Valexa Orelien, me, Autumn Warren, and Vrinda Vasavada at the 2019 Lunsford Oral Presentation of Research Awards.
Well, I’ve just enjoyed one of my favorite days of the year—the annual Lunsford Oral Presentation of Research Awards. Now in its 9th year, this award honors the students whose presentations have been judged the strongest in Stanford’s second-year writing course, PWR 2. Students are first nominated by their instructors, after which a panel watches and evaluates the presentations, which have been recorded. The five students with the highest scores—the finalists—then present their research live to another panel of judges from both the Program in Writing and Rhetoric and the Oral Communication Program. As Marvin Diogenes explained, the judges
look first for quality and timely arguments that demonstrate the presenters’ innovative contributions to the research conversation in which they are participating, and that draw on substantive evidence and methods for support. Second, judges are looking for engaging delivery and rhetorically effective use of media that adds clarity and interest to a presentation.
The awards ceremony honors all students who have been nominated, so they are recognized and thanked, along with the teachers who nominated them. Then as the five winners are introduced, their instructors take the stage to describe their work and its significance and to present them with several books they have especially chosen for them (the books go along with a certificate and a generous check, which always gets a big smile). This year’s winners included Haley Hodge for “The EPA’s Actions Speak Louder than Words: The Neglect of the RV Community on Weeks Street,” written in her course on “Comics for Social Justice”; Vrinda Vasavada for “Fighting Tech Addiction,” for her course “Language Gone Viral”; Sofia Avila Jamesson for “Murder, Music, and Machismo: Analyzing Gender-Based Violence,” for her course “Hear/Say: The Art of Rhetorical Listening”; Caelin Marum for “Searching for Olivia,” written for her course on “Race, Gender, Power, and the Rhetoric of the Detective”; Valexa Orelien for “Exploring Linguistic Power Structures in Haiti,” written for her course “How We Got Schooled: The Rhetoric of Literacy and Education”; and Autumn Warren for “You Don’t Sound Black: The Connection between Language and Identity,” for her course on “Language, Identity, and Power.” Instructors Lisa Swan, Norah Fahim, Irena Yamboliev, John Peterson, Csssie Wright, and Jennifer Johnson were outstanding in their descriptions and discussions of the student work, helping us to understand the contributions each student has made. The range of topics excited me as I thought of all the research and thinking that went into making these arguments.
Finally, two of the student winners gave their presentations for the assembled group of students, friends, family, and instructors crowded into the performance space of the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking. Vrinda Vasavada, a computer science major, was eloquent on the need to recognize “tech addiction” and to find ways to ameliorate it. Her research shows that 89 percent of students used their phones during their latest social interaction, that 75 percent check their phones within five minutes of getting up, and that this behavior results in distraction, lack of focus, and depression. She offered several suggestions for reducing time on screen and urged that all students adopt them, but she didn’t stop there. She went on to identify the model social media companies currently use to generate revenue and marked this model as one of the major causes of “tech addiction.” She then called on companies to shift from quantity back to quality of communication, to reduce the number of intermittent rewards, and to enable users to take control of their own attention. And, she said, her Gen Z group will be very receptive to such changes, noting that 53% of this group report preferring face-to-face over digital communication. So she ended on a positive note.
Valexa Orelien gave another winning presentation on linguistic power structures in Haiti. Valexa is Haitian and so speaks Haitian Kreyol as well as French and English, and she made a very strong case for moving to Kreyol as the language of instruction in Haiti today. In terms of power, she noted the overwhelming dominance of the French-speaking minority. Today, she told us, 90 percent of the inhabitants are monolingual Kreyol speakers and 50 percent of the children don’t attend school. It’s no coincidence, she said, that only 10 percent go beyond grade 1 and that 10 percent speak French as well as Kreyol. Tracing the long and tortuous colonial history of Haiti that resulted in what Valexa referred to as “linguistic apartheid,” she noted that only in 1987 did Kreyol become an official language alongside of French, but even then it was discriminated against; the government provides French textbooks only, for instance. With the funding of the Akademi Kreyol Ayisyen, Michel Degraff began an initiative for “bilingualism without loss of culture” and for the use of Kreyol as the language of instruction and French as a foreign language. Valexa also closed on an optimistic note, hoping that this movement will continue to gain proponents in Haiti. Kreyol is so clearly the language of Haiti—“French in language but African in spirit.”
I expect that many if not most teachers reading this post have attended similar celebrations sometime this spring: for me, the season would not be complete without honoring the imaginative and thoughtful work of our students. So congratulations to all of them: they are what keep me going in these very dark days of our democracy. I look to them, their critical thinking abilities, their cogent writing, and their eloquent speaking as the answer we all seek.