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ACADEMICS AND RESEARCH

Professor studies stories of beauty to celebrate the humanities


By Hussain Ather



Beauty might be in the eye of the beholder, but it’s everywhere — an everyday experience.

That means stories of beauty might help people understand one another more than they would like to think.

Sonia Velázquez, assistant professor of religious studies and comparative literature, said she explores the role of beauty in stories through her research and public outreach.

She said she wants to help people understand one another better and celebrate the humanities.

“Stories are powerful tools for thinking because they allow us to concentrate on a central object,” Velázquez said.

Imagining a story gives people a distance to consider difficult questions, Velázquez said.

Along with this interest in stories, Velázquez said she noticed that beauty wasn’t discussed frequently among academics.

There is the question of what beauty is used for and what role it plays in stories, Velázquez said.

With this keen focus on beauty and stories, Velazquez received a grant from the College Arts and Humanities Institute to work on two chapters of a book.

The book is titled “Promiscuous Grace” and discusses the legend of St. Mary of Egypt.

“I am studying how the story of a female sinner who began as a nymphomaniac and ended up as a desert saint helps us think about the role of beauty in holiness,” Velázquez said.

Through Veláquez’s work on art and literature in the Spanish-speaking world, she said she understood the strong influence of reactionary politics against speaking about beauty in the 20th century.

“In Spain, to speak about saints, virtue and beauty was to somehow align yourself with politics that were oppressive, but when you actually just read texts, you realize we lose a lot of it if we don’t speak about the beauty,” Velázquez said.

But Velázquez’s study of storytelling extends much further than 5th-century saints and all the way to today’s journalism.

The New York Times’ Virtual Reality app claims to bring readers to the world in “an immersive, 360-degree video experience.”

Much the same way stories can tell us about beauty in our lives, the Virtual Reality app constructs a narrative of suffering in the Syrian Civil War, Velázquez said.

Velazquez questioned whether it’s ethical to use sufferings in order to gather attention in the way the Virtual Reality campaign uses the Syrian Civil War to bring attention the conflict and problem.

Storytelling engages the senses, Velazquez said.

“The question is what happens when you have a virtual reality that engages the sense but in a very different way from what we have been doing for millennia,” Velázquez said.

With an astute observation on the stories people share every day, Velázquez reaches out to the public through other means as well.

The First Thursdays Festival, on the first Thursday of each month from September to November, celebrates the events in venues such as IU Cinema, Jacobs School of Music and the Grunwald Gallery of Art at the Showalter Arts Plaza.

Velázquez said First Thursdays is a way to see what faculty and students do in the arts and humanities.

“We all work in our own little offices, and we don’t get to know what people are doing elsewhere,” Velázquez said, speaking about the arts and humanities faculty who sponsor the event.

On Oct. 6, during the First Thursday Festival, Velázquez will help coordinate a Renaissance feast in Franklin Hall.

The event will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the deaths of William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes.

The event is part of “Bring Out Your Dead! Dancing on the Graves of Shakespeare and Cervantes.”

“I’ve done research on the food from the 16th and 17th centuries, so we’re going to have a dinner that’s authentic but still appeals to the modern palette,” Velázquez said.

These stories are part of a way to bring back the culture of the past, Velázquez said.

Evelyn Bai, an undergraduate student in psychology and economics, said Velázquez is a true humanist at heart.

Bai said Velázquez listens to every student.

Bai has taken Velázquez’s C347: Literature and Ideas course and is currently enrolled in Velázquez’s C103: Critical Approaches (Work Hard, Pray Hard) course.

“She makes learning an immersive experience and suggests meaningful events around campus to give students other perspectives,” Bai said.

Students would make links between learning in class and whatever else is happening in the world, Bai said.

Writing thoughtful reading responses and connecting thoughts from different pieces, Bai said she could explore abstract questions.

Academics share these stories from the past to answer these abstract questions, Velázquez said.

They can range from beauty to goodness to anything else,

“We want to bring up the concept of the past never being fully past,” Velázquez said.

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