Speaker Series Recap: Fall 2017

BreakthroughHave you ever been curious about groundbreaking research at Tufts outside of your major, but did not know where to start? Breakthrough, the undergraduate research journal at Tufts, offers a means for students and faculty of different disciplines to connect.

In addition to an online blog, Breakthrough hosts the Speaker Series, an initiative through which professors and graduate students can discuss their research and their academic careers with all members of the Tufts community. These one-hour talks have covered topics such as muscular dystrophy treatments, the neurobiology of alcohol abuse, and the future of artificial intelligence. In the fall of 2017, as part of Breakthrough’s efforts to raise awareness about research in fields beyond STEM, Dr. Ayesha Jalal of the History Dept. and Tara Brooke Watkins of the Drama and Dance Dept. were featured as speakers. Both offered rich perspectives of their interests, opening the door for the engaging dialogue that Breakthrough aims to foster.

The Mary Richardson Professor of History and the director of the Center for South Asian and Indian Ocean Studies at Tufts, Dr. Jalal focused her discussion on the theme “South Asia at 70” — that is, the political climate of South Asia 70 years after India’s independence from the British and the creation of Pakistan out of the Indian subcontinent. As Dr. Jalal noted, even though the British Parliament passed the Indian Independence Act in 1947, the deep-set divisions that had been created by the British over the last 300 years did not disappear. She described how colonized civilians were categorized based on religion, which was previously not the norm in the diverse nation. This systematic identification allowed the British to better uphold their imperial power, while also intensifying divisions within India: an occurrence that played a role in the Partition. This event marked much of northwestern India becoming Pakistan, with mass migrations ensuing on both sides of the border as Hindus traveled to India and Muslims moved to Pakistan. Because families — some of whom had stayed in the same region for generations — were uprooted, violence and terror broke out. The Partition is often characterized as a faith-based conflict between Hindus and Muslims, as the Muslim League, then led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, appealed to the British for their own non-Hindu-ruled nation. However, Dr. Jalal urged attendees to consider the deeper implications of this notion.

“People were fighting for power in an independent India,” she said. “Partition was not necessarily caused by religious differences alone…When you talk about something that is religious, it is not necessarily about faith. It can simply be about a demarcator of a category.”

Moreover, Dr. Jalal emphasized that the Partition is not only a piece of the past, but also a process that continues to shape the present and the future. Damaged India-Pakistan relations on personal, governmental, and trade-related fronts; ongoing violence; and political turmoil in Kashmir, a territory over which the two nations have not settled ownership, are only some scars. Although the Partition remains a harrowing reality for many, Dr. Jalal trusts that the people of India and Pakistan will push for negotiation between their respective governments.

“Partition is not good for conflict resolution — it only acts as conflict management,” she said. “We can’t change borders, but we can make them irrelevant.”

Breakthrough’s second speaker was Tara Brooke Watkins, a PhD candidate in the Drama and Dance Dept., a director, and the business owner of the South Shore School of Theatre in Quincy, MA. She described her beginnings as a colonial interpreter at the living history museum Plimoth Plantation, where she played the role of an actual settler who moved to the U.S. centuries ago. One of her most memorable moments occurred when she was describing to a visitor, in first-person, her character’s loss of her children. As she was speaking, the visitor, with tears in her eyes, told Watkins that she was unable to have children due to miscarriages. This moment of solidarity between two strangers moved Watkins to capture people’s stories in other settings.

In 2016, she was a drama instructor at Eastern Nazarene College, the coeducational, Christian institution where she received her BA. Having grown up in the religiously conservative environment of Tulsa, OK, Watkins “intended to fill a hole in the theatre canon — a play about women in the Bible,” as she noted in a press release. The class began as a group of fifteen female students relating their own life experiences to those of women in the Bible, while also expressing the figures’ untold stories through monologues, comedy sketches, song, and dance, among other mediums. One method that Watkins used to guide discussions between her students was the “story circle,” through which she posed a question and everyone had the opportunity to answer with a personal story. After four months of collaboration, The Bible Women’s Project was ready for viewing. Although Watkins and her students were unsure how the audience would react, they met much acclaim, and the play even became an official selection of the New York International Fringe Festival in 2016.

“When you feel alone, you feel powerless. I like to think this play can be an example of how to bridge that gap,” Watkins said in a press release.

At Tufts, she is completing her PhD dissertation, which centers on the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 and Tulsa’s present educational practices. During the summer of 2017, Watkins held weekly story circles with Tulsan citizens who volunteered to share their experiences and perceptions of racial violence, from 1921 to modern day. By shedding light on a historical event that is not well-known, yet caused the burning of the Greenwood District — a neighborhood that was known as the “Black Wall Street” — she exposes issues of the past that continue to manifest themselves. To highlight the effectiveness of the story circle method, Watkins concluded by posing the following question to the Speaker Series attendees: When have you done research that you know had an impact? The diverse responses revealed how many narratives have yet to be heard and can be harnessed to bring people together. Watkins is teaching full-time at Eastern Nazarene College, where she is launching a new theatre for social justice major that dovetails with her work and research.

Breakthrough was humbled to learn about the interests and projects of Dr. Jalal and  Watkins through the fall 2017 Speaker Series. To continue these meaningful exchanges, the club encourages requests for spring 2018 speakers to be sent to tuftsresearch@gmail.com. Please like Breakthrough Magazine on Facebook to hear about upcoming events, and follow our blog (https://tuftsresearch.wordpress.com/) for new articles.

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