Senior Fellows research and write beyond College curriculum

by Wally Joe Cook | 5/29/18 2:50am

What do federal Native American law, science fiction, a Chilean feminst and a choreopoem have in common? They’re all subjects of this year’s Senior Fellows. This year, Kimonee Burke ’18, Herbert Chang ’18, Celeste Jennings ’18 and Valentina Sedlacek ’18 are the College’s Senior Fellows.

The Senior Fellowship is a program awarded to a select group of students entering their senior year who hope to pursue an academic project beyond the scope of the College’s curriculum. As long as they complete their distributive requirements and earned all necessary credits, fellows are not required to take classes their senior year and do not have to complete a major.

Each of this year’s fellows worked on interdisciplinary projects.

Burke researched and critiqued the history of federal Native American recognition laws, a subject she said she has been interested in since high school. A member of the Narragansett tribe, Burke examined and compared the histories of her tribe and another Algonquin tribe currently located in Wisconsin. Over the course of her project, Burke said she traveled to New York, Rhode Island and Wisconsin to conduct research.

Burke, who said she hopes to be a professor one day, said the fellowship feels “like really living the academic experience.”

While Burke examined the past, Chang turned a creative eye toward the future and wrote “Rational Creativity,” a science fiction novel about artistic artificial intelligence. The story follows a chef living in Copenhagen in 2048 whose husband has passed away and uploaded his consciousness to a simulated past. When the chef seeks out her dead husband in the simulation, she meets an artificial intelligence musical prodigy and the three find themselves in a cyber love triangle.

Chang said that he was interested in exploring the intersection of math, music and literature and examining the potential impact of artificial intelligence on Eastern societies. He added that he explored how the Eastern tradition of ancestral worship would be affected if people could enter simulations in which an ancestor’s consciousness could live forever.

Although he called upon his own experiences living in Taiwan to write the novel, Chang said the story is also closely linked to Dartmouth.

“It’s very much a Dartmouth project in my mind because the term ‘artificial intelligence’ was coined here at Dartmouth in 1956,” Chang said.

Jennings also took a creative approach to her project, writing and producing “Citrus­” — a choreopoem about the experiences of black women in America.

The play discusses timeless issues faced by black women as well as specific events, such as the passing of the 15th Amendment and the Black Lives Matter movement. Jennings said she had been writing “Citrus” since her sophomore year and that the Senior Fellowship was perfect for her.

“When I saw the opportunity to apply for a Senior Fellowship, it just kind of made sense to me to take advantage of this opportunity,” Jennings said.

Sedlacek also explored the experiences of women in her project, during which she researched the life of Chilean feminist Inés Echeverría Bello to help others understand Bello’s public writings in the context of her private life.

According to Sedlacek, Bello, better known by her pseudonym, Iris, was one of the first aristocratic feminists in Chile and one of the first female literary figures in the country. Additionally, Iris was Sedlacek’s great-great-grandmother.

Sedlacek collaborated on the project with her mother, senior lecturer of Spanish Carmen Bascunan-Sedlacek and said the fellowship allowed her to combine many of her interests.

“It seemed like too good of an opportunity to miss,” Sedlacek said.

She added that her personal connection to Iris gave her the motivation to dedicate her time to the project.

“For a Senior Fellows project this large, you need to have something extra that motivates you through it, and [my family connection to Iris] was mine,” Sedlacek said. “[The project] was the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of several generations of women in my family.”

The fellows offered advice for students interested in pursuing the program.

“Really try to refine what you’re passionate about,” Burke said. “You think a year is a lot of time to cover material, but, in reality, it’s going to end up being really focused.”

Chang also emphasized that the fellowship is best-suited to people who have a strong idea of a project that they “want to work on and give birth to.”

All of the fellows are also considering continuing their projects after graduation. Next year, Burke said she will continue her studies in a United States History graduate program at Oxford University, where she will further research Native American history. Chang’s novel, which is currently 340 pages, is at the “first final draft stage,” and he said he hopes to publish it in the future. Using a postgraduate grant from the College, Sedlacek will continue to research Iris and is working with a publisher to print her work. Jennings said she will continue to work on “Citrus” and submit the script to festivals and playwriting contests.

“I have been really inspired to continue playwriting,” Jennings said. “When I started this process, I considered myself a poet, and now I really feel comfortable calling myself a playwright.”