratives among them. For the first time, says Williams, anyone from academic historians to amateur genealogists will be able trace individuals, families, ethnic groups and populations through dozens, hundreds or even thousands of archives, making connections that will enrich our understanding of slavery.

“This tool,” Williams says, “will have the potential to show that even in the context of this horrible crime, there are still threads that hold people’s lives together.”

Click here to read the full article.

The University of Maryland has been invited to nominate early-career humanities faculty for the 2021-22 cycle of the Whiting Public Engagement Programs. These programs aim to celebrate and empower early-career humanities faculty who undertake ambitious projects to infuse the depth, historical richness, and nuance of the humanities into public life. In brief, the two programs are:

  • Fellowship of $50,000 for projects far enough into development or execution to present specific, compelling evidence that they will successfully engage the intended public.
  • Seed Grant of $10,000 for projects at a somewhat earlier stage of development, where more modest resources are needed to test or pilot a project or to collaborate with partners to finalize the planning for a larger project and begin work.

The College of Arts and Humanities will be nominating a full-time, early-career faculty candidate for either program or one for each. If you are interested in submitting an application and wish to be considered as the College nominee for this program, please submit all required application materials except the collaborators documentation to Linda Aldoory by March 6, 2020.  The link here is to the revised guidelines and eligibility criteria for the 2021-22 cycle, which contain more details. 



By Nathaniel Underland 

ocal communication for chimpanzees, our closest relatives on the evolutionary tree, consists of a few simple signals. By contrast, human language has many thousands of words that can be combined into an infinite number of sentences. 

Broad University of Maryland expertise on the gap between these two—how human language developed from a limited set of vocal actions to the incredibly complex systems of meaning we use today—is strongly featured in a new special edition of the august British journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

The issue, “What Can Animal Communication Teach Us About Human Language?” includes contributions from five researchers in the colleges of Arts and Humanities (ARHU); Behavioral and Social Sciences (BSOS); and Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences (CMNS); from disciplines including biology, psychology, neuroscience and linguistics.

One of the UMD authors, BSOS Dean Gregory F. Ball, said scholars from the various disciplines have been laying a foundation for new thinking and research on the topic both in the U.S. and globally, after a global surge of interest in the 1970s had abated.

“The campus combines people with expertise in both the production of signals in animal communication and the complex processes underlying this ability, along with people who have expertise in the processes governing how those signals are received,” he said. In all, UMD is contributing “ideas and new data leading to an understanding of how human language evolved.”

The journal issue was co-edited by biology Professor Gerald “Jerry” Wilkinson, the associate dean for faculty affairs in CMNS, William Idsardi, professor and chair of the Department of Linguistics; and Jonathan Fritz, a visiting scholar at New York University. The special issue first took shape at a conference organized by UMD’s Brain and Behavior Initiative in September 2017, and was published Monday.

The nature and origin of human language have been intensely debated for centuries. However, the special issue of Phil Trans B—the life sciences imprint of the oldest scientific journal in the English-speaking world—makes an original contribution through its emphasis on comparative methodologies. While authors across the journal disagree on such topics as the definition of vocal learning and what species possess it or how syntax evolved and whether any other species use it, they agree on the fundamental importance of an interdisciplinary approach to advancing our understanding around age-old questions of human language. The comparative approach introduces new perspectives to debates such as how we learn to speak, how the brain processes words and what component parts constitute language. 

Both for the interdisciplinary group on campus and beyond, Idsardi said, “it’s been an attempt to have a meeting of the minds to determine what the differences between animal and human communication are. For the linguists, the point is to be clearer about what they thought was special about human language, and for the animal researchers, to try to show that animals have communications systems that are as expressive as language.”

In the article “Behaviour, Biology and Evolution of Vocal Learning in Bats,” Wilkinson and co-author Sonja Vernes of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics argue that researchers in previous debates about vocal learning have overlooked how bats’ biological makeup has significant neurological implications. Scientists previously focused on bats’ echolocation system, which does not involve vocal learning, to the detriment of more recently discovered learning abilities in bats to modify their vocalizations. Vernes and Wilkinson argue that the study of bats has a significant upside: The diversity of bats’ genetic makeup—they possess many variants of a gene implicated in human language evolution—renders them useful for studies of the neural circuity of vocal learning. 

In another research article, Adam Fishbein, a doctoral candidate in UMD’s Program in Neuroscience and Cognitive Science, and co-authors Idsardi, Ball and Robert Dooling, professor emeritus in psychology, challenge the boundaries of existing animal models. Birdsong has long been a popular means for studying human speech production, since birds produce songs according to sequential rules like humans do in speech. Many experiments with birdsong involve testing these sequential rules, with experiments that involve, for example, switching the order of sounds in a sequence. However, the researchers found that zebra finches, and perhaps most birds, are more sensitive to the acoustic properties of individual song elements than to the sequential properties. Fishbein and his colleagues argue that birdsong might be an altogether different form of communication than human language. The implications could disrupt many studies that use bird models.

Other articles in the special issue suggest fundamental similarities between animal communication and human language. One provides evidence that human and animal brains share an ancient, conserved brainstem circuitry that provides a general platform for vocal production. Another examines the shared genetic underpinnings of humans and songbirds—not only with regard to genes related to vocal communication but also those that influence social cognition and intelligence. Still others ponder difficult issues related to intentionality and cognition—for example, the problem of assessing whether non-human primates who exhibit nominally similar communication behaviors as humans actually intend to communicate the same thing.

"You can identify common features, from syntax to various ways in which the brain is configured to combine elements ... and there are undoubtedly shared features that go back in time to our common ancestors,” Wilkinson said. “That's sort of what the issue's all about."


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