Conference Call: Putting Academic Research into Practice
By: Chelsea Brandwein, Erika Carlos, and Nastacia Schmoll
When you submit your Statement of Intent to Register at UCSB, you’re signing an intellectual covenant with a top public research university. You’re promising the UCSB community that you will engage academically (which means, yes, you’re going to wake up at 8 a.m. to go to office hours!), you will act in accordance with university policies, you will bleed school spirit, and you will cross the stage at graduation. But you’re also promising to expand the minds of your professors and peers. You will not just be a sponge soaking up new insights; you will contribute to a pool of developing knowledge.
At a research university like UCSB , Nobel laureates are name-dropped daily, faculty members teach from textbooks they wrote, and your classmates might be one peer review away from a journal article. You aren’t required to get involved in academic research, you’re just sort of nudged.
Enter All Worked Up: A Project About Student Labor, the research project the three of us have been working on this year. In collaboration with lecturer and postdoc Heather Steffen, we are conducting videotaped interviews with UCSB student-workers, offering them the chance to reflect on their duties on the job, their working conditions, any exploitative experiences they have had (and boy have they had them), as well as student debt, academics, and work-life balance. Our goal is to contribute knowledge about student-workers lives’ through academic research, public writing, an online space with interview videos at www.allworkedup.org, and eventually a documentary film.
Our work recently took us to the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) in Portland, Oregon. CCCC is a national academic convention where scholars, teachers, and researchers gather to discuss a plethora of topics within the humanities with a focus on writing and composition. One component of the convention is the Undergraduate Research Poster Session, which gives student researchers the chance to create a poster about our project and discuss it with curious convention-goers for about two hours. To prepare for the session, we submitted an abstract of our project, had it reviewed and accepted, and peer edited our poster online with other presenters.
In this post, each of us reflects on her experiences at CCCC, and we advocate for humanities students making research posters (research posters aren’t just for scientists!) and give some advice to students thinking about presenting at a national academic conference.
When you’ve been working on a large, collaborative research project for most of the year, the opportunity to finally present your work is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have. Simply being accepted for a poster session means that your research efforts are not only being acknowledged, but that there are people who are interested in what you do and what you have to say. This in itself is incredibly motivating, since it makes all the time and effort you put into your research feel worthwhile and important.
As far as presenting for the first time, since our project has many components and is exploratory in nature, it was helpful to have a deadline to look forward to and push us to solidify our project’s goal and preliminary findings. Presenting also helped us to think about audience within a more specific context (scholars in writing and composition), which lead us to adapt our work accordingly, like giving our poster the title “Writing the Lives of Working College Students.”
Presenting at CCCC also meant that we could practice our project’s “elevator pitch.” By gauging the interest and reaction of those unfamiliar with our research, we can adjust our pitch in hopes of communicating our research more effectively. As someone who is generally nervous about public speaking, the poster session built my confidence in my knowledge in and ability to talk about our research, which is a skill I can now carry forward in future presentations.
To me, attending a national conference meant that I was able to participate and contribute to academic culture during my time as an undergraduate. It gave me confidence as a researcher and scholar and motivated me to keep the door open to future opportunities within academia. Most importantly, it exposed me to the breadth of incredible work within the humanities and how that research can have a lasting impact within both the academic and civic communities.
Going to another state or even another part of your own state for a conference is one of the best ways to fulfill that New Year’s resolution of finally getting out of your comfort zone. Traveling makes you feel a little out-of-place, a little uncomfortable, and a little sleep-deprived. Sometimes you do your best work when you are a bit uneasy and displaced, though. I found that being in Portland made me more adventurous and more willing to step out of my bubble. I was introducing myself more, I was allowing myself to be less intimidated about talking to people who are smarter than me, and I was, for perhaps the first time, really acknowledging and feeling proud of my contributions to the All Worked Up Project.
My advice is to really take full advantage of your conference. Chances are you paid to be there, or your school paid for you to be there. Make the most of it! Talk to more people than you would normally talk to and meet different people than you would normally meet, exchange email addresses, ask fellow conference-goers about their research, be prepared to answer questions about yours, and always be ready to accept suggestions for bettering your research or to jot down ideas for further research and writing.
If you’re not too jetlagged and you’re not on information overload, make an appearance at conference-sponsored dinners and other social functions. These are excellent opportunities to network with academics and peers in an informal environment. Our team attended a casual dinner at a local pizza joint and had an opportunity to meet fellow undergraduates and exchange ideas over a slice of pepperoni.
Get your conference schedule as early as you can (these printed schedules can be pretty hefty—CCCC’s was a bound book of over 450 pages) and highlight panels/presentations that sound most interesting to you. Try your hardest to go to one or lots more than one! They are low-stress—you do not have to participate if you don’t want to—but you get to expand your mind and learn how academics approach and execute their own research presentations.
Make it a point to attend the keynote speeches. One keynote speaker at CCCC this year was Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas, and it was an absolute honor to hear his moving and empowering talk about the changing American identity in the age of Trump.
Overall, attending an academic conference is the icing on the layer cake of undergraduate education at a research university. Go to one! Show the rest of the academic world what the budding minds at UCSB can do.
I graduated from UCSB with a double major in English and Slavic Studies about three years ago. Having graduated, the world of research seemed lost to me. But now, although I’m not a student any more, I have become an “independent scholar”—something I didn’t think was possible just nine months ago before the All Worked Up team invited me to join them. It was an opportunity to research something I care about and do something I thought I had missed out on.
Factors that deterred me from pursuing research as an undergrad included not only the time and perceived inaccessibility, but also my majors in the humanities. When I thought of research I imagined bubbling beakers, chalkboards covered in equations, and white lab coats. Even most of what you read about undergraduate research comes from the STEM fields. Through college, the closest I got to research was the occasional paper that I worked on individually and didn’t continue to explore after submission.
Working with All Worked Up and presenting at CCCC is a different story. The goal isn’t to get a good grade or to divide, conquer, and submit as soon as possible. It’s to investigate a question or problem, combining our team’s skills, expertise, and experience, and to continue that investigation as far as we’re able. With coursework, you turn in a paper or present in front of the class, and then maybe get feedback from your professor. With a poster presentation, you continually explain your research, answer questions, and receive feedback in an interactive way that sparks conversation and influences your project. Then you go to panels, presentations, and other posters, ask questions, and give your own insight and feedback, perhaps contributing to other people’s research. You feel like you are actually participating in the exchange of ideas and collaboration that academia is supposed to promote. It was the first time I truly felt like I was a part of the academic community, and I only wish that I had experienced it sooner.
- Love Your Research: Investigating something that genuinely fascinates and interests you not only fuels your motivation, it also helps you present it in a more enthusiastic and engaging way.
- Dream Big: If you want to see something done, figure out how to make it possible.
- Collaborate: Teamwork makes the dream work! Whether you’re a part of a research team or just have a really great faculty mentor, having someone to toss around ideas with is priceless, and everyone brings their own strengths to the table.
- Network: For a conference, bring a business card or a handout with your contact information and details about how to follow your project. If you’re building a website or maintaining a blog, provide the link. If you’re posting updates on social media, provide your account names. Rack up those followers!
- Represent: Remember that when you are at your conference, you are representing UCSB and everything it stands for. Present yourself as professionally as possible. A lot of people still hold onto the stereotype that UCSB is a crazy party school with unfocused students who spend their days day-ging and their nights raging. Prove them wrong!
- Do It!: When you look back on your undergraduate experience, presenting research will be one of your top highlights. Get to know your professors, see what they do, ask questions when a topic sparks your curiosity, and follow it.
Chelsea Brandwein is a senior Classics major and a Professional Writing minor with a specialization in Professional Editing. Erika Carlos is a senior double major in Comparative Literature and Psychology, who has also completed a Professional Writing minor with a specialization in Multimedia Writing. Nastacia Schmoll is a UCSB graduate who currently works as a writing tutor at CLAS and SBCC and as a freelance writer, editor, and independent scholar. The team is grateful to the Raab Writing Fellows Program in the UCSB Writing Program and to the UCSB Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (URCA) Grant program for their support of the All Worked Up Project.