Riah Newfont '22 smiles in front of a tree.

What They Learned: Riah Newfont ‘22

For her thesis, the religion major used an unconventional medium to analyze human connections, hierarchical structures, and activism through the lens of dancing styles.

What do you do when a typical academic paper is not an effective method of expressing your research and understanding of your thesis topic? If you’re Riah Newfont, you find an alternative medium.

The religion major wrote her thesis as a fictional story, where two fictional characters she created, Timmy and Isadora, talk to various religious theorists, activists, and authors she’s read. As the story’s setting changes, so, too, do the authors, who are passengers at the time change. Some of the authors featured in her work include Ashton Crawley, author of Blackpentecostal Breath, activists Grace Lee Boggs and adrienne maree brown, and theorists such as Mary Douglas and Judith Plaskow, who focuses on hierarchy. In addition to these theorists, Timmy and Isadora meet experts on dance, such as choreographer Bill T. Jones and academic Sharmaine Jackson. Though her thesis started as a blog, it later became a fictional story driven by dialogue-like commentary. Thus, she settled on writing a dialogue between theorists and imagined characters.

“The form was inspired by pretty much all the writing I’ve ever done,” she said. “I’ve been excited about blogging and fiction-writing for many years now. I also feel kind of trapped by academic writing. I want to uplift forms of communication and education that don’t try to deny subjective experience. I also want to focus on writing that offers room for creativity, humor, and unresolved tensions.”

While traveling, Timmy and Isadora discuss difficult questions to grapple with, such as the stakes of a social commitment to bodily purity, how to express good will towards other people, and how hierarchies are formed in social structures. Newfont credited her religion classes for inspiring her thesis’ wide array of topics.

“Pretty much all of my religion classes lead me into fascinating questions about what makes us who we are, what brings us together as people, what spurs us towards activism, etc,” she said.

She chose to examine these questions in the context of a subject she is extremely passionate about, dancing. In particular, she examined how krumping, a high-energy form of street dancing, is used as a form of activism.

“I talked about how dance generally can be used as an activist tool, and focused on the ways krump dancing seems to be an important source of community and empowerment for the dancers who do it,” she said.

Newfont was thankful to her thesis advisor, Terrance Wiley, assistant professor of religion and coordinator of African and Africana studies, noting that, despite skepticism from others, he always encouraged her to pursue the creative thesis project that she wanted. Conversely, he also suggested that she balance the complexity of her project with a structure that made it feel complete and whole. He also advised her to delve deeper into some of the theories she was writing about, so that the dialogue felt more grounded and akin to the beliefs of the theorists she was writing about.

“Basically, he was really good at meeting me where I was at, encouraging me, and also continually redirecting me towards something that would actually produce a finished project,” Newfont said.

Newfont hopes that her thesis contributes to a broader, more inclusive idea of what is considered academic writing and knowledge production. Though the thesis is serious in its discussions of race and social justice, it manages to be entertaining, interesting, and accessible, just as she had intended.

What did you learn from working on your thesis?
I am pretty dang excited about the way I handled my thesis. I knew that, if I did a traditional thesis, I would have pretty much felt like all the time I had spent on it was wasted. Or, at least not the way I wanted to spend my time. But the thesis I did, while very difficult, felt like the kind of challenges I wanted to embark on. It was the kind of grind that paid off, because I made something that I find funny and interesting, and I feel like an important part of myself is actually in the thesis. I also think I surprised myself a little. I am usually someone who tries to be responsible and follow the rules more than I like to admit, so to break out of the prescribed thesis and do a project that felt meaningful to me was cool. I think that will be an important confidence boost for me going forward. It’s fun to know that I can break the rules a bit to do what I want to do, and then stick with it for a full year, and do it well. I hope I hold onto that mindset.

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.