A Multidisciplinary Student Group Presents at #SAMLA89: An Undergraduate Research Forum Experience

–Dr. Kendra R. Parker

The Undergraduate Research Panel, “Gender and Race: Beyond Art, Entertainment, and Fashion” at the 89th Annual South Atlantic Modern Language Association (SAMLA 89) Convention was the first undergraduate panel I singlehandedly organized and moderated. Twice before, at the College Language Association Convention in 2015 and 2016, I co-organized a cross-campus undergraduate panel with students from Hope College and Howard University. I wrote about the students’ CLA experience here.

Not only did I organize this SAMLA panel based on my CLA experiences, but I also organized this panel because I was a respondent for an Undergraduate Research Forum at SAMLA 88 in 2016. SAMLA 88 was the first time, to my knowledge, that the Undergraduate Research Forum was held, and I was pleased to know there would be one-on-one time to respond to each undergraduate panelist’s presentation individually, an addition I had not personally experienced at CLA. As the respondent, I addressed each presenter and their work directly, offering praise, suggestions, and questions.

I wanted my students to have a similar experience, and thus “Gender and Race: Beyond Art, Entertainment, and Fashion” emerged.

Left to Right: Nina D. Kay, Curissa Sutherland-Smith, Dr. Kendra R. Parker, and Nia Stringfellow are all smiles before the 10 AM session began.

The three participants, Nia Stringfellow (‘18), Nina D. Kay (‘19), and Curissa Sutherland-Smith (‘18), represent a multidisciplinary trio—Exercise Science and Dance; Women’s and Gender Studies, Art History, and Creative Writing; Psychology and American Ethnic Studies.

They spent part of their 2017 summer preparing for the conference, and they also spent 4 hours on a Saturday morning in October participating in a conference simulation. To make the practice session as “real” as possible, I invited students enrolled in my fall 2017 courses to attend and to offer feedback on each of the presentations. Two weeks later, we travelled to Atlanta, GA on Delta Airlines on Thursday, November 2, 2017, and they presented on Friday morning at 10 AM.

Nia Stringfellow’s presentation, “The Man Who Wore Red: A Contextual Analysis of Chicago-Based Artwork,” explored the life works of Allen Stringfellow (1923-2004), an African-American collage and water-color artist whose artwork captured the joyous gatherings of African-American people. Stringfellow focuses specifically on Allen’s use of the color red—noting it functioned prominently in his paintings that depicted baptisms, and that those paintings of black people emerged after he stopped passing as white, engaging in a sort of rebirth of his own.

Nina D. Kay’s presentation, “Contemporary Children’s Media: (Re) Shaping the Way Future Generations Understand Gender” – retitled “The Second Classroom of Children’s Media: A New Lesson Plan on Masculinity & The Achievement of Manhood” – carefully considered the animation of bodies in three American children’s cartoons: Star vs. the Forces of Evil, Gravity Falls, and Steven Universe. Kay’s close “reading” of specific episodes highlighted the ways gender roles, gender expectations, gender identity, and gender expression are depicted.

Left to Right: Curissa Sutherland-Smith, Nia Stringfellow, and Nina Kay are all smiles as they enjoy the terrifyingly steep escalator in the MARTA station.

Curissa Sutherland-Smith’s presentation, “From Church Hats to Head Wraps: Black Women’s Fashion as Activism,” informed attendees of how Black women in America pushed through boundaries and chains to formulate a new culture and political activism that remains present today through head wear, specifically in self and communal identity, embracement of forbears, and resisting stereotypes and self-imposed images.

These students’ projects provided thought-provoking analysis to a small, but engaged audience in Atlanta. Their participation in SAMLA 89 provided them an opportunity to partake in academic engagement on a national level with experts in the fields of women’s and gender studies, arts, humanities, and cultural studies.

Taking students to SAMLA 89 was more than just an exercise in mentorship, a chance to refine public presentation skills, and an opportunity to present research; it was an opportunity to expose students to a community of teacher-scholars and to the rigors—and rewards—of communal engagement with material.

SAMLA 90, November 2-4, 2018, will be held in Birmingham, Alabama. The conference theme is “Fighters from the Margins: Socio-Political Activists and Their Allies.”

I am grateful for the experience and opportunity to travel with students. Our trip to Atlanta to attend SAMLA 89 would not have been possible without the funding provided by the Department of English, the Women’s and Gender Studies Program, the Mellon Scholars Program, and the Center for Diversity and Inclusion. Many thanks to Dr. Ernest Cole, Dr. Carrie Bredow, Dr. Anne Heath, and Mrs. Vanessa Greene for their generosity and support of student research.

From Howard to Hope: the CLA Difference

By Kendra Parker

When I arrived in Holland, MI and at Hope, I arrived without community. Having lived in Washington, D.C. since 2008 and having been surrounded by hues of brownness and blackness at The Mecca that is Howard University (HU), my arrival in Holland, at Hope was a slight shock.  I adjusted. However, as I met a few Black students on campus, I slowly realized they were in dire need of hope. In fact, the hopelessness and despair were palpable with one student in particular. What could I do to affirm her blackness in the wake of the marginalization she experienced on campus?

The answer came to me as I attended the 2014 College Language Association (CLA) conference. Founded by Black teachers and scholars in 1937, CLA is an organization of black teacher-scholars who discuss, critique, and engage matters that pertain to them and the communities they serve. As I attended session after session, as I presented my work, as I saw my mentors and friends, as I was encouraged by folks I didn’t know, and as I was welcomed “home” by an extended hub of intellectuals, I knew just how I could offer my contribution to affirming my student’s blackness, beauty, and boldness.

Emerging out of that moment is what I affectionately call a “Howard-Hope” undergraduate panel at CLA. For two years, I have had the privilege of moderating that panel, and I look forward to continue doing so.

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2016 CLA Conference Call for Abstracts

Though the CLA conference theme varies from year to year, the requirements for Hope students I invite to attend remain the same. Students must: 

  • receive the endorsement of a CLA faculty advisor (me) before submission of an abstract and/or panel to CLA;
  • present on some aspect of African Diaspora literature or film that fits the conference theme;
  • participate actively in the conference by attending sessions, networking, and engaging scholars.


In April 2015, Mariana Thomas (‘16, History Composite) and Katharyn Jones (‘15, English) attended CLA and presented alongside recent Howard University graduate Ansharaye Hines (‘14) on the panel “Strange Versions of the Lives We Imagined: Transnational Identity, Race, and Crisis in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah.

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Dr. Kendra R. Parker, Ansharaye Hines, Mariana Thomas, and Katharyn Jones

The importance of the 2015 Howard-Hope undergraduate research panel was not lost on the president of the organization, Dana A. Williams. Based on the success of the 2015 panel, Dr. Williams, chairperson of the HU Department of English, CLA President (2014-2016), and my mentor, extended a personal invitation for Hope students to attend the 2016 conference.

Hope students Drew Monroe (‘19) and Sarah Harvin (‘16) were invited to attend the 2016 conference, “Dialogues between Africa and the African Diaspora in Languages, Literatures, and Film,” and they presented alongside Layla June West (Howard ‘16) and Alexis Boyd (Howard ‘16) on the panel “Speaking Truth: Using Rhetorical Strategies to Explore Historical and Contemporary Black Experiences.”

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2016 Panelists: Layla June West, “Eloquence in the Discipline of Rhetoric: Kemetic Roots, Often Forgotten” Alexis Boyd, “Engaging the Master’s Tools: How Western Ideologies Complicate the Rhetoric of Protest and Resistance Literature” Drew Monroe, “Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Complexion’: A Poet’s Take on Black Experiences” Sarah Harvin, “One ‘Triflin’ Project: Exploring ‘Trifling’ and Incorporating African American Vernacular English in High School Curricula”

The 2016 panel generated fruitful conversations, and the audience members—ranging from untenured faculty members to full professors at tier 1 research universities—were impressed with the knowledge, poise, and confidence with which each student presented his or her work. Such a legacy is worth continuing.

Next year’s conference will be held April 5-8, 2017, at the University of Missouri, with the theme “Interdisciplinary Studies and Diversity in Languages and Literatures,” and my goal is for the CLA conference to be an annual experience for Hope students.

For both sets of Hope attendees, CLA was—and continues to be—an important, formative experience, especially for those who have a vested interest in decolonizing their minds.

Taking students to CLA is more than just an exercise in mentorship, a chance to refine public presentation skills, and an opportunity to learn from the “best-of-the-best”; it is a chance to expose students in general, but Black students specifically, to a community of diverse teacher-scholars from across the African Diaspora and in the fields of languages, literature, rhetoric, and cultural studies. CLA allowed Mariana, Katharyn, Drew, and Sarah to witness a Black intellectual tradition at work, but it also allowed Mariana, Drew, and Sarah, in particular, to see themselves reflected in every aspect of the organization.

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CLA Executive Board,  Photo credit: “CLA 2016-Houston” Heat Strings Theory

One student commented, “I’ve never seen so many Black PhDs in one space. It really was eye-opening for me,” and another student remarked: “This has been one of the best experiences of my college career.” My students realized they were part of a larger intellectual community, and that realization went beyond attending the conference. My colleagues, mentors, and friends took my students under their wings. They “adopted” and nurtured my students. In fully embracing my students, CLA did what few on Hope’s campus do for Black students.

At the end of each trip, as my students and I journeyed back to Holland, I noted a subtle yet marked difference in the countenances of my Black students. There seemed to be a new awareness, a new realization: there was indeed an academic space created for and by people who look just like them. In leaving CLA, my students returned girded with the newfound hope that CLA represents for them.

Cheers to keeping the CLA spirit alive!