For my first blog post, I thought it would be most fitting to share a bit about my research and academic interests. As I explain briefly in my About Me page, I’m an early-career researcher at and recent graduate from NYU Abu Dhabi in the UAE. In my 4 years at NYUAD, my academic interests have alternated between music, political science, history, art history, and anthropology, with my geographic focus always remaining on the Middle East and North Africa.
So, when it came time to decide on a capstone project topic in my senior year, I wasn’t quite sure if it would be an ethnographic study, a curatorial project, an art historical investigation, or maybe even a methodological lens I had yet to discover. I eventually, with much guidance, decided to pursue a topic that would allow me to travel to a part of the UAE I hadn’t seen in years, to learn more about the local art scene, and to speak to community members about how art exhibitions had taken shape and impacted their lives.
I spent the summer before my senior year traveling between Sharjah and Abu Dhabi conducting detailed field visits to Sharjah Biennial 14 (the exhibition at the center of my research question), Old Sharjah, and the Sharjah Art Foundation, all in addition to preparing my theoretical framework to situate my research. With the help of my then capstone supervisor, I employed a spatio-anthropological lens to explore how “spaces” of aesthetic appreciation and encounters shaped the aesthetic tastes of local residents.
My fellowship proposal, which I had prepared towards the end of the capstone process, would take this same research question and expand its scope to incorporate more exhibitions and institutions in Sharjah. It was an ambitious project, but I was determined to keep thinking about the impact of the constant exposure to art on aesthetic tastes and preferences. This was, of course, before the world as we knew it was altered perhaps irreversibly. Putting my research plans on hold after securing the position, I worked on an on-campus research project to stay busy for the summer, until the start of the fellowship.
In this project, called OpenGulf—read my blog post for OpenGulf here—I served as a research assistant and worked on transcribing 19th century letters, correcting a French OCRed gazetteer, and digitally annotating a British gazetteer. It was during this 8-week period that my eyes were opened to the rapidly growing field of Digital Humanities and to the more quantitative possibilities of humanities research. I tried to absorb as much information and skill as I could so that I could apply DH tools to my own research, seeing as all of the site visits and ethnographic interviews I had planned to undertake as a fellow were likely not going to be feasible.
By the time my research assistantship came to an end, I only had a few weeks until I had to start implementing my new, adapted research plan on Sharjah’s artistic institutions. Seeing as I had no plans to travel home, or anywhere, anytime soon, I enrolled in a few online courses with edX to hone in on the new skills I had just picked up. HarvardX’s Introduction to Digital Humanities course was exactly what I needed to learn more about the basics of DH, useful tools and workflows, and other projects in the field. On September 1st, I was ready to jumpstart my professional career—potentially in academia?—with a new methodological toolbox in hand.
The adapted research question still essentially has the same locale at its core, but focuses more closely on the spatial element of the biennial rather than on the theoretical significance of space-making. Having learned the very basics of digital mapmaking and georeferencing while working with OpenGulf, I decided I would map every single artwork ever shown at the Sharjah Biennial from 1993–2019 in order to track the physical expansion of the exhibition across Old Sharjah and the broader emirate.
While I’ve only just embarked on my research journey, I can already say that every day brings new and exciting lessons, challenges, and discoveries, which bodes well for the rest of the year ahead. I’m excited to share with you some of these moments in the hope that they can offer some comfort in these challenging times or an idea or two for how to enhance your own research.