This time every year, I look forward to meeting students who have won awards for their work in first and second year Program in Writing and Rhetoric classes at Stanford, and this year brought a very special treat. On May 16, the eighth annual Lunsford Oral Presentation of Research Award ceremony was held in the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking, and the presentations I heard there literally took my breath away. Every term, instructors nominate their students’ best presentations, and two are chosen to receive an award during this spring ceremony. Of course, I’m very much interested and invested in these awards, and every year I look forward to meeting students and learning about the kind of research these sophomores are doing. I’ve always come away impressed with the quality of student work. But, as I noted, this year I was more than impressed, for two main reasons. First, the nature of the research undergraduates are undertaking seems to have deepened exponentially as they tackle more and more serious and complex issues. Second, the student award winners this year had done original, primary research.
Won Gi Jung, for example, in his “A Tale of Two Cities,” studied how the colonial contexts of Korea under Japanese rule had affected the Korean detective novel, and thus the culture. In addition to deploying post-colonial theory and close reading to outstanding effect, he had used quantitative mapping methods to track every site appearing in the novels of the 1930s, and compared his findings to a map of Seoul of the time. This analysis led to strikingly original discussion of the rhetorical situation of that particular time and place.
For a presentation on the Death Café Movement, Michelle Chang (pictured, left, with her instructor Selby Schwartz) carried out extensive field research, using ethnographic and autoethnographic techniques to show how this movement responds to the medicalized experience of death and dying, with its accompanying lack of agency, solitude, and artificial divisions. As a result of this research, Chang hosted a “mobile death café” across the U.S., bringing this resource to rural and more remote communities.
Still another student, Swetha Revanur, not only studied the sex trafficking taking place on sites such as Backpage.com, but she also used artificial intelligence to analyze data derived from the site to help understand geographic trends, to study the use of emojis that send special nonverbal messages, and to begin tracking telephone numbers associated with the site. And more: she also developed an “intelligent algorithm” that detects sex trafficking attempts with 80% accuracy. In her second year of college, thank you very much!
These writers/rhetors are using sophisticated research methods to explore difficult and important issues: research at a very high level indeed! I was truly thrilled to be a witness to their work.
Finally, the student presenters this year were the most polished I have seen in the eight years the award has been given: they knew their material cold and they were poised; easy on their feet; eloquent; accessible; and, to me and the audience assembled at the Hume Center, captivating. So bravo and brava to undergrad researchers and presenters everywhere. And double congratulations to their instructors!
Image Credit: Andrea Lunsford