Precedent Set for Presentations of Student Research

The open space above Harris refectory between Main Street East and West usually serves as just the home to a sole grand piano came alive in the late afternoon of Wednesday, Nov. 13. What was responsible for this palpably invigorating energy? The answer is simple, yet clarifying: 24 capable, professional students presenting their independent research to a diverse crowd of interested students, faculty and other members of the College community.

As The College Voice reported last week in previewing “Transformation: Political Change and Growth in the Middle East,” these students enrolled in Government and International Relations Professor Caroleen Sayej’s courses have been conducting independent research on a topic of their choice for the past three months. After a semester of collaboration with Dr. Noel Garrett of the Academic Resource Center, this brainchild of Professor Sayej’s finally materialized.

The event was set up in a fair-style format, with each student standing next to a large, polished poster that displayed their research questions, methods and findings. Garrett commented, “The posters look great and work really well… which is a testament to [the students’] hard work.”
“The poster provided a really great opportunity to summarize and take a step back to prioritize what points we actually want to expand upon,” student presenter Ali Peknay ’14 said in reflection of the event.

Professor Sayej said of her students, “[They] were working on the research projects for the last few months, but seeing it all come together added a whole other dimension of satisfaction. The students really rose to the occasion from day one, taking ownership of their topics and taking the conference seriously. They really wanted to make original contributions and their presentations were evidence of their success. Throughout the semester, they performed like graduate students and never complained about the heavy workload – they embraced it and often talked about feeling guilty if they skipped a day of working on their projects. We spent a lot of time in class, during office hours and over Skype dealing with their research concerns, and they benefitted greatly from the support of the librarians, Writing Center and of course the Academic Resource Center.”

Her students expressed gratitude to Professor Sayej. “She’s done so much for this class,” Tom Olson ’14 commented. Peknay added, “It’s been so much work, but she’s been amazing. I think I speak for all of us when I say she’s wonderwoman!”

Another presenting student, Conor McCormick-Cavanagh ’14, said, “All students should have the opportunity to promote and be proud of their work in the public realm.” This sentiment was echoed by many others at the well-attended event.

The topics included analyses of Palestine and Israel’s relationship, Jordan’s refugee policies, questioning the United States’ potential democratic decline in light of the Bush Administration and the Iraq War, the political framing of torture and critiquing the Iraqi Constitution and Islamic Law in the light of Iraqi Women’s rights, among many others. Attendees of the event seemed to appreciate the wide spectrum of research.

When asked how he was enjoying the conference, Ramzi Kaiss ’17 replied enthusiastically, “I love the diversity of topics from art to rhetoric used to speeches… [This diversity] can satisfy many more kinds of audiences.”

For Professor Sayej’s students, the opportunity presented them with a chance to more freely research topics that interested them. Lauren Schumacher ’14 explained that she had been exposed to her research topic while interning this past summer at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., but that this independent research enabled her to more vigorously investigate the elements that she is most passionate about.

The presenting element of their research also benefitted students in that it enabled them to gain feedback through conversations with the conference’s attendees – which will surely prove itself useful with a final 6,000 word paper due date on the horizon.

In reflection, Professor Sayej told The College Voice, “I felt very proud of my students when professor after professor came up to me at the conference telling me how much they learned from the posters, how professional and competent the students were and how much depth of knowledge the students clearly gained. The students were talking about their projects effortlessly, filled with passion. At the end of the day, the conference left me speechless and euphoric — a stark reminder of why I chose this field.” •