Final UCHI Fellow’s Talk introduces new perspectives intended to change traditional educational curriculums 


On April 19, the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute hosted Rylee Thomas and Karen Lau as they led the final fellow’s talk of the academic year discussing their very different branches of research.  

Thomas and Lau are both members of the first undergraduate fellowship program at UConn. Thomas is a third-year student double majoring in English and communications. She has been granted the title of a 2023-2024 university scholar — funding from which she plans to use for her future novel. Like Thomas, Lau is also a double major in political science and economics with a minor in Asian American studies. She holds numerous titles and accolades and has also received funding for a project that she outlined in her part of the talk.  

Thomas kickstarted the discussion with her presentation titled “‘The Ghostly Dynasty’: Victim Blaming in the Gothic Novel and Modern True Crime Drama.” To begin, Thomas completely debunked previous understandings of the gothic genre.  

“Gothic literature is based on cryptic symbolism,” said Thomas. This symbolism comes from the connection of worldly evils such as sexism, racism, discrimination and stigmas embodied in fictional evils like monsters and ghosts. She elaborated by saying that the “gothic genre is perfect for capturing present-day anxieties” as it depicts how horror sprouts from the abuse of power by privileged groups.  

According to Thomas, gothic novels have two traditional character archetypes: the byronic hero and the persecuted maiden. The byronic hero is the protagonist of gothic stories who are written in such a way that audiences should technically root against them; however, because of the way they are written, readers can’t help but want them to win in the end. The persecuted maiden can best be compared to a damsel in distress, as this character is often the protagonist’s target. They are so close yet so far from reaching their own sense of self.  

The third unofficial character trope, as explained by Thomas, is the madwoman in the attic. These types of characters often get left behind with the scraps of the story as they only distract the persecuted maiden from the protagonist.  

Lau presented after Thomas. She explained her project, which involved teaching students from Edwin O. Smith High School about Asian American and Pacific Islander culture and history in order to test her hypothesis: whether students will gain interpersonal skills after learning about ethnic studies. To test this hypothesis, Lau conducted research by implementing six workshops with E.O. Smith students in which they worked with primary sources, engaged in creative activities and participated in field trips to Asian American and Pacific Islander cultural centers.  

She gathered qualitative and quantitative information from the effects of her experiment through a series of surveys and testimonials. She then coded the surveys to categorize the students’ responses in which her hypothesis was proven partially correct.  

The responses showed that the students became more aware of the prevalence of Asian American culture after these workshops. They even experienced a desire to learn outside of school. Additionally, students across races felt a sense of pride from learning about other cultures and what it means to belong to their own heritage. The experience strengthened their identity and, for some, bettered their mental health.  

At the end of Lau’s presentation, the speakers’ supervisor, Elizabeth Della Zazzera, praised the two women and congratulated them on their accomplishments. She explained how she saw both of these projects as attempts to “bring to light things that are too often ignored in order to promote positive change in the world.” 

Della Zazzera then asked the speakers to reflect on the importance of their projects. Thomas explained that she needed to expose to the world that literary perspectives change and from that, new perspectives come to light. She sees this as her opportunity to bend the gothic genre and give the madwoman in the attic a happy ending.  

Lau said that she aims to reveal how “histories are suppressed, not by accident, but deliberately.” She wants to expose those who feel threatened by the truth in order to pave the way for underrepresented groups to vocalize themselves. She believes that this will not only save education, but democracy as well.  

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