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Decolonization: Expanding Indigenous representation in post-secondary studies

In recent years, scholars have shed a bright light on the lack of representation of diverse people and cultures in university and college curricula. This shortcoming harms not only Indigenous students, but non-Indigenous ones as well. Among the many people urging change are Alexandria Tafoya, a creative writing major at The University of Tulsa, and TU English alumnus Mason Whitethorn Powell (BA ’17).

Tafoya and Powell’s insights and recommendations appear in the latest issue of the scholarly journal Eighteenth-Century Fiction (ECF). Their essays were originally intended to be oral presentations made during a panel on academic approaches to Native American topics at the 2020 conference of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies in St. Louis. When this gathering was canceled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the opportunity to publish their views in ECF arose. Being Indigenous themselves, Tafoya and Powell seized the opportunity to tell their stories as Indigenous students and how they believe representation can be improved.

“I am proud of Lexie and Mason for having the confidence to join in a conversation among established scholars of the importance of Indigenous studies,” said Chapman Professor of English Laura Stevens. “Together, their ECF essays deliver a powerful, compelling call to universities to devote more attention to teaching and exploring Indigenous literature, culture and history.”

Rare appearances

smiling woman in a black top and a green jacket
Alexandra Tafoya

Coming from a mixed Tsalagi (Cherokee), Mexican and Irish background, the need for Indigenous representation has always been important to Tafoya. In her essay “The Importance and Power of Indigenous Representation in Literature,” Tafoya recalls the few pieces of Native American literature she has encountered during her academic career: “Anything I did hear or read depicted Native Americans as the only Indigenous people, and we only made appearances through colonial and conquistador perspectives.”

Powell’s experience from his time as an undergraduate was much the same. “Apart from Professor Stevens’ inclusion of Indigenous topics in her English literature courses, and several courses in the anthropology and history departments, there were no opportunities to focus on Indigenous literature or culture,” he writes in his essay “Witnessing the Reversal of Indigenous Erasure: My Undergraduate Experience.”

Powell comes from an Osage background. He has close ties to his heritage through his relationship with his grandfather, who is full-blood Osage, and whom he has been helping take care of amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The issue of Indigenous representation is not only academic for him; it is also personal: “Being someone who does have an Indigenous background and heritage, it’s not only a research topic, it’s who I am.”

Decolonization through inclusion

Tafoya and Powell agree that universities should start implementing changes to their curricula to make them more inclusive of Indigenous histories, cultures and perspectives. “We should definitely add more Indigenous works and studies into academic agendas,” noted Tafoya. “Even in cases where readings or sections involving Indigenous people can’t be included, discussions certainly can be held.”

a man seated outdoors while gazing to the left
Mason Whitehorn Powell

“Everybody has to take literature classes, even if they’re not studying English or the humanities as their main discipline. Why couldn’t one include a novel, a book of poems, a play or a film by a Native American?”, asked Powell.

Folding Indigenous topics and materials into university curricula is, Tafoya and Powell argue, an essential step in the process of decolonizing American universities. Adding such content would help to create a more diverse educational environment in which Indigenous students would find themselves represented and non-Indigenous students would become better informed and aware of Indigenous cultures.

“Decolonization does not mean to ‘cancel’ non-Native European and early American literature we know and love,” Powell clarified in his essay. “It means adding Indigenous literature, addressing the ways in which it is often overlooked or misunderstood, and exploring how it relates to a canon that at times overshadows but can even come across as purposely anti-Indian in its subject matter.”

The voices of Indigenous students will not, Tafoya and Powell point out, be sufficient to spur on and implement these changes. These scholars emphasize that genuine change relies on non-Indigenous students and professors being open and willing to discuss this content and boost the Indigenous presence. In Powell’s view, humanities professors “can definitely expose students to Native American works and educate themselves. It’s very important to teach that because it’s not only who I am, but who we are as Americans and our past.”

When speaking about what non-Indigenous people can do to help, Tafoya remarked, “we can’t always depend on the surface. It’s a responsibility to read Native American authors and to listen to Natives in our communities and lives. Especially listen to the Native people in your life. I cannot stress that enough. We may have some shared experiences, but we live unique and complex lives. History is still being made, so don’t just stop at reading.”

Decolonization through independent research

Tafoya and Powell are also working to raise Indigenous voices through independent research they are conducting or have conducting in the past through the Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge (TURC). This popular TU effort allows undergraduate students to conduct research with the guidance of a professor on a topic of their choice.

Stevens has mentored both Tafoya and Powell on TURC projects. “Working with students — individually and in small groups — as they pursue intensive research counts among my favorite and most rewarding experiences as an educator,” said Stevens.

During his time at TU, Powell researched the history of his tribe. “My time with Professor Stevens was amazing. She really encouraged me to follow my research path and really helped to build up that research.” Powell encourages current students to follow their passions and see whether they can create a TURC project.

Tafoya is currently working with Stevens on a TURC project dedicated to researching the young women who attended TU’s predecessor, the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls, which was a small boarding school founded in Muskogee in 1882. Her TURC research is only the first step for Tafoya, who intends to use her creative writing degree to bring more to Indigenous representation through her fiction writing.

After taking the last few years to work as a freelance writer in Oklahoma and Italy, Powell plans to return to school. He was recently accepted into the University of Miami School of Law and is waiting on other applications before he makes his final decision. His family and tribal background helped him to make the decision to attend law school so he can continue to educate himself on Indigenous matters. Down the road, he intends to study international law and assist tribal nations or do advocacy work.


Do you have a research idea that would be perfect as a TURC project? Reach out to your advisor or visit the TURC site for more information.

 

TURC program demonstrates benefits of undergrad research

The Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge (TURC) is one of The University of Tulsa’s most celebrated programs for providing undergraduate students with dynamic projects that advance research, support scholarship and enrich the community. Students from every college participate in year-round TURC research endeavors that fuel the curiosity of their minds and challenge the possibilities of discovery.

The following student projects showcase the diversity and value of TURC research and mentorship.

Maureen Haynes, senior, sociology and biology

TURC programMaureen Haynes of Tulsa began her freshman year at TU as a mechanical engineering student, but an intro-level sociology class persuaded her to switch majors. Later, as a sociology student, she realized she missed studying the natural sciences and working in a laboratory, so she added biology as a second major. Haynes conducted research with Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Michael Keller in high school as a Junior TURC student and then as a TU student. She worked with graduate students to develop and rigorously test methods for the synthesis of microencapsulated magnetic nanoparticles designed to self-sense damage in synthetics.

Haynes’ sociology TURC research involved researching the narrative experiences of Oklahoma’s public school teachers, which ultimately evolved into her senior thesis. She conducted in-depth interviews with teachers from across the state before and after Oklahoma’s historic teacher walkout in 2018. She coded for similarities and analyzed how they presented their profession, work and politics surrounding the education field. Haynes presented her research findings in a 2019 TEDxUTulsa talk “What Oklahoma’s Protesting Teachers Can Teach Us.”

TURC programHer third TURC research component included an independent research project with Assistant Professor of Biology Matthew Toomey to study the metabolic conversion of yellow and red carotenoids in the avian visual system. Haynes also participated in the 2019 National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (NSF REU) program by examining the metagenomics of animal mortality composting through sophisticated sequencing platforms in genomics.

While her research has spanned a broad scope of subject matters, Haynes explained there are common themes. “These experiences solidified my adoration for the research process and how collaboration across people, disciplines and students yields powerful scientific findings. I love the research process and the research community here at TU.”

Nathan Blue, senior, English

TURC programNathan Blue’s TURC research project involves helping with cleaning, rehousing, digitizing and documenting the metadata of fan letters sent to musician Bob Dylan. Many of the letters have never been opened and were written at a pivotal time in Dylan’s career — following a motorcycle crash the singer survived in the summer of 1966. “These letters are an unprecedented glimpse into pop and rock fandoms at a time before magazines dedicated to rock music criticism like Rolling Stone came about,” Blue said. “Through our metadata documentation, these letters will become a wellspring of insight into mass fandom in the 1960s.”

Blue became infatuated with Dylan’s music and its cultural impact in high school, eventually transferring from Tulsa Community College to TU in hopes of getting involved with the TU Institute for Bob Dylan Studies. He works closely with Sean Latham, institute director and English professor; Kate Blalack, lead archivist at the Woody Guthrie Center; and Mark Davidson, manager of the Bob Dylan Archive at TU’s Helmerich Center for American Research. “My research has taught me more about music fandom than I thought possible,” Blue commented.

He plans to continue studying the Dylan fan letters while pursuing a master’s in English literature at TU.

Luis Juarez, senior, chemical engineering

TURC programFor the past two summers, Luis Juarez has studied silicon dioxide (SiO2), the main component of sand, for potential new optoelectronic technologies. He and Associate Professor of Chemistry Gabriel LeBlanc explored how the electrodeposition method for obtaining purity c-Si from SiO2, coupled with temperature ionic liquids, could significantly reduce the cost of obtaining c-Si necessary for the production of solar cells, computer chips and smartphone chips. The process could also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“What caught my attention with this project was the impact it could have on the world,” Juarez explained. “We could increase the production of solar cells/panels as well as other new technologies that required c-Si while reducing the amount of energy required for c-Si production and pollutants.”

The project has taught him the importance of green chemistry and how new methods of obtaining c-Si for solar panels will help incorporate solar energy into our daily lives. After graduation, he plans to work in the pharmaceutical, environmental or energy sectors of the chemical engineering industry.

Andrew Helt, senior, psychology

TURC programFor his TURC project, Andrew Helt partnered with Associate Professor of Psychology Lisa Cromer and a group of graduate students to develop new forms of therapy to treat nightmares in children. He and doctoral student Mollie Rischard found that inhibition and set-shifting may improve with treatment. “Helping kids cope with nightmares through relaxation strategies, helpful sleep habits and changing the script of their dreams to make them less scary could also potentially help them change from recess to math class more effectively or suppress an impulse to distract their classmates,” Helt stated.

After screening for children’s nightmares at a local psychiatry clinic, he also began to wonder why more families were not taking advantage of free sleep treatment. Helt and doctoral student Jack Stimson interviewed caregivers via phone to learn why more children did not seek treatment; for some, the nightmares subsided on their own while others chose to learn more about their options. “Thanks to ownership of a project as an undergraduate, I’ve come to enjoy research far more than I expected, and I’ve started thinking about a career in research,” Helt explained. “I’m grateful for the role TURC has played in that journey.”

Learn more about how to support TURC students by contacting Natalie Adams at natalie-adams@utulsa.edu.

Gaming students take interdisciplinary approach to summer TURC projects

Students Courtney Spivey and Cheyanne Wheat, enrolled in one of the College of Engineering and Natural Science’s fastest growing majors, are spending their summer diving into computer simulation and gaming development – with a humanities twist.

A career of creativity

Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge (TURC) student Courtney Spivey wants to create video games. As an artist, drawing and being creative is all she’s ever wanted to do.

“I’ve always loved to imagine. My interests have expanded and changed form vastly over the years, but at the end of the day I want to be involved in a career where I can be creative and share my creativity with as many people as possible,” she said.

computer simulationSpivey is laying the groundwork for her future by triple majoring in applied mathematics, computer simulation and gaming and art (emphasis on graphic design) in the Kendall College of Arts and Sciences. The University of Tulsa’s computer simulation and gaming degree begins with core computer science classes in the fundamentals of programming and understanding computer systems, and then gives students the freedom to choose a specialization. As an example, the areas of design and development focus more on the artistic aspects of creating, screenwriting and drawing and also offer electives such as video editing and 3D modeling.

Courtney says she likes learning about code and the development side of the computer simulation and gaming program. In January, she began her TURC research exploring deep learning, artificial neuro networks (ANNs) and the capabilities and current limitations of artificial intelligence (AI). In addition to machine learning and AI, Spivey’s work has grown to include the study of human behavior in psychology in an attempt to find connections between the similarities of the creators and their methods for approaching deep learning.

“The human side is more flexible. When you look at why humans prefer one thing over another, you have to consider the validity of the research,” she said.

Gaming goals and future endeavors

In June, Spivey attended the International Computational Creativity Conference (ICCC) in Charlotte, North Carolina, to learn about mixing AI and machine learning with creative channels such as music and drawing. Her TURC adviser, TU School of Art, Design and Art History Director Teresa Valero, encouraged her to pursue the opportunity. Spivey will complete the community engagement portion of her TURC project later this summer when she visits Tulsa Public School sites to teach students about ANNs.

“The cool thing about TURC is that because I’m interested in media and art and how we perceive AI from a normal point of view, I can combine that with computer science analytics,” she said. “I find this research fascinating.”

computer simulationSpivey, who is from Jenks, Oklahoma, begins her senior year at TU this fall. After graduation, she hopes to work in game development as a creative manager for new projects.

In the meantime, Spivey is open to detours along her career path that pique her interest and challenge her skillset. Ironically, she is “not that much of a gamer” but credits video games like Detroit: Become Human and Legend of Zelda for leading her to this summer’s TURC project.

Gilcrease connections assist with museum technology

computer simulationFellow computer simulation and gaming major Cheyanne Wheat sits at a computer across TU’s campus in Rayzor Hall working on a similar project that also involves collaboration with TU arts and sciences programming. A junior originally from the Tulsa area, she has teamed up with TU anthropology Professor Bob Pickering to create a simulated time progression of an Indian burial mound’s construction. The interactive video game will benefit curators and preservationists at cultural institutions, such as Gilcrease Museum, where anthropologists are eager to incorporate more technology into interactive learning.

“I want to know how we can use games or game-like activities based on a museum collection to engage a younger audience,” Pickering explained. “Gilcrease has 10,000 years of human history objects from the Americas, but if you’re a 9-year-old, you don’t know these objects, you don’t have any connection to them and you don’t know why they’re important.”

According to Pickering, the museum video game concept is an experiment on every level, but collaboration with computer simulation and gaming students on a “museum forward” idea is important for the next generation of museum professionals. “This partnership is a way to start the process — to figure out what kind of technology we need and how much time it will require,” he said.

computer simulationPickering and JC Diaz, a professor in the TU Tandy School of Computer Science, have worked together on a few other museum technology projects in the past that have resulted in published papers presented at scholarly events such as the Electronic Visualization in the Arts Conference in London. The unexpected collaboration between TU’s anthropology and computer simulation and gaming programs is, Pickering noted, one of the first of its kind and sparks many interdisciplinary possibilities for curious students.

The TURC partnership weaves Pickering’s experience as an archaeologist, Gilcrease artifacts recovered from burial mounds of the Hopewell Tribe in Illinois and Wheat’s expertise as a computer simulation and gaming student. “He’s giving me the historical, accurate information, and as a developer, I’m building all of it into a museum context,” she said.

computer simulation
Cheyanne Wheat’s community service component of TURC involves volunteering for Animal Aid in Tulsa.

Wheat uses an Intel RealSense 3D camera to photograph models of Hopewell Tribe artifacts placed on a turntable. The hundreds of images are then plugged into a computer program called Unreal to develop a game that is fun and informative. Players will explore a landscape full of nature, animals and artifacts from the Hopewell Tribe 250 BCE to 250 CE while learning about history and civilization. The objective is to tell the story behind historical objects and discuss how museum-goers of all ages can learn from a video game feature.

“I’m hoping to complete development by the end of the summer and start testing it with real individuals to see how it captures people’s interest — if they like it and think it belongs in a museum,” Wheat said. “I’m focused on integrating more technology into museum culture. There’s so much technology the anthropology field hasn’t tackled yet.”

University of Tulsa senior Kirk Smith named Rhodes Scholar

TU Senior names Rhodes Scholar
TU’s 2017 Rhodes Scholar Kirk Smith (left) and his mentor, Todd Otanicar, a TU mechanical engineering professor

Kirk P. Smith, a University of Tulsa mechanical engineering senior, has been awarded a 2017 Rhodes Scholarship – one of only 32 recipients in the nation. The honor was announced Sunday, following two days of interviews.

“This is a momentous occasion for The University of Tulsa, for our College of Engineering and Natural Sciences and for Kirk. He exemplifies the best of what TU seeks to inspire in each of its students: intellectual curiosity, integrity and service in a changing world,” said university President Gerard Clancy.

Rhodes finalists are selected for their outstanding scholarly achievements, character, commitment to others and potential career leadership. Rhodes Scholars receive two years of full financial support to pursue a degree at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

A St. Louis, Mo., native, Smith is a captain of the Golden Hurricane cross country team, a TU Presidential Scholar, an inaugural member of TU’s Global Scholars program and a National Merit Scholar. At Oxford, he plans to pursue a doctorate in engineering science.

“Kirk’s ambition to engineer energy sustainability is already hitting stride. His research in Tulsa, Colorado and Germany is evidence of his creativity, collaborative skills and persistence,” said TU Provost Roger Blais. “Kirk’s research mentors testify to the depth and scope of his work in their labs as well as his readiness to take on graduate studies in any competitive setting in the states or overseas.”

As a scholarship recipient of the German Academic Exchange Service (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst – DAAD), he was invited to participate in the Research Internships in Science and Engineering (RISE Germany) program in the summer of 2016. He interned at Technische Hochschule Ingolstadt and assisted doctoral students with thesis research on polymeric solar thermal collectors.

“We are proud of Kirk’s accomplishments thus far and look forward to seeing what the future brings. His research holds great promise for the energy industry and long-term renewable energy efforts,” said James Sorem, dean of TU’s College of Engineering and Natural Sciences.

Smith is TU’s first Rhodes Scholar since 1988. University of Tulsa students and alumni have won more nationally competitive awards than all other Oklahoma colleges combined.

Chemistry senior named Rhodes Scholar finalist

The University of Tulsa is pleased to announce Austin Evans, a chemistry and biochemistry senior from Broken Arrow, Okla., is a finalist for the Rhodes Scholarship.

austin evansThe Rhodes Scholarship in the oldest and most celebrated international fellowship award in the world. Each year, 32 students are named Rhodes Scholars through a decentralized process representing the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Students are selected for their outstanding scholarly achievements, character and potential leadership. Rhodes Scholars are awarded full financial support to pursue a degree at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

Evans is a Goldwater Scholar and two-time winner of the Research Internships in Science and Engineering (RISE) scholarship hosted by the German Academic Exchange Service (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst – DAAD). He is a 2015 Governor’s Cup finalist and has received international recognition for his research as a TU undergraduate.

“Austin Evans is an exemplary student who embodies the best that The University of Tulsa strives to achieve – a student with a broad education, deep skills, passion for scholarship and commitment to improving the world,” said TU Provost Roger Blais.

The University of Tulsa is a Top 50 private, independent, doctoral degree-granting institution dedicated to research. The Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge (TURC) is an innovative program that enables undergraduates to take challenging courses and conduct advanced research with the guidance of top TU professors.