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Celebrating English Students' Excellence in Research

| Gwen Wheat

CERCA (Celebration of Excellence in Research + Creative Activity) took place virtually this spring during the dates of April 19-23, 2021. Academic research continues to be an important, invaluable opportunity for students to become actively engaged in learning and application.  

UWEC English Department students, Rome Alfonsas Balciunas, Alivia Kistler, Megan Schaefer, and Sam Downing have shared about their 2021 research projects and the vast amount of lessons they have learned throughout their intellectual journeys. 

Rome Alfonsas Balciunas is a Senior Creative Writing major with a minor in Communication Studies and certificate in Teaching English as a Foreign Language. His research project titled, “The Wise-Woman, Theatre, and Threatened Patriarchy,” analyzes the play The Wise-Woman of Hoxton by Thomas Heywood. 

According to Rome, “The project examines the ways in which the play engages in conversation with gender and gender roles as perceived by 17th-century London, as well as the ways in which it subtly challenges and recontextualizes these ideas, using ambitious and capable female characters to undermine the supposedly ‘natural’ justification for patriarchal social structures.” 

With the advising of Dr. Theresa Kemp, Rome’s project provides a robust critical approach to the play’s expression of masculinity, whereas all of the roles of the play, including the women and upper-class, were performed by men of the merchant class. Dr. Kemp states that during the time of the play,  “There was a lot of cultural anxiety about not only actors but ordinary people ‘performing’ outside of the natural order of things--in terms of gender cross-dressing but also class cross-dressing.” 

Rome’s research actively applied his studies of critical theory to analyze the play and approach concepts of gender identity and gender roles through an anti-sexist and intersectional lens. Humanities research such as his, “is the way in which we explore meaning-making processes and make sense of cultural artifacts and phenomena. Through analyses such as this project, we are able to comprehend and contextualize our world, our culture, and our identities in new and profound ways,” Rome says. The positive outcomes for research are countless and Rome expresses great gratitude for his critical theory studies as well as mentorship from Dr. Theresa Kemp to make the project possible. 

English Critical Studies major and Art History minor Alivia Kistler researched the literary influence King James VI/I had while King of England. 

Alivia explains, “I argue that his text Deamonologie had a significant impact on witch trial proceedings in the Early Modern period, changing the means for witch prosecution. This caused an increase in anti-Catholic and pro-proletariat feelings in England and increased the amounts of witches who were put to trial and sentenced.”

The development of a well-rounded thesis about her research on King James has been largely aided by Alivia’s English studies of theories and deeper thinking. While reflecting on how her English major and knowledge acquired from courses, Alivia notes, “I don't believe that I would be at this point in my life without my English degree.” 

Additionally, the project influenced Alivia’s future plans and aspirations. Alivia graduates this May 2021 and hopes to enter the publishing field to become an editor. Her research this semester offered her the professional experience of practicing a set of skills that are similar to the editing process. Alivia also hopes to write a book and is interested in writing one on her research topic of witchcraft trials. 

Junior English and Political Science double major with a History minor Megan Schaefer presented her research project titled, “Elizabeth Sawyer: Antithesis to Womanhood.”

The focus of Megan’s research was the 1621 witchcraft trial and execution of Elizabeth Sawyer and the ways in which Elizabeth does and does not fit into the role of an ‘antimother’. “The antimother,” Megan explains, “does the opposite of traditional maternal duties. For example, in Snow White, the stepmother poisons Snow White instead of nourishing her. The antimother is someone that society held as being harmful to not just the patriarchy but also to 'good' women and children.” 

Researching exemplification of the role of the antimother in the case of Elizabeth Sawyer required Megan to apply her critical thinking and analysis skills that she has learned throughout a variety of courses. 

Megan also had Dr. Theresa Kemp as her faculty advisor for the research project, who Megan said was “super helpful and accessible throughout this experience.” Undergraduate research such as Megan’s provides a great opportunity to collaborate, grow with, and learn from their advisor. 

Sam Downing is graduating with an Integrated Strategic Communications major and English Critical Studies minor. Sam, advised by Dr. Stacy Thompson, prepared a research project concentrated on the award-winning film, Parasite and its effects both within and outside the film industry.  

Sam’s research illustrates his belief that, “film is a powerful art and allows creators to provoke empathy across multiple audiences, and the success of Parasite helps reinforce that belief. From breaking stigmas within the film industry to creating a movement that helped form a national housing reform, Parasite’s success is something that should be closely studied and celebrated.” 

Sam is passionate about how cultures are formed by the people who create art and his research on Parasite works to prove how humanities research encourages that perspective.  Regarding the value of humanities research such as his own, Sam notes, “humanities research helps us learn more about the human condition, but it helps us understand each other in ways that only art will allow us to,” he elaborates. Sam hopes that his research project shows people that “art doesn’t only imitate life, but life also imitates art.”

Positively influenced by his work on the research project, Sam encourages everyone to not constrain critical thinking to the limits of one’s homework or career. Instead, Sam says to “include the art and culture you consume on a daily basis. Why does this speak to you? What underlying themes are present? Understanding the content you consume during your precious free time will allow you to discover more about yourself and the values you hold dear.”