Casual Chats Can Lead to Compelling Research Projects

June 11, 2019

Alec Wood ’19

Farah Omer

How can you get involved with faculty research at Grinnell? One way is to chat with your professors. This was the case for Farah Omer ’19, who became familiar with associate professor Caleb Elfenbein’s Mapping Islamophobia project.

Mapping Islamophobia compiles data on instances of anti-Muslim activity across the United States, presenting a geographic and chronological picture of where Islamophobia is occurring across the country.

After Omer expressed interest in the project, Elfenbein invited her to join the research team. She worked as a research assistant for him in the summer of 2017 thanks to a Digital Bridges for the Humanities grant from the University of Iowa and Grinnell College.

Later, Elfenbein wanted to expand the project, to account for ways in which Muslim-American communities are countering Islamophobia. This second part of the project became the basis of Omer’s Mentored Advanced Project (MAP) in the summer of 2018. “Farah has been instrumental and has really taken the lead on the second part of the project, on Muslim engagement and public outreach,” Elfenbein says.

Pursuing Research She Cared About Deepened Her Understanding

In addition to her MAP funding, Omer earned the Kathryn Jagow Mohrman ’67 Fellowship to travel across the country, talking face to face with individuals in the dataset who had been the targets of Islamophobic acts.

Her work took her to St. Paul, Minnesota, Des Moines, Iowa, and New Hampshire, where she studied the different ways Muslim-American communities were using outreach to respond to hate crimes. “The primary goal of my MAP was to produce a thoroughly researched piece of scholarship,” she says.

Omer was interested in the gendered differences she observed in how Muslim communities were responding to hostility. While the responses of Muslim women were more private, those by Muslim men manifested more publicly through events such as lectures and conferences.

She cited one event in particular, a lunch organized by two Somali refugees in Des Moines, to which Syrian refugees and immgirants and Trump voters were invited. She noted some interesting points of rapport between the two groups. For example, both groups were broadly anti-abortion, with many individuals being single-issue voters on this matter.

Omer wrote a traditional research paper about her work. “But,” she says, “we are also committed to scholarship with public-facing components.” One of these components was the companion website Omer created to partner with the Mapping Islamophobia site. It’s a good example of the possibilities for unconventional research products in digital humanities work.

Elfenbein says, “Working with her has given me the opportunity to think about how these two parts of the project fit together. And that’s just yielded some really amazing results.”

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