Research, Purdue, and You!

Each year, the English Department participates in the Purdue Undergraduate Research Conference hosted by the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR). Its mission is to “promote and expand experiential learning for undergraduate students through research experiences with skilled mentors.” In addition to organizing the conference, OUR offers scholarships, research and travel grants, workshops, online courses, and more. It also sponsors the Undergraduate Research Society, an organization fostering “necessary skills [for students] to be successful in their present and future endeavors.”

English majors participate in the conference via the College of Liberal Arts’ Wilke Undergraduate Research Internship Program. As our website puts it, the program is “intended to nurture a lifelong interest in learning and appreciation of the humanities and other liberal arts disciplines” through participation in faculty research. While assisting faculty, Wilke interns receive a $500 scholarship and enroll in a one-credit seminar on the basics of research. After completing their internship, they present at the conference poster session. Recently, students have aided faulty research on pirates, The Hobbit, digital humanities, Milton in translation, black feminism, bioethics, science fiction, museum archive studies, writing tutoring, and more!

Why does student research matter? As one of eleven “high impact” practices central to undergraduate education, its benefits are wide-ranging. Long-term faculty-student mentoring, like working on a thesis or capstone project, helps post-college success. As Leo Lambert tells us, there is a “strong relationship between key experiences in college and outcomes after graduation, such as engagement at work and personal well-being…. The quality of your collegiate experience will make a meaningful difference in the quality of your life!”

Other studies demonstrate that research encourages critical thinking; fosters independence; promotes the ability to tackle problems with no easy solutions; and provides a sense of accomplishment, positioning students for their next challenge (Selingo 152). Similarly, “students who were academically challenged in college are 2.4 times more likely to say college was worth the cost and 3.6 times more likely to say they were prepared for life outside of college” (Lambert). OUR also claims: “Studies show that students who engage in research are more likely to graduate, more likely to go on to graduate school, and have more successful careers after graduation.”

Finally, research is great career-builder. You can use it in your resume, cover letter, and interviews to market yourself to “companies, graduate programs, and national service organizations” (OUR). Add to this the fact that presenting at a poster session sharpens time management, networking, and public speaking skills, and you can see how undergraduate research is a pretty big deal!

What do Purdue English majors have to say about the Wilke program and the research conference? 

Name: Hollis Druhet, Vitasta Singh, & Grace Morris

Majors: English Literature & Creative Writing

Research Area: Cognitive Literary Studies with Prof. Pacheco

Hollis Druhet, Vitasta Singh, & Grace Morris
Hollis Druhet, Vitasta Singh, & Grace Morris

Tell us about your research project.

We looked at the social, emotional, and psychological benefits of reading literature. Reading isn’t epigenetic; while language is inherited from one generation to the next, reading is not. So, we wanted to understand how modern digital media alters the reading brain. In a digital age, we need to figure out how to train our brains to consciously retain the skills provided by deep reading while interacting with new media.

What was it like presenting a poster at the Undergraduate Research Conference?

It was awesome to be somewhere people were excited about research. We got to see what other students were doing, and to communicate the value of our research to them. It was really cool to have them come up and say, “That looks interesting. Let’s hear more.” The presentation got us thinking about how to communicate information to different demographics. A big part of the experience was…understanding how academic professionals could be better at communicating their ideas to a wider audience.

What did find you find most valuable about the Wilke Research Internship experience?

It was a great experience. We received guidance and support, but were also able to move through the project on our own. We also liked working together as a group. It doesn’t matter what career you pursue; you’re always going to have to learn how to fit your perspective alongside your partners’ or coworkers’. It was challenging…but we enjoyed it. We liked being challenged. That’s what’s great about the Wilke; you’re going to be challenged.

Ally Geoffray
Ally Geoffray

Name: Ally Geoffray

Major: English Literature

Research Area: Digital Humanities with Prof. Felluga

Tell us about your research project.

I worked on website called COVE, The Central Online Victorian Educator, creating a map with pinned geospatial locations of key nineteenth-century places and events. Our goal is to create a comprehensive hyperlinked research database that offers a more centralized platform for building shared knowledge, which we hope will help sustain the humanities in academia.

What was it like presenting a poster at the Undergraduate Research Conference?

I was nervous going in, but fellow undergraduate presenters gave me advice [on how to stay focused and exude confidence] and the judges themselves were very kind and interested in my research. They asked questions about my project and provided some feedback about my presentation, and then I was free to walk around and view other students’ work.

What did find you find most valuable about the Wilke Research Internship experience?

The best part of my research internship was working with Dr. Felluga and Amy Elliot, my graduate student supervisor. Working with them to develop my skills—both in researching and in presenting—was a very valuable experience. This project has also cultivated my interest in Victorian studies, and has taught me so much about integral locations from this time period.

Daniel Krause
Daniel Krause

Name: Daniel Krause

Winner, “Poster Presentation Award”

Major: Social Studies Education (and English Minor)

Research Area: Literary Studies with Prof. Powell

Tell us about your research project.

My research is on narratives of the Barbary Coast, including an individual named Ahmed the English. He was an Englishman born in the late 1600s who became a Renegade, a European who converted to Islam. We have no record of his existence before he became a Muslim [and very little after].

What was it like presenting a poster at the Undergraduate Research Conference?

It was my first time doing a presentation, and so I was a little nervous…. In the morning session alone, there were probably 300-500 people, packed in like sardines! So, you have a lot of people moving around, a lot of talking. But it was also fun because I got to hear about other students’ research, and to network with people in the Wilke program.

What did find you find most valuable about the Wilke Research Internship experience?

Being in the military, it was a completely different world coming back to school. I never imagined that I would be doing research. I found out that, not only am I really good at it, but I also enjoy it! I liked having Prof. Powell push me to find new and different information that other people haven’t. It was exciting…to do this research that no one else had done before.

Josh Martin
Josh Martin

Name: Josh Martin

Major: English Literature and Linguistics

Research Area: Linguistics with Prof. Benedicto

Tell us about your research project.

I documented interviews with the original members of Linguists for Nicaragua…a group of U.S.-based students who went to Nicaragua to assist in improving literacy and documenting the indigenous languages following the conclusion of the Nicaraguan revolution. My work involved transcribing these interviews as well as preparing a website detailing the story of Linguistics for Nicaragua.

What was it like presenting your poster at the Undergraduate Research Conference?

It was an interesting experience! Admittedly, I was nervous about presenting my work since I’d never done a poster session before…Nevertheless, I was great to have a chance to showcase my work to others, and to introduce people to something that they might not be knowledgeable of.

What did you find most valuable about your research internship experience?

My internship did give me a lot of experience with working in a research lab, which I found valuable as someone who plans to go to graduate school…I also managed to get experience in using certain programs, such as ELAN, in performing the research that we do. All in all, I feel that it helped provide the exposure to lab work needed to do other projects going forward, which I look forward to!

Sarah Merryman
Sarah Merryman

Name: Sarah Merryman

Major: Professional Writing

Research Area: Writing Lab with Prof. Denny

Tell us about your research project.

I evaluated the OWL’s data tables for accessibility to color blind and motor-impaired users. I conducted usability testing by asking students to go through the tables and complete series of tasks, while recording them to track movements and also to hear their vocal responses. The color blind tests revealed that we should make changes to the site based on user feedback, but the motor-impaired usability was pretty decent.

What was it like presenting a poster at the Undergraduate Research Conference?

Presenting was a super interesting experience! It was fun to share my research with students from different majors. The symposium was much louder than I anticipated, so I recommend students practice projecting before they present. It also wears out your voice, so bringing a throat lozenge.

What did find you find most valuable about the Wilke Research Internship experience?

My mentor taught me how to write abstracts and prepare research presentations for different audiences. What I loved most was discovering that research extends beyond the classroom, and realizing that I could pursue research independently. If you are curious about a topic or want to find answers to a problem, find a research mentor willing to help you and go for it!

Time-lapsed video of the OUR Poster Session:

Works Cited

Lambert, Leo. “The Importance of Helping Students Find Mentors in College.” 29 Nov 2018.   mentors-college.aspx.

Selingo, Jeffrey. College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students. New Harvest, 2013.

Exploring Learning Communities, Engaging English

Learning communities are fundamental to big public universities like Purdue. As one of 11 “high impact” practices identified by the AACU as essential to enriching students’ college education, they encourage deep learning, correlating to high levels of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, and faculty-student interaction.

Learning communities are integrated experiences; students take two classes together in their first semester, while also participating in residential or extracurricular activities with their classmates. Learning communities are, basically, fast tracks to academic success, assisting new undergraduates’ transition from home and high school to dorm and university; they help students earn better grades, make friends faster, and graduate at higher rates. Learning communities provide smaller class sizes; increased faculty-student mentoring; and opportunities to meet and interact with other students who share similar personal and academic interests. They also make a big campus feel small.

For this reason, each fall the English Department hosts its own learning community called “Engaging English,” open to first-year English majors and Exploratory Studies students. While we encourage the residential component, it is not required. So, students who live in the Honors College, for instance, or who have off-campus living arrangements can still participate. In 2018-2019, we won the Office of Residential Life’s “Real World Experience Award,” recognizing the best learning communities offering introductions to various opportunities within their academic fields. 

Left: Dr. Barbara Dixon; Right: Professor Roby Malo

Let’s take a closer look at the different aspects of our award-winning learning community, and hear from faculty and students who were involved in it.

ENGL 195 Introducing English

“Introducing English” is a 1-credit course (one 50-minute class meeting/week), which initiates students to departmental and college resources, gives them a jump-start on career planning, lets them work on writing skills, and also encourages community through participation in our “Big Read” common read program.

As our departmental Associate Head Dr. Barbara Dixon says, the “course is unique because we interacted in a deeper way than students in classes normally do—meeting often for dinner during the semester, reading The Underground Railroad [our Big Read for 2018-19], researching the slave trade, and spending an entire day together on a Saturday going to The Levi Coffin House, part of the Underground Railroad network in Indiana.” The biggest lessons that she hopes her students learned were that teamwork on projects is hard work (but also important to their future careers); that reading can be not just informative, but fun; and that faculty are people they can trust if they need help. Students very much enjoyed the experience. Julia, a student in the class, writes: “Dr. Dixon made her classroom feel like a home, and my classmates and I became … a family through the environment she created.” During the semester, the students even suggested creating a “GroupMe” to send text messages and to keep in touch. Dr. Dixon used it to plan a class “reunion dinner” the following semester.

Dr. Dixon’s students pose near a mural in Fountain City, Indiana that depicts Levi Coffin and his wife, Catharine, who helped more than 2,000 people escape slavery.

Her advice for prospective students? “If you have the chance to join a learning community, take it!” she says, “Try to get out of your comfort zone and go to activities you don’t think you’ll like with people you don’t know!”

The Big Read

Our annual Big Read is designed to enrich Purdue and Greater Lafayette through the shared experience of reading literature. Each year we select a great book, integrate it into our learning community curriculum, create a calendar of engaging events (including lectures, book group discussions, performances, workshops, author visits) and then provide free copies of the text to undergraduates, high school students, community members, public libraries, and more. Studies show that book ownership contributes to academic achievement, educational, economic development. It’s important for us to reach outside the borders of our campus and the temporal bound-aries of the undergraduate degree. Engagement programs like the Big Read produce demonstrable, positive communal effects, and are essential to Purdue’s mission as a land grant university.

English 202 Engaging English

The second course in the learning community is “Engaging English.” Dr. Robyn Malo, Associate Prof. of English Literature, says that the course teaches students the “basic skills but also the comfort-level and confidence to continue as English majors…We think about storytelling, whose stories we tell, whose stories we elide, and whose we ignore; how our interpretive faculties shape and limit what we are able to understand; and how can we start to get around this difficulty.”

Of course, Prof. Malo also organized a variety of extracurricular events for her students, like a trip to a play at the Indiana Repertory Theater; poetry readings; meals at the dining halls; meeting authors whose books they read in class; and after-class writing workshops. She even facilitated an impromptu study group during finals week. “Finals week can be overwhelming and stressful,” she says, “and so I thought, ‘Ok, this is a chance to re-connect to the group’…So, I was like, ‘Do you guys want to get together and study so that you don’t have to do it alone, and so that you have a little bit of accountability [to each other] while doing it?” 

Students from Prof. Malo’s class study in the English Department’s Under-graduate Studies Office during finals week.

What did she like best about the learning community experience? “It was fun to see them [in the dining halls].…Hanging out as a group makes learning more possible; I could see that they trusted each other and they trusted me. They knew I liked them and respected them as people. That makes it easier to give and take critical feedback. Students respond to that in a way that helps them learn rather than feel shut down.”

Prof. Malo’s biggest takeaway for her learning community students? “That you can balance learning and hard work with being ok the way you are and not needing to be perfect.”


Our “Engaging English” learning community is an enriching experience for faculty and students alike. One student raved that the experience “is very good at fostering a fun sense of community” and that the course instructors’ “kindness motivates me to perform well.” We consider this high praise, indeed!

“The underground railroad” by colson whitehead

Each year, the English Department presents its Big Read: a common read program designed to connect Purdue’s campus to the greater Lafayette area. Our book selection for 2018-2019 was Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning novel, The Underground Railroad (2016). The Big Read came to a close with the department’s annual Literary Awards, where Whitehead was the keynote speaker. His visit also included a reading from The Underground Railroad and a book signing.

Set in antebellum America, The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a young slave on a southern plantation. Born and raised into U.S. slavery (the novel also includes a glimpse into Cora’s grandmother, Ajarry, who was forcibly taken out of Africa and sold in America, and her mother Mabel), Cora is left an outcast after her mother runs off without her. A fellow slave named Caesar approaches Cora with an offer to flee, but she is reluctant to go with him; once conditions on the plantation worsen, however, Cora agrees.

What follows is an unconventional coming of age story, part slave narrative, part historical fiction, part magical realism, in which Whitehead transforms the metaphorical Underground Railroad of our historical memory into an actual mode of transportation. Secret tracks buried beneath the ground connect cities as “stops” along the way, while conductors like Martin, whom Cora en-counters in North Carolina, operate the train and help runaway slaves on their way to freedom.

The Big Read organizes several community events and activities, including book discussions open to the public, to foster connections between campus’ and the community’s literati. Recently, the West Lafayette Public Library was host to one such gathering of students and local residents. The review that follows is the result of an afternoon spent delving into the pages of Whitehead’s novel. While not everyone enjoyed the text, we all appreciated the beauty of Whitehead’s writing, and the story’s social significance.

Colson Whitehead talked with Dr. Dixon at our annual Literary Awards
Colson Whitehead talked with Dr. Dixon at our annual Literary Awards

The Underground Railroad is written in the third person, unlike other novels featuring enslaved female protagonists, such as Octavia Butler’s Kindred or Toni Morrison’s A Mercy. Participants worried that this narrative distance might inhibit some readers from identifying strongly with the novel’s protagonist. However, Whitehead turns this narrative pitfall into success in the presentation of his minor characters. Our group was impressed by the dynamism and roundedness of The Underground Railroad’s supporting cast—especially its villain Ridgeway. While it is easy to dismiss the slave catcher as immoral, the unbiased third person narration—plus the inclusion of a chapter from his point of view—results in a surprisingly and uncomfortably relatable character.

This is what Whitehead’s novel does best: It forces the reader to confront the gray area in what they thought was black and white—both historically and in contemporary society. Of course the slave catcher is evil, and, certainly, the brutal violence of Ridgeway and his associates bear this out. But Ridgeway is much more terrifying because we understand who he is. He, like us, has a moral code. We can disagree with that code, find it despicable, but the novel’s ambiguous treatment of Ridgeway’s fate suggests to the reader that the Ridge-ways of the world are not confined to history—they prowl among us today.

Likewise, The Underground Railroad’s America demands comparison with ours. In its opening pages, the novel shows us America through Ajarry’s eyes: “In America the quirk was that people were things… If you were a thing—a cart or a horse or a slave—your value determined your possibilities” (p. 7). This first glimpse prompted our group to wonder if the issues dealt with in the novel still affected us today, to a resounding yes. Several people drew comparisons between the slave catching scenes and the racial injustices of the 1960s and even now.

What generated the most conversation was the novel’s titular feature. In what some considered a brilliant innovation, Whitehead transformed the historical Underground Railroad—a network of abolitionists and sympathizers that ferried and sheltered runaway slaves, famously associated with Harriet Tubman—into an actual railway. This blurs the genre of the novel. Is it historical fiction? Magical realism? The result is somewhere in the middle, with the train structuring the text’s episodic nature; each chapter is like a station, and the travel motif also governs the nonlinear time frame. While Cora’s story does not progress in a sequential order, the train contextualizes the resulting disjointedness of time and space.

Our discussion ended with us considering the news that The Underground Railroad will be adapted into a television series. We were all pleased that the story could be seen on the small screen. Several people likened the possible adaptation to Roots, another slave narrative transformed into a generation-defining miniseries in the 1970s. They believed The Underground Railroad had the potential to be as culturally important in this medium.

Despite our excitement, however, we had concerns. Would the series sanitize the violence of Cora’s experience? How would it depict the Underground Railroad? Is it possible that those unfamiliar with history would take this more fantastic of version of the network as fact? On the flipside, could its magical elements be taken too far in an effort to attract viewers? The novel’s hopeful, open ending leaves space for continuing the story, and we discussed the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as an example. We don’t know if Whitehead is involved in the adaptation, but we hope the television series is faithful to what made The Underground Railroad so successful: its captivating story.

Amanda Leary is a Literature PhD Student in the English Dept. at Purdue.