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The Story of the Conference

Unifying Undergraduate Research and Teaching:

The History and Philosophy of the Depauw Undergraduate Honors Conference

Kent E. Menzel, Ph.D.

Sheryl W. Tremblay, Ph.D.


Paper presented at the 1995 annual meeting of the Speech Communication Association, San Antonio.



This essay traces the history of one institution’s efforts to celebrate the accomplishments of undergraduate scholars.  For 44 years, the DePauw National Undergraduate Honors Conference for Communication Arts and Sciences has gathered top undergraduate students and exemplary scholars in communication studies together for an intensive weekend of scholarly dialogue.  The various goals of the conference include networking and the chance to share ideas with leading scholars, but all other goals are subordinate to the primary goal of supporting undergraduate research.  We will first clearly define what the conference is today before elaborating on the events which precipatated its beginning.  Then, we will shift our focus to the development of the conference over 44 years, finally specifying its principles as they exist today.

The Conference

DePauw’s Honors Conference currently begins with a national call for papers which is distributed to much of the membership of the Speech Communication Association (SCA) by direct mailing, the rest of SCA through Spectra, and to other teachers through electronic networks such as the Communication Research and Theory Network (CRTNET).  Typically, this call will bring 80 to 100 student papers from schools across the country.  Each paper is read by two members of DePauw’s faculty and rated on a basic scale of 1 to 3, with plusses and minuses allowed.  A rating of “1” indicates a paper of exemplary quality, worthy of inclusion in the conference.  A “2” indicates a fine paper, but one which should receive secondary consideration.  The lowest rating of “3” is reserved for papers which require revision.  Rating discrepancies are resolved by the conference director’s assessment of the problematic paper.  This rating process is quite successful in identifying the top group of 30 papers.  Along the way, many fine student contributions do not lead to invitations; we regret that structure and cost concerns do not allow us to offer a conference which could bring all deserving students together.  DePauw students must go through the rating process along with all other applicants, though no more than three are typically accepted.

Every year we invite two visiting scholars from what can be generally termed “rhetoric” and “speech communication” backgrounds.  Both classifications are liberally defined, but both are clear in their intended focus.  We try to ensure that at least one of these scholars has a background in quantitative research.  Every other year, the conference alternates between inviting the third visiting scholar from a “theater” or “mass communication” background, again broadly defined.  These three scholars will each be grouped with 10 of the visiting students roughly along the lines of their mutual interests.

Once invitations have been sent and all have arrived at DePauw, we open Friday morning with an all-campus convocation, using this lecture by one of our visiting scholars as a way to involve the entire campus in the conference.  Following the convocation, the visiting scholars and the students get together for lunch and some general discussion of the lecture.  Then, scholars and students meet for the first of three, three-hour closed sessions devoted to their research discussions.  Each group will remain intact for the remainder of the conference.

Typically, students spend the first session presenting their research and receiving feedback from the visiting professor, who is the only individual who has had prior access to all papers.  This session is followed by a dinner meeting at which one of the visiting professors will speak.  Over the evening, students are able to read each other’s papers, which are distributed during the first session.

The first session on Saturday is typically spent with student responses to each others papers, all guided by the visiting professors.  The morning session is again followed by a luncheon and speech.  In the afternoon, some of our visiting professors have included more student responses, while others have preferred to provide their own final analysis of issues which have been raised.  At all times, the work is collaborative and the efforts are shared among all participants.  The second session on Saturday is followed by dinner and the third scholar’s speech.

The final event of the conference is a Sunday breakfast session which brings all students and visiting faculty together to discuss any issues which remain open.  The students get a chance to ask questions about graduate school, life in academics, and other career and life decisions with which they may need help.  Understand that a great deal of general discussion goes on during the meals, as students and faculty members mix and match at tables, though this final session helps to formalize that talk.

The Beginning

Prior to the beginning of DePauw’s Undergraduate Honors Conference, full-time members of our Communication Arts & Sciences Department included five individuals in the following areas of focus:  two theater, two speech communication, and one mass communication.  The department also supported an MA program in speech, which was taken primarily by teachers wishing to advance their status and students wishing to gain entrance to Ph.D. programs.  This MA program included a thesis requirement which the department felt helped a student market his or herself to graduate schools.  Further, at this point in time the department’s undergraduates completed a very demanding senior requirement, including written exams, a senior thesis, and orals, any of which could cover any topic the department served.

Three related factors led the department to a significant structural change and led also to the inception of the Honors Conference.  First, gradually, the faculty began to realize that the work of its undergraduates was of the same quality as the work of its masters students.  While the quality of the MA students could have been questioned, instead, this evidence was taken as a sign that the undergraduates were indeed able to produce scholarship of high quality.  Second, Walter Kirkpatrick, a member of DePauw’s faculty at that time, felt that undergraduates should be engaged in research, and he emphasized this principle in his own teaching and advising.  Professor Kirkpatrick helped to set up Sunday rhetoric colloquia at DePauw and also acted jointly with Professor Larry Sutton to take students to scholarly meetings within driving distance of the west-central Indiana town of Greencastle.  Third, and related, was the notion that other schools might be or should be interested in this kind of collaborative work with student scholars, and that a program could be devised to bring these students together.

What DePauw saw was that gifted students often did not have support networks of like-students on campus.  Considering the ever-present “requirement” for participation in campus social life, and the greater interest of other students in social and athletic activities, the scholar can be left to struggle alone and in silence, at least as far as finding student collaborators is concerned.  What DePauw also saw was that a faculty of five primary teachers could only bring so much to these gifted individuals, and that the students had talent which could be served by the leading graduate faculty of the discipline.  Thus, partly in service to the discipline and partly in service to DePauw’s students, the primary goals of the Undergraduate Honors Conference were conceived:  Showcase the work of gifted undergraduate scholars in communication arts and sciences; establish a network for these gifted scholars; and bring these exceptional students together with exceptional minds in the discipline.

At this time, the general idea of bringing together top scholars and top students was essentially in place.  Also in place was the idea of a multi-day conference including students from other schools.  The initial focus was on presentations by the visiting faculty, and the weekend included workshops held by other visiting scholars recruited from the DePauw faculty’s network of professional associates.  At first, attendees included students from Wabash, Butler, and other colleges in Indiana.  Visiting scholars were drawn from Walter Kirkpatrick’s Iowa network, the first group being Donald C. Bryant from Iowa, Mark Knapp, then from Purdue, and Kenneth Anderson from Illinois.  Rapidly, as word of what was happening got out and the net was cast wider and wider, the program grew to national status, and the conference evolved into what it is today.

DePauw faculty member Larry Sutton commented that the emphatic support of Department Chair Robert Weiss was essential in starting the program in the first place.  This support helped to develop university funding for the program and also helped create a strong, positive consensus concerning the conference among department members.  It is important also to note that the present day conference would never get off the ground without prodigious efforts expended by our Communication Majors and our departmental secretary.  Finally, we gratefully recognize the generous and essential funding provided by DePauw University for this event which serves the discipline more than it serves DePauw’s students and faculty.

The History


As the conference developed over the first 10 years, between 1975 and 1984, the fairly consistent format described above evolved.  At first, the approximately 20-30 students and three scholars would arrive on Thursday.  Their first meeting would be at a luncheon on Thursday afternoon.  After that, for two hours, they would have their first paper critique session in their assigned group lead by a guest scholar.  Each participant was asked to discuss his or her research and respond to questions.  After dinner, a scholar would make a presentation about their current research project which would be followed by questions.  Then, the students would be free in the evening to get together to talk and to read each other’s papers.  Often, the student interaction during these “free” times has been the highlight of the conference.  As one student indicated on the evaluation form:

I think the most valuable experience for me was getting to meet so many people who were as interested in the field as I was, and exchanging views with them.  Just talking to them informally challenged some of my views, reaffirmed others, and brought up so many more issues that I hadn’t even begun to consider.

Even after being up until all hours on Thursday, the students would meet the next day, Friday, for a two-hour morning session and an hour afternoon session with the same groups.  At lunch and dinner, the other scholars gave their presentations.  Believing that this might not be enough stimulation, the conference also included workshops for two hours on Friday afternoon!  Other faculty from area schools would come and present special topics seminars, from which the conference participants could choose.  For example, in 1983, Winona Fletcher and Trevor Brown from Indiana University presented workshops, respectively, on “The Rhetoric of Revolutionary Black Drama:  Plays of the l960s and early l970s,” and “The Press Under Fire:  Is the Criticism Warranted?”  After the dinner presentation Friday evening, the students were again able to enjoy each other’s company—often talking late into the night.

Saturday was the concluding day of the original conference, and after breakfast, everyone—scholars, students, and organizers—would get together for a panel discussion and questions on the “Future Directions for Communication Arts and Sciences.”  The conference would close at noon on Saturday and the shuttles would start running to the airport!  Tired, but stimulated, the students and scholars would head back to their own universities.  But, many of them felt that something had happened to them during the conference.  Over the years, student evaluations of the conference have revealed that, for many, the conference is a significant life event. As one student says, “I believe that I will look back on the Conference as an important point in both my educational career and my life.”  This student goes on to say, “I am quite aware that that sounds like a cliché, but some events really are that important—the Conference was to me.”

After 1984, the format changed, a bit.  It appeared that the discussion groups led by the three visiting scholars was the key to the conference, thus these sessions were expanded and the workshops on special topics by other faculty were dropped.  Students indicated that “the most valuable aspect [of the conference] was having such long meetings with the professor and to be able to investigate both papers and concepts in depth.”  They responded to questions about which aspect of the conference experience was most valuable by saying, “It was especially enjoyable to participate in a conference strictly organized around a discussion-type format.  Most conferences I attend involve nothing but lectures.  This was so much more ‘thought-provoking.’”  Of course, there were other practical reasons for changing the format. It was difficult to ask people to come to DePauw for a two-hour workshop, even though they seemed quite willing and came from as far away as Memphis, Chicago, and the University of Virginia to present; however, the workshops ended in l983, and the expanded, discussion-centered format described in our introductory section has been used for the last 12 years.


Unfortunately, not knowing that this would be something that DePauw would maintain for 44 years, we kept very few records of the first six years of the conference.  However, beginning in 1981, we did keep records of the papers and attendees at the conference.  Some of the topics being examined by undergraduates in 1983 and 1984 have relevance to society today.  For example, in 1984, a student from Emerson College was examining, “The Impact of the Personal Answering Machine on Human Interactive Communication.”  Another student from Wabash College contemplated “The Rhetoric of Conservatism:  An Analysis of the Recurring Themes in Classical Conservatism.”  In 1983, a student from DePauw looked at “The Persuasion of New Right Organizations.”

Between l985 and l995, student papers have continued to be both varied and insightful.  There is no possible way to adequately represent this in a short narrative, but a few sample titles will display the diversity of topics researched by undergraduate students.  They are, of course, interested in the popular culture of their generation, and the political world, but also in various discussions of gender issues and a wide variety of theoretical explorations.

Their interest in music, TV, and Films, is displayed in such papers as:  “Billy Joel’s ‘Goodnight Saigon’: A Rhetorical Analysis” (l986), “Moonlighting:  David and Maddie Rewrite the Rules” (l987), “‘Kate and Allie’: Unconventional Conventions” (l987), “Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA” (l988), “Argumentation Theories and Techniques of Chaim Perleman Used in L.A. Law” (l989); “Television Criticism:  Thirtysomething as an Emergent Genre” (l990), “Television’s Influence on Society at the Political, Social, and Economic Levels: Thirtysomething” (l990),  “Fertility God and Jewish Mom:  The Family Structure in Love Connection” (l990), “The Last Temptation of Christ: A Lesson in Consensus Theory” (l991), “Murphy Brown: Capitalism and Gender Roles: Constraints on a Feminist Text” (l991), “MTV’s Presentation of the l992 Election:  A Fantasy-Theme Analysis” (l992), “Thelma and Louise:  A Cinematic Milestone, How Far Have We Come?” (l993), “A Rhetorical Analysis: Garth Brooks and his video ‘The Dance,’” (l993), and “Rush Limbaugh:  Cult & Credibility” (l995).

However, students are also interested in politics.  In l985, there were, of course, papers about Reagan:  “Argument by Transcendent Vision: Ronald Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ Speech,” “Perceptions of Ronald Reagan’s Communication Image Before and After the October 21, l984 Debate,” “Ronald Reagan’s Press Conferences and What They Reveal: A Study Using the Type-Token-Ratio,” and “A Comparative, Quantitative Analysis of Mr. Reagan’s Style in Discourse as an Indicator of Effects Attributable to Aging.”  In l986, Reagan appeared in such student research papers as:  “A Presidential Success Puzzle with Reagan, Humor and Rhetoric as the Pieces” and “Ronald Reagan, the Colloquial Prophet.” And again, in 1990 and 1993, this interest in Reagan continued:  “Hollywood’s Real Genius:  Ronald Reagan and the Consolidation of Mass Media,”  A Psychohistorical Approach to Criticism of the Rhetoric of President Ronald Reagan,” and “A Generic Analysis of Reagan, Rockne and the Gipper.”

Student political interest is not limited to Reagan.  They have also studied:  Jesse Jackson, George McGovern, Richard Nixon, Edward Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, George Bush, Lyndon Johnson, Joseph McCarthy, Mario Cuomo, Paul David Wellstone, Hillary Clinton, and Ann Richards.

Gender issues have become more dominant in the last several years.  However, it is interesting to note that since records have been kept for the Undergraduate Honors Conference, from l981, women students have overwhelmingly dominated the conference.  Their papers have been competitively accepted at a 2 to l greater than the rate for men (See Appendix B).  For example, in l981, 26 women attended versus 7 men.  In 1982, 22 women attended versus 11 men.  In 1986, out of 50 papers submitted and 28 accepted, 29 women attended as opposed to 12 men.  In l991, out of 108 papers submitted and 34 accepted, 25 women attended but were only accompanied by 9 men.  And finally, in 1995, out of 84 papers submitted and 33 accepted, 30 women attended versus only 8 men.  During the years between 1982 and 1995, 333 women have been accepted at the conference as opposed to acceptance of only 149 men.  (These numbers do not directly translate to the numbers of papers accepted, as some of the papers are co-authored.)

Just a sampling of the paper titles, indicate the wide variety of areas related to gender issues which have been studied by these student scholars.  From l985 through l989, they include: “An Arendtian Analysis of Women and Labor” (l985),  “Can ‘He’ be Gender Neutral? Moulton, Robinson and Elias at a Younger Age” (l986), “A Limited Investigation of Bias Against Women in Academic Debate” (l986), “Communication and the Dual-Career Couple” (l986), “The Woman Rebel:  Birth Control in 1914” (l986), “Women and Discrimination in the Work Force:  Three Culprits and Some Conclusions” (l987), “Woman or Girl:  A Study of Specific Reference Terms” (l988), “Attitudes Toward Women and the REcognition of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace” (l988).

There have been even more papers concerning gender between l990 and l995, such as: “Saying No: Women’s Compliance-Resisting Strategies” (l990), “The Talk of Women: The Importance of Talk, Topics of Talk, and Functions of Talk in Women’s Close Same-Sex Friendships” (l990), “An Investigation of the Effect of Organizational Climate and Subordinate Sex on Manager’s Persuasive Strategies” (l990), “The Effect of Gender-Specified Bylines and Respondents’ Gender on Judgments of Credibility in Editorials” (l992), “Gender Differences in College Students Sexual Attitudes, Behavior and Communication” (l992), “The Roles of Men and Women in the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod:  History and Perspectives on Discourse” (l992), “The Gynecologist-Client Context:  A Research Model and Agenda” (l993), “Barefoot, Pregnant, and in the Kitchen? Women’s Opportunities for Individual Development:  Past and Present Challenges” (l994), “A Woman is a Person Who Makes Choices: A Study in Feminist Political Rhetoric” (l994), “A Goddess and a Role Model:  The Humorous Rhetoric of Cynthia Heimel” (l994), “To Go Where No One Has Gone Before:  Manipulations of Women and Feminist Self-Criticism in Star Trek:  The Next Generation” (l994), “Women Silenced, Women Heard, ‘Women Aloud’“ (l994), and, finally, “The Female Chef:  Organization Communication in the Foodservice Industry.”  As can be seen from just this short listing of titles, there is a great variance of approaches to the study of popular culture, politics and gender by the student scholars.

This doesn’t even begin to display the varied topics and interests of these undergraduate students about subjects which don’t fit into groups or themes, such as:  “Prolegomena of Wisdom:  Understanding A Hermeneutic Theoretical Advancement” (l983), “The World of Hamlet:  Christianity in Decay” (l985), “Plato and Ayn Rand:  True Rhetoric and the Noble Lover” (l985), “An Exodus of Liberation Theology:  Dissociative, Metaphoric and Narrative Strategies in the Theology of Gustavo Gutierrez” (l987), “Connections, Configurations, and Cornflakes” (l989), “Diatribe in Artistic Expression:  Dada, Punk, and Jane’s Addiction” (l990), and “History 101: Combating Platonic Critiques of Public Relations with Gorgian Philosophy” (l993).

The Students

There is also a great diversity of representation of universities and colleges among both the students and the scholars.  The colleges and universities which have been represented by papers presented at the DePauw Undergraduate Honors Conference can be found in Appendix C.  From the years l981 to l995, when records have been kept, 157 colleges and universities have participated in the conference.  They range from Puget Sound, Washington and California—Long Beach in the West, to University of Maine, Presque Island and the University of South Florida in the East.  Students come from as far north as the University of Ottawa and as far south as the University of Texas.  Four year liberal arts colleges and doctoral granting Universities are both represented.  Each year, new schools have their students submit work.  In l995, St. Joseph’s College, University of South Carolina—Spartansburg, Trenton State, University of Indiana—Southbend, Southeast Missouri State, Bradley University, and Central Connecticut, all participated for the first time.

The Visiting Scholars

Finally, it is necessary to note the importance each year of the three visiting scholars to the success of DePauw’s Undergraduate Honors Conference.  They spend three days working with these undergraduate students in intense discussions.  The students often note that “the scholars were helpful in a variety of aspects; very giving of their time.”  The scholars not only read all of the papers and make comments, lead long, three-hour discussion groups, and give lunch or dinner presentations, they also interact informally with these students.  One student commented that, “The most important thing was the meals with the visiting professors.”  Finally, another writes, “The three visiting scholars were wonderful!  They each contributed in their own special away.  I could not believe the amount of enthusiasm and willingness to help that they had.”

The scholars who have participated over the years have come from 36 institutions (See Appendix A).  Since 1985, recognizing the amount of women participants in the conference, there has been at least l woman scholar each year.  This year, in l996, there will be 2 woman scholars for the first time since 1976, when Dr. Patti Gillespie and Dr. Marie Nichols participated with Dr. Sam Becker.  The discussion-based format, combined with the diverse student participation, plus the dedicated scholars have made the DePauw Undergraduate Honors Conference an important event in the academic life of these undergraduate students.  One student expresses this eloquently, “Personally, the conference boosted my confidence and my appreciation for the amazing capacity of the mind to wonder and draw conclusions.”


Teaching and Research Together

At the undergraduate teaching institution, we do not have the luxury of even debating the relationship of teaching and research.  Most of us simply don’t have the time, and even if we did have the time, our institutions would tell us the answer to the dilemma, i.e., teaching is primary.  We find ourselves, at first, necessarily combining research with teaching to make our careers work.

As we engage in this combining activity, we uncover the primary principle underlying the present day DePauw Honors Conference:  Teaching and research are natural partners in learning.  Stumbling upon this realization, we begin to celebrate teaching and research as inseparable activities which go together remarkably-well for any undergraduate instructor willing to match them up.  What first starts as a matter of necessity, combining one’s scholarship with one’s teaching, ends up as an activity which can bring about a great sense of professional and personal accomplishment.

And this is at the heart of our conference.  The visiting professors and students form a bond through teaching based on their research.  In actuality, the teaching goes both ways.  Through discussions of research, developing minds are at times able to see a nuance or interpretation that the seasoned mind might miss.  Where does the activity of teaching stop and the activity of research start at our conference?  The question is moot, for the two activities are inextricably combined throughout, as well they should be!

Furthering Undergraduate Research

The second principle of our conference is that individual teachers can only take students so far in research; so, ultimately, it makes sense to “call for help.”  As many professors are the only teacher of their specialty in an undergraduate department, many students are often not able to get a variety of perspectives on academic issues.  Thus, our conference, bringing together student researchers and the professors whose work they have been reading, can provide those additional perspectives and extend research in ways not possible in the normal course of affairs in undergraduate education.

Where can the research go?  What other questions can be asked?  How could the work be used?  What other implications have been missed?  All of these are legitimate questions for student and faculty to discuss at the honors conference.  We feel that undergraduate research, properly mentored, can go a long way up to and even into publication, and our Honors Conference is designed to help undergraduate research go as far as it can possibly go.

An Academic Network for Students

Academics are not always tops on the list of undergraduate student priorities, so truly talented students may lack an appropriate network of like-individuals with whom to share their excitement about research.  Our conference is very good at letting gifted students know that they are not alone in their pursuits.  As students get together at DePauw, they slowly realize that conversation can go beyond bands and parties and into rhetoric and human communication theory.  For many, this is indeed the first time they have a chance to engage in scholarly discussions with peers—and they love it.  Perhaps this variable alone is sufficient to explain the high level of motivation with which visiting students leave DePauw.

Contact Between Top Professors and Undergraduate Students

It’s one thing to read Mark Knapp’s texts and articles, and it’s quite another thing altogether to discuss nonverbal communication with him in person.  Likewise, a student can consider Frank Dance’s definition of our discipline’s center, but the consideration gains immeasurably when it occurs in person.  The faculty we invite are individuals who, in the normal course of large university affairs, rarely get together with undergraduate students in intimate seminar settings.  We wish this weren’t true, but sadly it is often is the case.  DePauw’s conference changes all of that, and for one weekend, these students have the same status as a doctoral or masters student in the eyes of the leaders of the discipline.

Inspiring Academic Careers

Finally, we must note that our conference works in service to the discipline by moving talented students along toward graduate degrees.  Talented students should see that there is a direction in which to go.  These students deserve the advice and mentoring of representatives of top graduate programs.

Our conference seems to have worked in this way; it has given students confidence in their abilities and some impetus to continue their education in the field of communication.  One student says, “I feel I grew as a person.  I’m more confident of my scholarship and am excited about the possibilities of both professional career and academic career.”  Another writes, “It has given me a lot of inspiration into academics, research and life in general.”  Some feel that they have learned valuable lessons about research, concluding, “I was glad to learn that the whole research process is not a black and white issue, and that you can successfully complete research while sifting through gray areas in the field.”  Another indicates, “I don’t think I have been so intellectually challenged in a long time.  The greatest personal benefit for me was to realize that I actually enjoyed the challenge!!!” 

Though it’s not a study we have ever done, we would like to see how many attendees have actually gone on to the Ph.D.  Even if only a handful of students have gone on to gain graduate degrees as a result of the support and motivation they received at our conference, we feel that we have served our purpose in sustaining the discipline.  As one student concludes:

Confusions that I had about research, the discipline, graduate school, and my future were cleared up over the last few days.  I consider the entire experience a monumental and positive advancement for my future career in communication.