art | sci magazine

Navigation + Search

Straight to the Source

Undergraduates pursue humanities research overseas

By Amber Matheson

Published in spring 2015

Saadia Pervaiz (left) accompanied her faculty mentor, Assistant Professor Ananya Dasgupta, to the British Library last summer. The visit gave Pervaiz a chance to examine primary sources from the period of British rule in India. Photo by Mike Sands.

Saadia Pervaiz (left) accompanied her
faculty mentor, Assistant Professor
Ananya Dasgupta, to the British Library
last summer. The visit gave Pervaiz
a chance to examine primary sources
from the period of British rule in India. Photo by Mike Sands.

Every summer, historians and other humanities scholars from the United States descend on the great libraries of Europe to pursue their research. At the British Library in London, it is known as “the American season.” Only rarely, however, do undergraduates gain entrée to this niche world.

Yet last summer, two rising seniors earned the opportunity to carry out humanities research projects abroad under the guidance of faculty mentors. Saadia Pervaiz made her way to the British Library alongside Ananya Dasgupta, assistant professor in the Department of History, to gain insights into the lives of mixed-race children in colonial India. Charles Burke accompanied Kevin Dicus, visiting assistant professor in the Department of Classics, to the American Academy in Rome, where he investigated the manufacture of pottery in the Roman Republic and Empire. He also joined Dicus on visits to archaeological sites in several ancient cities.

Both Pervaiz and Burke obtained funding for their summer research from SOURCE (Support of Undergraduate Research and Creative Endeavors), which runs several competitive grant programs for students at Case Western Reserve. For overseas projects, the grants cover airfare and housing as well as lesser expenses. While the majority of candidates submit science or engineering proposals, SOURCE also welcomes humanities projects, and faculty members such as Dasgupta encourage their students to apply.

Before he undertook a research project under the guidance of Visiting Assistant Professor Kevin Dicus, Charles Burke (left) served as a tutor for Dicus’ introductory Latin classes. Photo by Mike Sands.

Before he undertook a research project under the guidance of Visiting Assistant Professor Kevin Dicus, Charles Burke (left) served as a tutor for Dicus’ introductory Latin classes. Photo by Mike Sands.

“It’s important for a student to know about other parts of the world, not just through textbooks and our lectures, but also though primary sources,” Dasgupta says. “It’s a process of seeing how scholars work—the nitty-gritty of a historian’s life.”

Discovering a Story

Pervaiz’ voice rings with excitement when she describes her love for history. Though her parents have encouraged her to pursue a career in medicine, she has also nurtured a deep interest in her South Asian heritage, majoring in history as well as biology. When Dasgupta, a specialist in modern South Asian history, joined the faculty in 2013, Pervaiz immediately signed up for one of her courses.

“As soon as I joined her class, I said, ‘Hi, I’m Saadia, and I need you to be my advisor. I’ve been waiting, and now you’re here,’” Pervaiz recalls. Later, with Dasgupta’s help, she developed a research proposal focusing on Anglo-Indian children—the offspring of British fathers and Indian mothers—in 18th- and 19th-century India. For her project, she needed access to the British Library, which contains administrative records, private papers and even the personal libraries of the era’s British officers.

Dasgupta spent part of summer 2014 doing her own research at the British Library, and last June, Pervaiz met her in London. For the next few weeks, Pervaiz spent every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. tucked into the Asian & African Studies Reading Room, sorting through handwritten notes and manuscripts, chasing down leads and piecing together a story from fragments of documentation. In the process, she came to realize how much persistence historical scholarship requires.

“Archival research is exciting, but it can also be tedious—it’s not instant gratification,” Dasgupta says. “Patience is something important for students to learn!”

Pervaiz sometimes found herself vying with eminent historians for the materials she wanted. Once, when she tried to reserve a book, she was told that one of the world’s most renowned experts on South Asia had already requested it. “I didn’t know the history world was as competitive as the scientific world,” she says with a laugh.

The story that Pervaiz eventually uncovered concerned the Khan brothers: two Anglo-Indian orphans actually named Deer and John Christian, who claimed to be Indian noblemen returning from a visit to Europe. They conned their way to the city of Calcutta, fooling East India Company officers and obtaining loans until their hoax was finally discovered. Dasgupta believes that Pervaiz may be the first researcher to write about these men.

“Saadia was interested very broadly in Anglo-Indian children when she went to London,” Dasgupta says. “When she saw the story of the two brothers, she became interested in why they would feel the need to commit fraud.”

Pervaiz concluded that the Khan brothers embodied the central problem for mixed-race children during that era. By posing as noblemen, she wrote, “Deer and John Christian were able to negotiate their place in British India’s racial hierarchy at a time when avenues for social mobility were being restricted for Anglo-Indians.” A few months after completing her research, Pervaiz traveled to Toronto to give a paper about the brothers at an undergraduate workshop on South Asian history.

As she delved deeper into her topic, Pervaiz’ parents began to appreciate her passion for history. Initially, she says, her father figured he’d let her go on the trip and get history out of her system before she headed to medical school. But his eyes were opened when he visited her in London. “My dad took a week off to come see what I was doing, and I’d tell him what I was learning and he’d say, ‘Wow, that’s amazing!’” Pervaiz recalls. “I feel that both my parents learned something because I went to London.”

For her part, Pervaiz says, “This project has made me less afraid of pursuing history than I was before. When I got back to campus, I worked with other students to start a history club—something I never would have done if I hadn’t had this experience.”

Digging through Rome

When in Rome … study all day?           

For Burke, the answer was yes—at least for part of his summer. During his hours in the library of the American Academy in Rome, he pored over archaeological reports and catalogues, gathering evidence to help researchers identify the remains of a 2,000-year-old structure in Pompeii.

Where the main central room of an ancient Pompeiian house once existed, Burke studied the site of an impluvium—a receiving pool for rainwater, which drained into an underground cistern. Photo by Kevin Dicus.

Through this project, Burke was realizing one of his early ambitions. A double major in classics and English, he says that the research opportunities available at Case Western Reserve were a major draw when he was deciding where to go to college. During his first two years, he got caught up in classes and in his duties as a tutor for Dicus’ introductory Latin classes. But then, as a junior, he received an email about SOURCE funding for humanities research, and it served as a reminder: “I remembered that was one of the reasons I came here.” He reached out to Dicus, who agreed to help him with his proposal.

“If a student’s going to take that sort of initiative,” Dicus says, “I’m going to do what I can to make sure they can do whatever they want.”

Dicus told Burke about a Roman excavation he has supervised since 2006: the Pompeii Archaeological Research Project: Porta Stabia, directed by Professor Steven Ellis of the University of Cincinnati. In 2011, the researchers discovered a T-shaped structure they initially thought was a shrine. It was located near a city gate, as shrines often were, and littered with votive cups and pottery fragments. But the next year, after finding a kiln nearby, they reconsidered their hypothesis. They now believe the T-shaped structure may have been a kiln, too—albeit one with an unusual form.

“The cups were there because the workshop made votive vessels for sale,” Dicus suggests. “Those that we found all had cracks in their bodies—they were misfired and were never sold.”

In the archives of the American Academy in Rome, Burke sought further evidence for the kiln theory. As he pored over the archaeological literature, he identified ancient kiln structures elsewhere that the researchers could compare with the one in Pompeii. He also looked for indications that workshops selling their products locally might be organized differently than those participating in larger trade networks. Burke’s findings will be incorporated into a multi-volume study that Dicus and his colleagues are now writing about the Pompeii site.

Beyond the library in Rome, Burke and Dicus visited kiln sites in the port city of Ostia and in Pompeii itself. In one photograph from their travels, Burke stands on a stone terrace, while behind him sunlight falls on the reconstructed red roofs of the Pompeiian cityscape. In another photo, he is in the Forum of Pompeii, with Mount Vesuvius and the Temple of Jupiter rising in the background.

“Those firsthand experiences were extremely valuable for my education,” Burke says. “Before, I had learned a few things about Roman houses. But now I’ve seen one; I can tell you what a Roman house looks like.”

After he graduates, Burke plans to pursue an advanced degree in classics and eventually become a Latin teacher. As soon as he returned from Italy, he started working on graduate school applications. His summer research experience, and his contributions to a scholarly publication, will set Burke apart from other candidates.

Once he becomes a teacher, Burke says, “I would really like to tell my students about the opportunities available in classics. I’ve realized what fun archaeology can be.”

Amber Matheson is a freelance writer in Akron.

Page last modified: February 9, 2017