Scholarship as Activism

What Yulyana Torres ’18 saw as she walked the halls of the Rhode Island State House got her fired up. The history of Rhode Island, as depicted in artwork on the State House walls, was utterly and completely white. Not a person of color anywhere to be seen.

Another person might have shot off a few angry tweets, maybe posted a pouty selfie on Instagram, but Torres had other ideas.

At the State House as part of its 2017 Summer Fellowship Program, Torres had met several political leaders and took her concerns to the state Department of Administration. Now, she is in talks with the department to install a painting of the Continental Army’s First Rhode Island Regiment, also known as the Black Regiment, because in 1778 it recruited African Americans, who until then, had been barred from serving.

That Torres, a Gender and Women’s Studies and communications studies major, would take such action is of no surprise to Marcus P. Nevius, assistant professor in the department of history, who would routinely see readings he assigned in his History of Slavery in America class resonate strongly with her.

“Her visceral reaction to the material indicated to me that she’d taken herself out of the classroom and made a personal investment in the material — one that could be sustained,” said Nevius.

Then and now, Torres is taking what she’s learned, both in scholarly reading and independent study, and using it to propose change. This past January, Torres realized another of her goals as a young scholar/activist: the publication of her first academic essay.

Like Nevius, Donna Hughes, professor of Gender and Women’s Studies, Eleanor M. and Oscar M. Carlson Endowed Chair, saw a scholar and an activist in the making in Torres when she completed an independent study with her. The two professors talked and proposed a project to Torres: Write a review of two books on the history of slavery in Rhode Island, they told her, and it would be published in the online academic journal, “Dignity: A Journal on Sexual Exploitation and Violence,” of which Hughes is editor-in-chief.  That review, “The Dark Past of Rhode Island in New Light,” is now online.

That Torres is listed as the first author of the review is no small thing for an undergraduate student. While students often assist professors in research, it is unusual in academia for a student to be listed as the first author on a scholarly essay.

“This type of work indicates a moving on from being a student to being a professional. This is scholarship as activism.” Donna Hughes

“It wasn’t something we gave her; she earned it,” said Hughes. “In all the published work I’ve done with students, I’ve given them first authorship. I think the person who’s done the work should get the credit.”

Of his role, Nevius said: “I acted as a mentor to Yulyana’s book review project, suggesting edits as she worked to articulate her understanding of historical context,” said Nevius. “I helped her with transitions, making the implicit explicit. She deserved first-author credit.”

Hughes offered Torres encouragement and guidance to ensure her work was of publishable quality.

What does it mean for Torres to be published — beyond the thrill of having her name in print? It puts her in a rarefied group: an undergraduate with a published academic essay to her credit. It is something that graduate schools and future employers will take note of, the professors said.

Torres said she cried when she saw her published work. She said graduate school is almost certainly in her future, and a career as an activist is also highly likely. “I’m one to downplay my accomplishments,” Torres said. “But I see how I can inspire people my age now.”

As for her professors, the two say the collaboration with Torres was so successful they are keen to do it again. Nevius said it energizes him to consider cultivating other young academics or activists.

“Through such a process, a student learns what a life of scholarship is. This could open doors here for more people to get involved and claim their educations,” he said. “That’s scholarship. That’s important.”

Hughes concurred. “This type of work indicates a moving on from being a student to being a professional,” she said. “This is scholarship as activism.”