advice, ashlyn kuersten, communication, conference, environmental journalism, Game of Thrones, Graduate School, inspiration, learning, Michigan Academy of Science Arts and Letters, Oakland University, oakland university communication and marking, research, research paper, scientific communication, sticking out your chin, wrongful conviction program
Remember what I said about putting in the extra work? It’s not just about getting a good job or furthering your career. It’s emotionally healthy to achieve a goal, to be appreciated for one’s effort or to impress yourself. As for the latter, that’s something people should keep in mind more than they currently seem to do. Of course, it sounds arrogant or can be construed to an excuse for not doing anything.
What I try to say here is that you shouldn’t try to live up to other people’s expectations. You should live up to your own. You pursue your dreams and fulfill your own wishes, because you aren’t here to impress other people or please them or blindly follow someone else’s idea of success. If that means jumping out of your comfort zone, it shouldn’t quench your desire to go after what you want (and perhaps need). Obstacles build character after all; they offer new perspective, perhaps the chance of meeting new people and they may even bring you to places you never could have imagined. I can tell you from personal experience that even when you think you know what you’re doing and/or where you’re going, you don’t always get the results you expected.
In the States, there is the expression, “Sticking your neck out,” which means doing something that’s risky yet hopefully rewarding. Swedes have a similar expression – “Sticka ut hakan” – which literally means “sticking out the chin.” I don’t know about you, but that sounds grueling; it reminds me of the times I’ve stubbed my toe and that shit hurts. One thing I can say for certain is that ever since I started grad school, I have been more of a go-getter and done things and dreamed of things I never could have imagined doing. When I walked into my first class, it didn’t occur to me that I would feel so inspired and deeply moved by the reading or my professors or the topics we discuss.
For instance, last year I wrote a research paper on women’s representation in Game of Thrones and other fantasy shows, and how it has changed for the better in some shows and how patriarchal notions persist in others. I did it because I thought it would be fun and I wanted to contribute to the discussion on whether Game of Thrones is sexist and degrading to women.
When my professor returned the paper to me, I read her comments and suggestions and truly took them to heart. Suddenly I wanted to change a bunch of different little things in the paper and make it good enough for publication. Aside from the stuff I wrote in my creative writing classes, I can’t recall a time when I wanted to even look at something I had turned in. Now, however, the thought of showing something to other professionals in the field and getting something academic in print doesn’t seem so abstract to me. In case you’re wondering, I’m currently in the process of revising the paper. I don’t know where I’m going to send it. I just know I want to finish it before July 16, which is when Game of Thrones‘ next season begins and I don’t want to be influenced by it.
Even though the revision isn’t complete, it has already been exposed to the world. On March 10, I attended a conference by the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts and Letters at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. It’s a huge event where people from all fields from all over Michigan gather at one place to discuss their research. For the most part, you’re with people from the same field because you’re presenting your research to each other, but during lunch, you have the option of attending a luncheon and meet other scholars.
I, for one, met someone from WMU’s journalism department who also dabbles with Michigan history and one retired science librarian from Michigan State University who is working on a book about two female geologists. Once I told them that I was studying communication with a focus in media studies, we discussed the idea of teaching environmental journalism. With the climate change evolving so quickly, it’s now more important than ever to talk about the planet and the environment and the effect we have on it. Especially young people studying journalism today should learn how to handle that kind of news, how to explain scientific facts to the general public and how to catch people’s interest. The science librarian said it would also be a good idea improve scientific communication. Scientists are good at finding relevant information, but they don’t necessarily know how to spread the message. Perhaps a communication professional would be able to help.
Oh, it was a wonderful conversation! I learned so much at that table alone and that was before they announced the luncheon speaker, Ashlyn Kuersten. She is a sociology professor at WMU and the director running the Wrongful Conviction Program, which is both a class and the real deal. You can read more about it here if you’re interested.
Excerpt: While most innocence projects—whose purpose is to exonerate the wrongly convicted through DNA testing and reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice—use law students to do research, WMU’s program allows undergraduate students the opportunity to research potential cases of innocence. Kuersten’s students learn from her about the most common causes of wrongful conviction, then work on evaluating the requests from inmates who contact her claiming innocence.
She has a backlog of 5,000—from Michigan alone.
Let me tell you something about presenting your research to complete strangers: It’s only as scary as you let it be. I spent at least two weeks working on my speech. I rehearsed and rewrote it a dozen times. Hell, once I checked into my hotel room the night before, I spent at least three hours editing the speech even more and writing down keywords and phrases on index cards. The chairperson of the communication and journalism department was kind enough to organize a practice session beforehand, too. By the way, this was also my professor who suggested that I should send in an abstract to the Michigan Academy. I don’t know how many universities or academic departments help their grad students prepare for a conference presentation, but I would say we were lucky to get that support. My mother also reminded me that no one knows my research better than I do. It is mine and I should be proud of it and explain it the best I could. Once I stood in front of everyone with my index cards and PowerPoint, I felt a new sense of confidence.
Another way my research has been exposed is that Oakland Univerity’s communication and marketing department got interested. They’re currently working on a series of videos promoting research and they thought what I’m researching is pretty interesting. (Their deadline for this video is also “sometime before next season begins.”) Last week, I packed all my books, notes, articles and DVDs, and hauled them to Meadow Brook Hall, a mansion and historic landmark; the founder of the university Matilda Wilson lived there.
It felt surreal walking into that place. First of all, I was walking like a pack-mule. Second of all, the mansion and its courtyard were beautiful and looked like something out of a British detective movie, like a place where something secret and scandalous once happened and it was now up to me to solve the mystery. Third, as a former journalist, I’m more used to being behind the camera. Nonetheless, it turned out to be a fun experience. In the library, Kelly, Colleen and Jason were waiting with their camera equipment and with smiles on their faces. I got to wear a tiny microphone. I maintained eye contact with Colleen while I was talking and sometimes forgot that the camera was there. I made a lot of jokes.
I wrote two of my professors the same day and told them about the video; not sure why I didn’t say anything earlier. Perhaps part of me thought it wouldn’t really happen. One of the responses I got was: “Thanks for sharing. This is so cool and a good reminder of how we can never know where our work might take us so it’s a good idea to get it out there in the world.”
Don’t be afraid to stick out your chin. Don’t be afraid to do new things. As you can see, it can bring you to all kinds of adventures.