Dean’s Honor Symposium at Eugene Lang College Celebrates Undergraduate Research in the Liberal Arts
Students on the cusp of graduation must make the transition to scholars, researchers, professionals, or artists. At Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts, the Dean’s Honor Symposium offers students an opportunity to make this change while learning how to present their scholarly research from the classroom to an outside audience.
The Dean’s Honor Symposium is an undergraduate research conference created five years ago as a celebration of the liberal arts. Drawing from all sectors of Eugene Lang, the program brings together students who might not regularly interact because of their differing academic programs to present their work in a single context.
This year, nearly 40 students participated in the program, which consisted of original student research projects presented in a poster session and panels. Student panelists were matched with faculty advisors who guided them in mastering academic discourse and scholarly presentation. According to Pacho Velez, assistant professor of screen studies, part of the role of faculty advisors is to “teach students how to phrase research questions, how to draw in the interest of an audience, and how to structure a presentation so that people do not feel condescended to but rather led through the research.” For Velez, who is also a documentary filmmaker, this process provided a new way of thinking about his own work and interactions with students: “These are questions I have to consider in my own work, and it was interesting to collaborate with students who are excited about presenting their own research in the best way possible.”
Students interested in presenting their research projects applied to the symposium during the fall semester. Those selected were grouped together on the basis not of their academic department but rather of the overarching focus of their research, leading to four panels: Reframing and Reclaiming: Navigating Power in Space, Art, and Narrative; This Must Be The Place: Destroying, Preserving, and Reimagining Home; Searching for Meaning on the Periphery; and Body Language. The participants built their panels together, offering advice and helping one another develop their presentations from the first draft to the final product.
Art Lajara, Literary Studies ’20, who participated in the Body Language panel, found being exposed to the work of other students invigorating. “I often feel very wrapped up in my Literary Studies bubble at this school, as I don’t often take classes outside the department, and the symposium really gave me an opportunity to see what kind of work other New School students are doing, especially across different mediums,” says Lajara. “I’m such an essay-based person, so to have co-panelists producing content like films and zines was just a generally eye-opening experience in terms of the kinds of academic work that exists at this school. I also think that we had different skills that we were able to lend to our panels — Emma, one of our panelists, has a background in graphic design and made all the graphics for our presentation, for example, and she did a great job!”
For Crystal Ellington, Culture and Media ’20, working with students from various departments was the best part of the program. “I kind of wished I had an experience like it sooner, because I got to see other students’ amazing work and passions. I learned just how creative Lang students are.” Ellington appreciated the opportunity the symposium gave her to leave behind a legacy at the school through her research, The Radicurl Project. “I want others to know there was a Black girl at this school who made it through all four years and was able to explore aspects of Blackness in a predominantly white institution while being on the Dean’s List,” she says.
Student panelists began working on their presentations in mid-January, before the coronavirus pandemic moved college programs online. In prior years, students displayed posters in the University Center’s Event Café and shared their research in the building’s lecture halls. This year, students had to begin planning for online presentations in mid-March, with the poster session held on Lang’s Instagram account and the panels livestreamed during the afternoon. The change in presentation format presented new challenges for the student panelists. “When you have face-to-face interactions with your audience, you can adjust your presentation based on the immediate feedback you have from their reactions,” says Velez. “Since the students wouldn’t have that real-time feedback, we recorded practice presentations, so that they could see how they would look and fine-tune them before the event.”
The change in format was also challenging for Lang staff. “Their work helped set the stage for success and really supported the students through a difficult transition to online presentations,” says Velez.
Despite the obstacles faced by the students, the symposium gave them a unique opportunity to develop skills outside of the classroom — skills that will serve them as they move on from their identities as undergraduate students. “This was a chance for students to take what started as class projects and develop them into research designed for a larger audience,” says Velez. “It was a chance to present the projects not as students but as scholars and learn to reconfigure their interests for the wider world.”