Research, revise, roar: Students find their voice at freshman research conference

Dec. 12, 2014 1:30 p.m.

Finding resources 

Students with questions about the process of writing their thesis or performing research will find many resources available through the Office of Undergraduate Research, including departmental independent work guides. Students are also always welcome to make an appointment at the Writing Center, where fellows are available to assist with any part of the writing process, as a complement to the mentorship students receive from their faculty advisers.

At a daylong conference at Princeton on Nov. 21, a group of sophomores presented a variety of topics they had researched as freshmen, ranging from artists Andy Warhol and El Greco to the music of Mozart and Led Zeppelin, with forays into human cloning and domestic violence, as well as television's "Star Trek" and "The Powerpuff Girls." The 16 students were brought together by the Princeton Writing Program in an extension of the freshman writing seminars to discuss research and writing.

Learning to write, and write well, is an integral part of the Princeton undergraduate experience, culminating in the senior thesis. Setting the stage for the thesis and the junior independent work that precedes it are the freshman writing seminars. Required of all freshmen, the seminars introduce students not only to the art of academic writing, but to the fundamentals of research, and, most important, to the process of extensive review and revision that hones the skills needed for success in writing major research papers.

To showcase the outstanding work from the seminars, the Quin Morton '36 Freshman Research Conference was established in spring 2014. Writing program faculty invite selected students from the previous term's seminars to present their work in a supportive public setting modeled after an interdisciplinary academic conference. This year's presenters were assigned to one of six panels, with each student presenting their own work. They also participated in a question-and-answer session with fellow panelists, fielding questions from classmates, current writing seminar freshmen and faculty.

Developing original work

The students acknowledged that finalizing their subjects was one of the most challenging aspects of the writing project. Ciara Corbeil, whose paper is titled "On Display: Fashion's Celebration and Subjugation of the Natural World," started out wanting to research the commodification of the African savannah by the safari industry. She ended up focusing on an animal-inspired costume exhibit. She found "close to nothing" in terms of scholarly work on her topic, which provided an opportunity to break new ground, as well as a challenge in creating an academic conversation with established authors.  

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Sophomore Benjamin Gallo presents his paper on artist El Greco as part of the daylong Quin Morton '36 Freshman Research Conference held on campus Nov. 21. The conference showcases the research and writing of students in the writing seminars, which are required of freshmen. (Photo by Emma Ljung, Princeton Writing Program)

Writing seminars emphasize developing an original topic, and "being original was scary," according to Benjamin Gallo, a native of Nicaragua with an interest in art history. He found inspiration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "When my professor suggested to me that I could craft an argument related to landscape paintings (which is, of course, a theme of art history), I became very excited," he said. "I looked at landscapes for days. Italian landscapes, American landscapes, Mexican landscapes. And then, I found a particular landscape that was appealing to me — 'View of Toledo'  by El Greco. Not only did I find this work aesthetically pleasing, but the whole mysterious history surrounding it was simply amazing. Ultimately, I think that the possibility to contribute to a field that you are very fond of — whatever that field might be — is the most rewarding aspect of conducting your research."

Eva Lewandowski  recommends that students "choose a topic that's original, but also one that you're passionate about in some way. It makes the writing process that much easier — and more compelling — when you're writing about something that you're actually interested in."

Learning valuable lessons

Writing seminars introduce freshmen to a lexicon of terms that describe the key elements of academic writing across the disciplines. One of these terms is the motive, as explained by Lewandowski: "The most useful thing, to me, was the idea of a motive/motivating question. It really gives a 'point — a purpose — to your writing and helps you focus your ideas around answering one question and explaining that answer."

Likewise, Corbeil cited motive as essential to defining a "Princeton-level argument," and one of the most useful things she learned in her writing seminar. Gallo agreed that "writing seminars put a heavy emphasis on the motivating factor behind an argument, and if it cannot be put into words, the argument cannot and should not be made." 

Hayley Roth added: "For me, the most valuable component of the writing seminar was the concept that an argument is only as good as the biggest counterargument it anticipates. I find this to be true in all fields of writing, especially the field in which I am most heavily invested now — law. It is crucial to engage the best counterarguments to a primary line of reasoning to lend weight and self-worth to an argument. This was never emphasized in high school, and I feel that my writing dramatically developed over the course of the seminar when I realized how to employ this tactic." 

Exploring research resources

For many freshmen, the writing seminar presents a first encounter with Princeton's vast library resources. Lewandowski  found that the University's online database of scholarly journals provided access to thousands of useful sources for her topic, "Hispanic Religiosity and Gender Norms: An Analysis of the Domestic Violence Responses of Hispanic Women." 

For Corbeil, "finding books in print was most important to me in choosing a topic and researching it. I went to the section where all books on 'zoo archaeology,' 'fashion' and 'aesthetics' were kept, and paged through the books to see which direction I should take. I ended up with an entire cardboard box full of books!"

Roth is grateful to the library staff for familiarizing her with Firestone Library, "a crucial skill to acquire in freshman year. The library is tremendously expansive and very daunting in its scope; the two seminar sessions conducted in the library were invaluable."

Building a foundation for future research

Looking ahead to junior independent work and the senior thesis, the students found that participating in the Morton '36 Conference was helpful. Gallo said: that "Thinking about these two [projects] is still scary. But I feel confident that I can tackle this. I know how to present an argument. I know how to connect it to bigger ideas. I know how to make it meaningful. But most importantly, I know how to gather information from a wide array of sources to craft an original argument, defend it and put it into practice."

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Student presenters, from left, Hayley Roth, Yun-Yun Li and Aaron Schwartz gather at the conference. Roth said presenting her written work was "very beneficial" and allowed her to "critique and expand" her arguments. (Photo by Amanda Irwin Wilkins, Princeton Writing Program)

According to Roth: "The [presentation] process was very beneficial for my paper. I enjoyed putting some of the more verbose passages into more colloquial terms. By reinterpreting my arguments, I was able to critique and expand upon them." 

Lewandowski agreed that additional revision of her written work for the conference was helpful: "It's made me really rethink the writing process as more dynamic rather than just the simple draft-write-edit. Editing is a constant process rather than just one step of the way."

Corbeil said after the conference, "I also loved connecting with my audience and having the opportunity to be a little less formal — and even funny."