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Currents: students on the national stage

Communication Studies Students' Research Featured at National Convention

Communication Studies students Sean Ahern '09 and Andrew Baker '08 had a chance to breathe some rarified academic air while presenting their research papers at a national conference for communication scholars in San Diego, Calif. Accompanied by Assistant Professor of Humanities Melissa Meade, they were among a small number of undergraduate students whose work was selected for presentation at the National Communication Association's annual convention in November 2008.

“It's wildly competitive,” says Professor Meade of the peer review process for undergraduate research for the convention. In early 2008, she had encouraged her Lambda Pi Eta Communication Studies students to submit papers for the event, and coincidentally, the accepted papers both originated from her Wesson Honors class, The Philosophy of Cultural Resistance, which Ahern took in fall 2006 and Baker completed as an independent study in fall 2007.

Ahern's paper, titled “Subcultures as Cultures of Resistance,” explored the characteristics of specific subcultures, namely the Mods in London in the 1960s, the Zoot-Suiters of 1940s' Los Angeles, and the Original Gangsters, also of Los Angeles, in the 1980s. “I have always been interested in how people live outside the social norm of the rest of the society and what they do to set themselves apart,” he says.

Ahern reviewed Dick Hebdige's research into the world of the Mods and scholarly publications about the Zoot-Suiters and Original Gangsters. “I went through multiple theses before I came to my final three subcultures,” he says. “I also looked at the punk subculture to gain an insight into the appropriation of styles by the overall culture in fashion and music.”

Ahern jumped out of his chair while at his internship in spring 2008 when he learned his paper had been selected for the conference. “I knew that it was a very hard thing to get accepted to,” he says. “I think it was chosen because it was a clear-cut story with very simple and basic ideas attached to it that were easy to understand.”

Baker's paper, “Authenticity and Cultural Resistance,” examined the nature of subversive cultural groups and the effect of consumerism on their authenticity. He conducted a great deal of literary research for the paper, reading cultural theory and synthesizing the ideas of many different authors. Yet he admits that when Professor Meade asked him to submit some work for the conference, he randomly plucked this research paper from his hard drive. “I was astounded when I heard that I got selected,” says Baker. “I really didn't expect it.”

Joining the Academic Community

At the convention, Ahern joined a panel of five undergraduate student presenters and read and discussed his paper with a group of Lambda Pi Eta scholars, their professors and others interested in his topic. “It was interesting to talk about my paper in front of so many people because they all gave me great feedback on what I should do as a next paper in the same area of study, and what I can do to make this paper better,” he says.

Professor Meade felt Ahern gave a strong presentation. “Those in attendance seemed very interested in his particular analyses of subcultures, and his respondents had some very good suggestions for Sean for further research.”

Ahern also enjoyed the topics discussed by his fellow students. “One student from Villanova who was on my panel did a presentation about music of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia during the revolution and how it affected popular ideas, and another student from Wooster College in Ohio did a piece on the post-colonialism of Britain as shown in 'Shawn of the Dead,'” he says. “My other favorite was on celebrities and eating disorders and the imagery associated with them. It was something I would usually never really think about, and it caught me by surprise to find how interesting it was.”

Though Baker says he's fairly comfortable with public speaking in an academic setting or in theater productions on stage, the convention presentation made him nervous. “...When you are around some of the most brilliant minds in the field, that can be a bit intimidating,” he says. “Since a lot of my paper revolved around dense cultural theory, it was a little difficult for the audience to grasp. You only have a small amount of time, and it is difficult to breakdown an entire semester's worth of work. I was very pleased with myself when it came to the speech. I think it was fairly well received.”

Professor Meade though Baker gave the strongest presentation on his panel and called it “very impressive.” “His ideas were cogent, cohesive and theoretically sophisticated. He was able to integrate ideas of relevant theorists while also adding his own argument for the discursive value of subcultures,” she says. “One professor approached him afterward for a copy of his paper to give to a colleague working in that area. So this was a good example of how knowledge is constructed, how research and scholarship happens.”

For Ahern, a highlight of the convention was seeing the collaboration and camaraderie among people from colleges and universities across the country. “I feel that conferences are made to get people to come together and share ideas and then hang out and figure out what their next paper and presentation will be on,” he says. “I liked seeing the undergraduate pieces because they are my contemporaries in communications, and I might have been in a room with someone who will write a prize-winning book someday.”

Baker says his paper focused on qualitative research, while most others were based on quantitative research. “One project I did find particularly interesting dealt with the collective reconstruction of identity through the rhetoric of an African national anthem,” he says. Baker enjoyed a conversation with a Ph.D. candidate from Georgetown University, who did his dissertation on Wikipedia, which was also the topic of Baker's Capstone project in his senior year. “I figured that I wouldn't be able to uphold a strong conversation with someone going for the Ph.D.: I assumed that he would talk circles around me,” he adds. “But it really wasn't the case, and it made me a lot more confident about applying for grad school in the future.“

Professor Meade expressed pride in her students and attributes their ability to compete at the highest level in part to the resources Colby-Sawyer has provided for them. “We have low faculty-student ratios so that students really get specialized attention. Andrew wrote his paper during an independent study he took with me, and Sean wrote his paper for an honors course that I taught,” she points out, “and the small size of honor societies means that we can work together on these kinds of projects. They don't get lost in the crowd. We also have student travel funds that support this kind of meaningful work.”

Students Reap the Rewards

Undergraduate students benefit in subtle and important ways from taking part in national conferences in their fields of study, says Professor Meade. “Conferences are often the first step in scholarship, and by attending research presentations by working academics, students experience the knowledge-production function of higher education,” she explains. “The authors they read in class are often in attendance, and students can ask questions and hear their latest ideas, and in the process, gain a sense of where knowledge comes from and how it's constructed.”

These conferences also take learning out of the classroom and allow students to attend panel presentations on subjects that interest them. “Nothing is assigned to them – they choose which topics they want to learn about,” Professor Meade adds. “It gets them excited about scholarship, and they bring that energy back to Colby-Sawyer.”

On the way back from the convention, Ahern began talking to Professor Meade about other research papers he'd like to write, and before long his enthusiasm infected other members of the Lamda Pi Eta honor society. “At their last meeting they were talking about looking into graduate school, looking at research and scholarship opportunities, and bringing academic speakers to Colby-Sawyer,” she says, “in contrast to what clubs usually talk about, which is hosting pizza or movies nights or holding study sessions.”

Academic conferences also entice undergraduate students to learn more about graduate school: how it's organized and the options available for programs, subfields and professors to study with, according to Professor Meade. Graduate schools hold fairs at the conferences that give students such as Ahern a chance to talk with professors and graduate students about various programs.

“I liked the graduate school open houses and book open houses because I could see where I want to go next in communications or law,” he says. “The book open house also gave me something to shoot for because all the publishing houses that are based in universities were there.”

Now We'd Like to Thank...

Since his graduation, Baker has returned to his hometown in Maine, where he is working and preparing for graduate school. He expresses gratitude to Professor Meade for nurturing his intellectual growth early on and supporting and guiding him through his four years at Colby-Sawyer.

“If it weren't for her guidance, there is no way I would have ever been able to succeed as I have,” he says. “[Assistant Professor of Humanities] Craig Greenman also played a pivotal role in my education at Colby-Sawyer. He helped me to strip away my preconceived thoughts of how learning can take place. The way he presented certain topics in his Continental Philosophy and aesthetic classes really opened my mind.”

Professor Meade helped the student distill their presentations to 10 minutes, build their confidence before the convention, and understand the significance of their achievement, according to Ahern. “She pointed out that undergraduates were the minority at this convention and it was a big deal to be seen at this level.”

He suggests other students explore opportunities to attend academic conferences in their area of interest. “The NCA and other discipline-specific conventions are something that everyone should aim for as an undergrad. It's a great experience, and you can have an awesome time.”

-Kimberly Swick Slover