Helen Ruger

Student, Columbia University
  • Columbia University
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  • United States of America

About Helen Ruger

This summer under the auspices of the Laidlaw Scholars Program I will be researching Hippocratic works and other texts from ancient Greek medical discourse in order to ask questions around female agency and challenges to the female body. How are female bodies governed? How are bodies feminized in medical discourse? If one can consider a body as an object from which forces of political, social, and psychological agency or governance emerge, how does a body’s female identity confound this? I am interested in how material bodies are formed and gendered, how they are a site of biological or social domains. It is through medical writings and interrogating perceptions of the ancient Greek body that one may more clearly understand what elements of the human experience are valued.

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Jul 25, 2020

Hi! Here is my final video. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1gUewv983ZT_EYV2LBqcddP7I1_R3rX_3/view?usp=sharing

Jul 21, 2020
Replying to Diogene Artiles

This summer I’ve had the privilege of working with Professor Ana Paulina Lee. She has been instrumental in shaping the direction of my research this summer. Earlier this summer, I got to learn about her own research interests, which informed my interests. I got to take a look at Brazilian revolutions from the early 19th century to see the ways gender, race, sexuality and music (and even magic) interacted to form a more cohesive interpretation of contemporary Brazilian racial politics. I got to learn about the Brazilian’s separationist movement from Portugal and the consequent rebellions of different regions of the country, like the Male Rebellion in Bahia which was a revolt planned by African-born Muslim enslaved people, or the separationist movements of the South of Brazil. Not only did Professor Lee shape the content I looked at, but also the way I approached research: she gave me the idea of writing down what my motivation for doing research was at the beginning of the six weeks, and she told me to periodically return to this mission statement whenever the research process got tedious or repetitive. 

Also, Professor Lee shared some awesome resources provided by the National Library of Brazil, so I got to read a bunch of primary sources from the 19th century! In the future, I hope to diversify the media I consume and incorporate more video, film and art in the mix. In addition, I like the idea of keeping a motivational piece of writing at my side.

Hi Dio, 

I'm so glad that you've established such a meaningful connection with your mentor! I relate to what you said about your mentor shaping not only the content but also your approach - I found that in my work as well, that it was often the subtle suggestions of contextualizing thoughts or methodological points that helped a lot. I love the idea of a mission statement to turn to at tedious moments - did you find that helpful/did your mission stay pretty consistent throughout? 

Jul 21, 2020
Replying to Herbert Rimerman

Week 1

My research project this summer focuses attempts to identify and interpret the means by which the Hasmonean "king" John Hyrcanus (ruled ca. 134-104 BCE) incorporated the neighboring state of Idumea into his native Judean state after conquering the former.

To take the second question first, my experience last summer taught me that history research takes a lot of reading up front. I spent more of the research period than I would have liked last year reading and vetting my sources. This year, I spent the first half of my summer doing that reading and began my official research period in the second half in order to get the most out of my time with my advisor. My plan worked, and I was able to start discussing ideas right away rather than just looking for sources. I couldn't have used this plan, however, unless I had developed the source criticism skills last summer that I would need to find, vet, and annotate the scattered sources on my own. 

I often feel insecure about whether I will say anything new with my research. Bigger brains than mine have tried to untangle the contradictory and, by turns confusing and taciturn, sources on the events in question. Moreover, many of the best historians on the subject of this time and place are still working today. It's intimidating that the giants still walk among us, and I'm not sure I'll be able to fill the footprints they leave behind. But, as philosopher and historian R.G. Collingwood observed, no historical action can ever be exhausted for investigation. My hope is that I can look at the questions that scholars have already answered to figure out what questions these answers raise, and then answer these new questions instead of treading the same ground as those who came before. In this spirit, I spent this week retooling my research question based on the reading I've done and am moving toward a draft of my argument that I will discuss and revise over the next five weeks.

Hey Herbie, 

I love what you said in your reflection about how no historical action can ever be fully exhausted. I also relate to the fact that it's intimidating to follow and contribute to scholarship that has existed for so many decades prior to you, but I think it's important to keep in mind that the beauty of human interpretation is that each individual's perspective will and can add to an ongoing scholarly debate. I am confident in your ability to observe complexity and tension within sources and synthesize an argument that moves the existing conversation along. I also think it's great how you learned from your time last summer and are able to devote more time to questions that motivate thought rather than sources. 

Jul 17, 2020
Replying to Diogene Artiles

Has your research or work in a community to this point introduced you to any new fields or topics that are of interest to you?   How, if at all, has your work narrowed since the beginning of the project?

My research was originally very historical and literary, but I have recently delved into psychology. I am very interested in the way history informs interpersonal relationships, so I have been able to look at books such as The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., to be able to learn more about the brain and trauma. I am excited to see my research go into the trauma of different power structures within our society, such as racism, homophobia and transphobia. Thus, my work has narrowed to be more focused on the way history and psychology are interconnected.

Hey Dio! Yes, interdisciplinary work! It's so interesting to hear about your progression in research. I recall from last summer that your work then was also more historical/literary so it's exciting to branch into broader questions and themes. Something that your research is probably yielding is that while researching the human experience, and especially these themes of racism, homophobia, etc, you can use so many different tools and disciplines (like literature; psychology) to gain a fuller understanding of the picture. More layers of complexity and ways of coming at the problem will yield fascinating results. 

Jul 17, 2020

Week 5: 

I have gained so many skills and new knowledge from this experience. Firstly, I have gained a much broader conceptual understanding of my subject matter and Greek history in general - the relationship between philosophy, medicine, and patients. I have broadened my understanding of forces of conflict that come together in a society, both in the past and in our time as well, namely issues of biological imperatives meeting social imperatives, how to question what is seen as objective, and how intersectional any investigation of a human should be. More specifically, I have learned more about the technique of “reading against the grain” because I am looking at the Greek language and asking questions about terms (like “sexism”) that are not as clear in the literature, so one cannot be anachronistic but still needs to be clear in one’s strategy and use of terms. I have developed more appreciation for the overall process of research and learned to manage my daily/weekly perspective on what is “productive,” and part of that has been me learning how to work through lines of complexity and seek clarity rather than seek a teleological end goal. 

The person who has shaped my project the most is my mentor, who has been immensely helpful with her guidance during this complicated project. She has challenged me to think in a new discourse and push my thoughts beyond a two-dimensional line of argument. I have learned from her that leadership is often about the words that are dropped in a conversation that are perhaps not intended to be the main point: you can lead as much with what is said in the “parentheses” of dialogue as you can with the first or last sentence. I will take forward from this project a new inspiration to challenge binary arguments in existing scholarship and seek complexity and nuance in my work, particularly around issues of gender. 

Jul 15, 2020
Replying to Jake Fisher

Week 3

In true bureaucratic fashion (haha!) I intern daily from 9am-5pm. My supervisor generally checks in with me each morning in order to let me know of any particular tasks that she has for the day. Usually, I spend my days researching a particular issue or topic and preparing a memorandum to send to her by the end of the day. On top of this, my supervisor invites me to attend about 5-10 of her (virtual) meetings each week that she thinks will be interesting. Last week, I got to join a meeting with the governor and my advisor to discuss ongoing efforts to reform school discipline!!!

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to write the governor’s talking points for the bill signing ceremony for the creation of a statewide Dolly Parton Imagination Library program in Colorado. It was surreal to see him speak the words I had written, which you can watch here: https://www.facebook.com/53481427529/videos/981440475621403/

Hi Jake! I also try to set a 9-5 type of schedule for myself and it seems nice that your supervisor lets you know of any tasks for the day so that you have a focused day. I'm also glad you get to attend some of her meetings because it's always great to listen/hear from others and have some variety in your day as well. So cool that you are working so closely with these important education initiatives in CO! 

Jul 15, 2020

Week 4: 

This is a great question because I think that so much of research consists of responding to difficulties that arise and working to adapt your initial image of the research process or reading materials. Some challenges that I have felt this summer are: working in my home and managing relationships with those in my house and my own research; finding the appropriate literature online, without access to a library; trying to find an argumentative angle on the topic I've chosen (i.e. what can I contribute to this ongoing conversation); managing the mental fatigue of intense research; and seeking clarity in my thoughts when I have a lot of reactions to literature.  I also think that the conditions this summer posed a unique challenge in my working/living environment and have allowed me to think more about the relationship between myself and my work, how I best think through ideas, and how to manage feeling overwhelmed. One specific challenge I encountered was not being able to access/find a particular text I needed that my mentor recommended (Plutarch's Advice about Living Well). I looked carefully on CLIO and on Google but still could not find it, so I finally reached out the the Classics librarian I was paired with last year. I am grateful that the Laidlaw program provided this connection and that the librarian was willing to help this summer as well.  

Yes, I would say that my research has introduced me to new fields of interest. Before this project I did not know anything about ancient medicine or reproductive rights in the ancient world. I have come to realize so much more how forces of natural philosophy, patriarchy, social imperatives, etc. intersect within medical literature. Medicine is a fascinating field through which to see social systems contingently implicated, particularly for an object like the female body (who is controlling her, how does her reproducing body interact with her healthy body, is there any possibility for agency). My work has narrowed greatly from the beginning of the project. For one, I began with a broad focus on women's bodies in Greek medicine in the classical period, but now am focusing more on Soranus' Gynecology (a specific text) which is a few centuries after the classical period of 4th/5th century BCE. Further, I initially was interested in broad concepts like "nature" "subjectivity" and how the female body is constructed by medicine with a particular social agenda. Now, I have a narrower focus on the female psyche in Soranus and the manner in which the mental interacts with the social. I am looking at psychic impact on the reproductive process and the terms with which female agency exists or is constrained in this text. 

Jul 13, 2020

Hi everyone! A typical day of research usually entails waking up and running (to beat the summer heat!) before starting my day of research at my computer. I take most of my notes on Word, and read articles/literature through CLIO, so the majority of my time is spent taking notes or writing through my argumentative thoughts or reactions to primary sources. I try and take breaks whenever I feel as though the computer screen is too much, but for most of the day I have been using Word to narrow down my thoughts. At the end of the day, I like to write down some research goals/tasks for the next day and specifically what is immediate priority. Here is a picture of my desk! https://drive.google.com/file/d/1qyZDKd9YslWF-QdTnBcG3SM6tJ94fLp5/view?usp=sharing