Oklahoma Center for the Humanities - The University of Tulsa

Oklahoma Center for the Humanities

Art history and anthropology major named Global Winner

Presently in her final semester at The University of Tulsa, art history and anthropology student Piper Prolago is drawing her studies to a close on a high note: She has recently been named a Global Winner in the annual Global Undergraduate Awards.

woman outdoors wearing a blue short-sleeve shirt and glasses
Piper Prolago

This annual awards program is an essay competition that invites undergraduates from around the world to submit essays they had previously written for a course. There are 25 categories, and Prolago entered her paper in Art History & Theory.

Prolago’s essay, “A Mughal Miraj: Imagining the Prophet in the Newark Khamsa Manuscript,” was written for a course on Islamic art and architecture taught by Associate Professor of Art History Maria Maurer. In her essay, Prolago analyzed a manuscript that was part of the Philbrook Museum’s “Wondrous Worlds” exhibition of Islamic art. Lara Foley, the director of TU’s Office of Integrative and Experiential Learning, had alerted Prolago to the competition and encouraged her to apply.

“I was really excited to be honored with this distinction,” remarked Prolago, who is also a student in TU’s Honors program and a Global Scholar. “I was surprised when they notified me that I had been selected as a Global Winner out of students attending universities all over the world. This honor makes me really proud of the work I’ve done, and I think it also speaks to the excellence of TU’s art history faculty and their creation of opportunities for students to produce original scholarship.”

“I am so proud of Piper,” said Maurer. “Her essay, which explored an unusual image of the Prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey, was the best out of a class of really strong papers. Piper’s work was sensitive to the unusual visuals of the painting and its manuscript setting, and her research demonstrated that this image is part of a larger attempt to legitimize the Mughals within the context of the rivalry with the Safavids, as well as to demonstrate Mughal piety to their subjects. Piper made a genuine contribution to the field of art history by crafting such an elegant and persuasive argument about a previously unknown painting.”

A rich history of exploration and mentorship

Casting her gaze over her busy time at TU, Prolago underscores the role a number of faculty have played in her scholarly development. “Professor Maurer does such a great job of teaching from unique perspectives and diversifying the way we learn about art history,” said Prolago. “Her courses have enabled me to build foundational knowledge in the discipline of art history, but also to think more globally and widely.”

Another faculty member whom Prolago cites as having helped and inspired her is Associate Professor of Art History Kirsten Olds. “Whether offering support for my coursework or being a great mentor who’s helped guide me through the process of applying to graduate school, Professor Olds demonstrates the importance of having faculty who genuinely care about their students.”

For her part, Olds is equally impressed with Prolago: “Piper is the kind of student one remembers for their entire career. I would look forward to our weekly meetings to discuss her senior project. Her intellectual interests are so varied, from repatriation issues to graffiti and street art, public art policy, Filipino culture and contemporary photography by artists in the Middle East. But a throughline is her engagement with global issues in a sustained and meaningful way. I can’t wait to see what she’ll work on in her graduate studies.”

If the name Piper Prolago rings a bell, it might be because you recall reading a story about her summer 2020 research on public art and commemorations of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Since then, Prolago has presented her work at the International Conference on the Arts in Society, organized by The University of Western Australia. It also led to an essay —  “Socializing Sculpture: Commemorative Public Art as a Pedagogical Tool” – published in Art Style, Art & Culture International Magazine.

In addition to coursework and being mentored, a formative experience for Prolago was her participation during her sophomore year in the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities’ research fellowship program. Led by the center’s director Sean Latham, the program brought together an interdisciplinary cohort of students, faculty and community members to explore the theme of play. “This experience was really meaningful for me because it empowered me to think about complex issues from an interdisciplinary perspective,” said Prolago.

The finish line and beyond

During her final semester, Prolago is keeping extra busy as the editor in chief of the university’s newspaper, The Collegian. “This role is a lot of fun,” Prolago commented. “And having an organization like this is particularly important at a college that doesn’t have a journalism department. It’s gratifying to be able to carve out a space for students who want to explore journalism.”

Prolago’s advisor at The Collegian is Chapman Associate Professor of Media Studies Mark Brewin. “I am thankful to have had several opportunities to work with Professor Brewin,” said Prolago. Brewin previously served as Prolago’s advisor for her Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge project and when she worked as a research assistant for the Center for Health, Arts and Measurement Practices, which he co-directs.

As she looks to her future adventures, Prolago has her hopes set on studying art history at the graduate level. In particular, she wants to further her research in public art. “I believe public art is so important, particularly as we’re seeing a lot of momentum in rethinking the kinds of values we choose to uplift in public spaces,” commented Prolago. “As we tear down figures whose legacies represent a lot of pain and hate, we’re tasked with not only rethinking whose stories get to be represented, but also about why we’ve excluded so many people from those stories.”

For her part, Prolago is set on being part of what she calls “the conversation” about art’s role in creating a more inclusive future.

At TU’s School of Art, state-of-the-art facilities and engaged professors embolden students like Piper Prolago to develop and realize their visions. Discover how we can give you the knowledge and opportunities to flourish!

COVID connections: Learning and public outreach flourish at TU during the pandemic

Remain six feet apart. Do not hug. Do not kiss. Wear a mask. Bump elbows if you must, but that’s not recommended either. Do not gather in groups larger than 10. Remain inside your small social bubble. Do not breathe on others. Do not be breathed upon.

During the nightmare that is 2020, humans have learned a new lexicon of rules and prohibitions that have upended the interpersonal conventions of daily life they largely took for granted during the times before COVID-19 raced like wildfire across the planet. Now, in this moment of uncertainty, worry, sickness and death, many people are yearning for connections to others.

At The University of Tulsa, the last several months have, despite the challenges, offered up a handful of inspiring examples of resilience that are focused on enabling connections, both in “the classroom” as well as between the university and the wider public.

The silver lining of online learning

The concept of the classroom has evolved between March and now. The system is not perfect; however, for some students, certain aspects can be seen as a positive change.

Thanks to online software, such as Collaborate, students can interact with their professors face to face at appointed times, but from the safety of their own homes. Zoom meetings, too, have become standard for enabling students to work together while staying safely apart. In some cases, asynchronous classes have allowed for more schedule flexibility for students.

Ryle Gwaltney, a nursing sophomore, remarked that she has come to favor remote learning for several reasons: “Before classes moved online, I had a problem with seeing the board, talking up in class and remembering what was previously taught. But everyone has their own learning style, and online classes have worked well for me. With the ability to pause, rewind and rewatch lectures, interact with the class via a chat box and actually being able to see and remember what was being taught, my classes have been going great.”

Nine English graduate students in a ZOOM screen capture
Graduate students from as far away as South Korea in an English course during fall 2020

TU’s faculty members, too, have adapted and, in many cases, thrived. Media Studies Chair Benjamin Peters believes the lessons learned as a result of the shift to online teaching might influence in-person instruction in years to come.

“There is no question that the pandemic has underscored how valuable in-person teaching is,” Peters said. “Still, going forward, professors will likely be more nimble and capable of using online teaching platforms, as well as accommodating learning needs online. There is no way to make a lab or an in-person activity go entirely online. But, under certain conditions, online discussion can draw out the otherwise introverted.” Another silver lining, Peters noted, might be that more instructors will incorporate online elements into their in-person teaching, such as tools that let students rank-order their questions during a lecture.

Digital technology is also proving useful for helping students outside the classroom. According to Sara Beam, an applied assistant professor of English, the University Writing Program, which she directs, is deploying digital technology for engaging students remotely in three main ways.

The first, she said, entails “remediating text, or asking students to adapt a text from one mode of communication into a different form, such as written text to spoken word.” The goal here is to increase students’ engagement with and awareness of how different forms work and relate. The University Writing Program has also been leveraging different options for discussion participation, including enabling students to post text, images, video and audio to discussion boards.

Finally, this semester Beam has recognized more opportunities for incorporating feedback mechanisms to see how the students feel about learning styles. Noted Beam, “we just passed the middle of the semester and many of us used survey tools to ask students for feedback so we can streamline and target instruction moving forward.”

Extended reach

The COVID-19 pandemic has also meant TU is hosting online panels, lectures and other events that would have previously been held on campus. While fewer people get to enjoy the beauty of TU’s 200 acres in person, the online experiences can be enjoyed by anybody, anywhere, thus helping expand the university’s cultural and academic resources into the community.

Screen shot of an academic article and a man wearing a blue shirt
Native American Law panel on the McGirt decision

For example, the most recent Presidential Lecture Series (PLS) presentation by Wes Moore, the chief executive officer of the Robin Hood Foundation, was the first PLS event ever held online. It drew in an audience of over 1,250 viewers from all across the nation.

Events delivered by TU’s Office of Diversity and Engagement have also experienced the expanded reach afforded by digital technology. Diversity Officer Amanda Chastang noted that a Native American Law panel she recently hosted along with other online discussions have been well-received by audiences both within the TU community and beyond.

Ease of access is a big plus when it comes to staging such events. “People only need the internet and a computer to tune in, even if they are not in the local area,” said Chastang. “We also can develop events pretty quickly as we don’t have to worry about providing food or room reservations and adhere to all of the procedural processes that go along with that. Additionally, it is really nice to have the option of recording events. If folks have conflicting schedules and are unable to attend ‘live events,’ there is the option of providing a recording, which has been really helpful.”

Participants in an Oklahoma Center for the Humanities seminar pictured in a ZOOM screen capture
Oklahoma Center for the Humanities seminar participants

For its part, the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities (OCH) has made the best of the dire COVID-19 situation to broaden its talent pool and expand the reach of its programming. Tara C. Aveilhe, the OCH’s assistant director, observed, “via Zoom, we are now able to accept research fellows from anywhere in the U.S. and reach wider audiences for our events.” This year, for example, the OCH’s research fellows include Janine Utell of Widener University in Pennsylvania, which would not have been possible in years previous.

Sean Latham, the OCH’s director, added, “we recently had a terrific event that was digital attended by around 150 people. We were shocked to see that the audience was international and spread across several states. It’s the first time we’ve realized that OCH events might have a national audience for some of our events.” Looking toward life after the pandemic, the OCH plans to take what it has learned from this experience and continue offering digital events so that more people can get involved.

The sobering reality

Despite all these silver linings, at the end of the day, the entire TU community is deeply cognizant of the human tragedy at the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Every crisis, the phrase famously goes, is an opportunity,” Peters remarked. “But, also, let’s not miss the point here: the pandemic and our response to it have largely been a human disaster. In just the U.S. alone, thousands of lives have been lost and livelihoods have been destroyed. There is so much suffering that cannot and should not be forgotten.”

For more about how TU is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, visit ResilienTU.


Gaming the Museum event encourages interactive learning in historical setting 

There is growing interest in the interdisciplinary concept of video gaming spaces inside art and history museums. Interactive games offer a more modern approach to museum learning and attract a younger group of visitors.

Incorporating play into museum design

Gaming the MuseumIn February, the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities (OCH) at The University of Tulsa and a group of TU’s Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge (TURC) scholars partnered to host “Gaming the Museum” at the Helmerich Center for American Research (HCAR). Students and faculty from TU’s museum studies program teamed up with TURC students majoring in computer simulation and gaming. The gaming degree combines TU’s core computer science curriculum with art, graphic design and music courses from the Kendall College of Arts and Sciences.

The free symposium in February featured a keynote presentation on the role of play in museum design from Holly Witchey, director of education and outreach for the Intermuseum Conservation Association. Other highlights included a panel discussion from museum professionals, demos of games developed by TU students and an interactive series of playable activities in HCAR.

“Play does not mean frivolous, but includes voluntary, self-directed activity,” explained Bob Pickering, professor of anthropology and director of museum science and management at TU. “Play in the digital age offers even more possibility for museums to connect with audiences of all ages.”

Tulsa is a museum destination

The City of Tulsa is an ideal setting for the exploration of play in museums because of its storied history in art and music. “Tulsa is an art town, and our museum and gallery scene is booming,” said Tara Aveilhe with the OCH. “We’re on our way to becoming a museum destination in the United States. With popular interactive exhibits like “The Experience” at AHHA, we’re seeing that adults need and want the experience of play as much as kids do.”

Gaming the MuseumTURC student Cheyanne Wheat and computer simulation and gaming/computer science double major Chandler Hummingbird presented games at the event that they have developed. Wheat’s project, “Virtual Fort Gibson,” investigates the fusion of interactive technology with accurate digital reconstructions of historical sites. Based on the town of Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, in 1841 when it was the United States’ southwestern forward post, the game incorporates archaeological and anthropological data to create an accurate representation of the fort as a locale to layer on activities. Wheat used the Unreal Game Engine program to digitally reconstruct the historical site and extracted topographical information from Google Maps data. With help from Blender 3D modeling software, she constructed artifacts and built soldiers’ quarters, block houses and a stockade.

“The objective is to allow the user to explore the fort, see objects of the period and learn about life in the 1840s on the frontier,” she said. “The player can engage in time-accurate mini interactions and explore room interiors.”

Wheat asked attendees who played her game to provide feedback, and all participants agreed they would interact with similar projects in the future. “Overall, the event was very successful and brought a lot of diverse people together,” she stated. “I think it was a great opportunity to see how Oklahoma incorporates gaming into spaces and experiences to make play accessible to both adults and children.”

Learn more about interactive gaming projects developed by TU computer simulation and gaming students.