Reflections on Research

by Stephanie Cawley

The Project Begins

The path toward completing my research project Hybridity and Comics began with this image of Homer and Marge Simpson in a turban and a burqa, respectively. Let me explain. This image appeared on the Literature Program Facebook with the tag line “Interested in understanding the influence of the media on our way of thinking?” as a way to encourage students to enroll in Professor Adeline Koh‘s Introduction to Cultural Studies course. I signed up right away.

On the first day of class we watched Stuart Hall’s Representation & the Media, and I left the class with my head spinning, by both how difficult and how exciting the concepts were. In the subsequent months I was introduced to topics and ideas I hadn’t encountered in any college literature courses before. My classmates and I read and discussed theorists Ferdinand de Saussure, Roland Barthes, and Michel Foucault via Stuart Hall. The reading of these theorists, the in-class discussions about stereotypes and the media, and the mid-term projects about terrorism and the news helped me apply the critical thinking skills I had developed in other literature courses in a more sophisticated way and also to turn my critical eye on works outside of the usual literary canon studied in other courses.

The advanced concepts I learned in this class connected with the reading and thinking about gender and race I had been doing informally outside of class and gave me a more sophisticated vocabulary to use to articulate my thinking on these subjects. This class also gave me the tools I needed to understand more critical theory and academic writing on my own, after learning the strategy of tackling difficult material through reading, then talking and writing my way to understanding.

For my final project in that course I wrote and researched a paper examining the complicated representation of gender Garth Ennis’ Preacher, a comic book series. Toward the end of the semester, Professor Koh approached me asking if I’d be interested in doing an independent study project for her Postcolonial Studies Project. Right away I knew this was something I wanted to do, because I knew this was an opportunity to be really challenged and to continue down the path of learning started in Intro to Cultural Studies.


The Project Evolves

Professor Koh suggested that I look at Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis as a possible focus for my project, since I had demonstrated my interest in comics through my final paper on Preacher. After I read Persepolis, I realized that this coming-of-age graphic memoir could be interesting to compare to another graphic memoir I had read, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home so I started reading as many scholarly articles as I could find about these two texts as well as about postcolonial feminism and comics theory.

From this reading I learned how research can be by turns exhilarating, stimulating, and frustrating. Some of the articles I read were exciting—they introduced new ideas and concepts, or presented interesting readings of the texts in an engaging way. Some articles were tedious and frustrating. At times, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer size of the stacks of articles I had to read, but the excitement of learning new things and discovering new perspectives on the texts kept me reading on.

My research process began relatively unfocused, other than the choice of texts, but as I read some of the compelling criticism about comics as a medium, and as I read further into postcolonial theory, I began to see connections emerging around the concept of hybridity. Although this choice of focus required I undertake even more reading, I was excited to have come up with some new thinking and synthesis on the subjects on my own, so I pressed on.


The Project Ends, Kind of

Ultimately, this research project was one of the most time-consuming and challenging academic projects I have ever undertaken, but was also by far the most rewarding. At the end of all this research I am now something of an expert on the scholarship of Persepolis and Fun Home, having read nearly every article published on both of them, and I also have a greater understanding of and appreciation for the shifting and complex nature of research. Also, because of the focus on postcolonial feminism, and my choice to study very contemporary texts, I have a greater understanding of how literature and literary criticism itself relates to broader political concerns.

Writing content for the web, rather than for a traditional paper, was another exciting and challenging aspect of this project. Normally, undergraduate work, research or otherwise, is done with only the audience of a professor, or maybe other classmates, in mind. Writing for this website, a public forum, added pressure to make my writing both as polished and accessible as possible. This extra challenge was also was exciting, in that I could imagine my work reaching a broader audience, who I might be able to introduce to some new concepts and ways of thinking about the world. I also enjoyed searching the web for videos and images to incorporate into my work, and using hyperlinks to navigate readers to other sources. Also, writing short articles connected by hyperlinks allowed me to explore nonlinear connections and intersections of ideas in my project.

The skills I have learned doing this project have certainly helped prepare me for future graduate-level research work, and the process of writing content for the web is also something that could be useful in any kind of professional environment. I am literally rethinking my career plans and future as a result of this project, as I found this in depth critical study to be exciting, stimulating, and satisfying. I would highly recommend any students who might be thinking about doing a research project to take the opportunity, as this experience of doing nearly graduate-level work with one-on-one feedback from Professor Koh challenged and transformed me as both a scholar and thinker and as a person.

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