A Look at Undergraduate Research: Women Writers, Food, and Wartime

When a computer engineering student and an English major help a rhetoric professor with a book about British women writers and food, you’re seeing the interdisciplinary synergy of undergraduate research in action.

College of General Studies Lecturer Kate Nash is writing a book on how twentieth-century writers—among them Virginia Woolf, Betty Miller, and Muriel Spark—incorporated wartime food ephemera into their fiction. During the austere years of World War I and World War II, governments aimed to manage food consumption through mass-media campaigns. Nash looks at how women writers incorporate these propaganda materials—from posters to infant feeding manuals to domestic pamphlets—into their writing as they confront how the state regulates femininity and the female body in service of the nation. In the books that Nash studies, young women use chocolate as a form of currency during the hungry years of wartime London, and a restaurant meal becomes a symbol of racial assimilation.

This may not sound like the kind of project a computer engineering student would sign up to work on, but Rene Colato (CGS’18, ENG’20) was up for the challenge. After the topic of political propaganda came up in his rhetoric class with Nash, he became interested in helping with her research. The CGS Undergraduate Research Experience program, funded and administered through the Center of Interdisciplinary Teaching & Learning, provided Colato a stipend for his work.


Coleen Ilano and Kate Nash. Photo by Steven Silvio

Nash says that talking with a non-humanities student gave her a new perspective on one of her key concepts—rationing—and that Colato’s technical experience was useful as she expanded the digital humanities side of her project. Colato built a website Nash can use to showcase her own materials and her students’ work. When she teaches in London for the Boston-London Program, Nash assigns her students to find and describe a propaganda poster from the Imperial War Museum. Now the students can create a digital showcase of those posters for their class.

After Colato’s and Nash’s project concluded at the end of the fall 2017 semester, Nash started a new collaboration with Coleen Ilano (CGS’18, CAS’20), an English and psychology major. Ilano was interested in doing research related to literature, psychology, or gender studies, and she loved her classes with Nash—so the project was a perfect fit. Ilano says, “I am able to learn more about the subjects I love while also being able to assist a professor who I greatly admire and respect.”

Ilano is helping Nash collect materials for a book chapter on Muriel Spark’s 1963 novel, The Girls of Slender Means, set in England in 1945. Ilano said one of the most interesting things she’s learned this semester is “the ways that women in fiction can exercise agency and maintain autonomy over their bodies” even when those acts might also conform to “restrictive social standards.” Analyzing a book written decades ago has helped her to place herself in the mindset of another time while integrating her own contemporary understanding of the themes.

“Keeping an open but critical mindset … has allowed me to enjoy the book more fully and enrich my own experience,” Ilano said. She’s found that mindset is something she can apply to other areas of her life, too. She says it’s helped her mature in her studies and in her understanding of others. In the spring of 2019, Boston University Center for the Humanities recognized Ilano’s dedication to her studies by presenting her with one of its undergraduate student awards.

Colato says he’s glad he could work in “a one-on-one work environment that encouraged exploration, academic growth, and innovative thinking to create something unique and profound.”

For her part, Nash says these collaborations have helped her refine her project, organize it into manageable steps, and communicate her work to different audiences in a way that anyone can understand– whether they’re studying computer engineering or English.

For more on Nash’s research, read her article, “Fixing the Interwar Meal: Positive Eugenics and Jewish Assimilation in Betty Miller’s Farewell Leicester Square,” in Modernism/modernity (Volume 2, Cycle 4). Her book manuscript is provisionally titled Consuming War: Modernism and the Rhetoric of Austerity