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Bright Ideas: A Scholar's Introduction to Interdisciplinary Research

Bright Ideas“It was the coolest thing I have ever done,” says GW senior Liz Settoducato, describing her presentation at the 2014 Popular Culture Association (PCA) Annual Conference in Chicago.

Each year the PCA brings together scholars committed to the academic study of popular culture, from Quaker graveyards to reality TV. In 2014, Liz presented her paper “We’re Here, We’re Queer, and a Little Unclear: Pride as Pilgrimage, Protest, and Performance,” a study of LGBT activism and celebration in London. Her fellow panelists at PCA were the professional scholars and writers whose books her paper referenced, reflected, and built upon.

“They were able to ask me questions about my research, really get me thinking critically about it,” she says. “It was a very affirming experience.”

Friendly and eloquent, with a generous laugh, Liz conveys a contagious enthusiasm for academics. Talking with her affirms that intellectual community at GW is alive and flourishing. What’s more, her scholarship shows the spirit of adventure that good scholars prize—a curiosity about the road not yet taken and an ability to enjoy the crossroads itself.

Liz’s journey to the PCA Annual Conference began in Professor Kathy Larsen’s “Fan Pilgrimage & Media Tourism” course, a summer study abroad that took students to England for four weeks of fieldwork in "fan studies," an emerging discipline that explores the phenomena of fan communities and celebraity culture.  The class was accompanied by GW librarian Bill Gillis, who helped students turn their own experience as fans into scholarly inquiry.

“He talked about research as a dinner party where the sources you cite are dinner guests having a spirited, sometimes contentious, conversation,” Liz remembers.

Following the ways of fandom through places like Cardiff and Abbey Road, most of her classmates chose to focus on pop-cultural texts like Doctor Who and the Harry Potter series. But Liz took a different tack. After mingling with the crowds and interviewing organizers at the Pride Festival and Dyke March—two major events in London’s LGBT life—Liz applied theories of sexuality, politics, and pilgrimage to her experience there. Her paper helps formulate an understanding of what the concept of pilgrimage might mean in a global tourist economy, as well as what the desire to be “reverent in a space” might mean for the ability to lead “alternative lifestyles.”

“Liz is every professor’s dream student,” remarks Professor Larsen, “someone who is enthusiastic and engaged and whose engagement in turn makes you see things in new ways.” Back stateside, Liz developed “We’re Here, We’re Queer, and a Little Unclear: Pride as Pilgrimage, Protest, and Performance,” into a presentation for GW’s Research Days, an annual GW event where students present poster sessions to an audience of faculty and peers. She then retooled it into a professional conference talk for her PCA Annual Conference presentation.

Presenting at a professional conference is a major accomplishment for undergraduate students, and Liz credits Bill Gillis and Professor Larsen for showing her how to make a “meaningful contribution to the field.” She also attributes her success to her time spent in GW’s University Writing program. In her section of the course—Professor Troutman’s “Serious Comics”—Liz learned how to read academic sources and borrow their ideas and methodologies, a skill that she’s found makes interdisciplinary research that much stronger.

“Interdisciplinary” truly describes Liz’s academic career. A double major in Women’s Studies and Classical Studies, she is writing papers on feminism in Jane Eyre and learning Latin, charting the territory that she began exploring in high school. When she took her first Women’s Studies class at GW, she realized that scholars had already put a name to what she had been thinking and feeling and writing about.

This serious fan-girl enjoys studying Classics because “everything that you would imagine, or that you wouldn’t, has some sort of connection to the ancient world.” While Latin poetry might seem far flung from Hollywood, to this young scholar’s imagination, they occupy the same continuum. From imperial Rome to the movie Mean Girls, the work of the scholar is the same: “to challenge what we think we know about something and to put a new lens out there,” says Liz.

Liz’s work combining both Classics and Women’s Studies includes a paper on the conflicts between women in Virgil’s Aeneid, which she presented at the Undergraduate Classics Conference at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. This type of interdisciplinary coursework has provided her a dynamic, global perspective.

“You learn so much but feel like you know nothing,” Liz says. “It’s the most challenging thing to sit through a class and read all this material and realize that there are so many systems at play and so many institutions that are larger than we can imagine. And every time you think you have a sense of how something is operating, it’s always changing.”

Sitting in the sunlit and studious quiet of the Oliver Reading Room—one of Liz’s favorite places in Gelman Library—she talks about her desire to “get people excited about research. Meeting them with something they love, and having them push that thinking further into something academic, is an awesome, awesome experience.”

This enthusiasm is what the GW Libraries aims to foster for all students.

This year, Liz is working as an editorial assistant for Professor Larsen’s Journal of Fandom Studies, learning the ropes of academic publishing. She is also a research assistant to a Classics professor at the University of Maryland and working at Gelman Library. As student assistant to the GW Libraries’ Director of Communications, Liz highlighted the excitement of research and helping curious minds encounter the texts that have recorded and shaped the world as we know it in order to help shape the world to come.

And what lies ahead? After graduating from GW this May, perhaps a Master’s in Library Science, in order to “combine my love of information with my love of people,” she says. “To keep researching and writing; that’s the goal.”

It is heartening to hear that this scholar’s journey is only beginning.


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