Submitted on behalf of Taylor Merkley.
A lot of students detest writing research papers. For some, it’s an unpleasant but necessary task, like scrubbing the toilet or taking out the trash. Some students simply don’t see the value in writing research papers at all. After all, why would anyone waste their time sifting through stuffy academic journals and confusing online databases for answers to questions that have no practical basis in reality?
That’s what some people say when I tell them about the research that I did for a communications course in my fourth year of university. “You studied prime ministers’ speeches?” some people scoff. “But why? Isn’t that boring? What can you possibly get out of that?”
The surprising answer is – a lot, actually.
Not that it was all fun. I wouldn’t describe combing through eight months’ worth of transcripts from Prime Ministerial bridge naming ceremonies, budget announcements, and campaign speeches fun, exactly. But the tedious work of analyzing and coding the 59 speeches delivered by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2015 not only yielded some fascinating results, but also led to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: a trip halfway around the world to present my findings at an international research conference in Athens, Greece.
I never thought that prime minister speeches would be something I’d be interested in. Does anybody actually even listen to those? I wondered at first. Who cares? What does it matter?
But the more I learned about it, the more I saw how significant something as mundane as a bridge naming ceremony can be. Words spoken by powerful people are powerful: words distribute power, they articulate it, and they take it away. And the closer I looked at the speeches, the more I could see patterns beginning to emerge. I felt, for the first time, the excitement that only a researcher can feel – the thrill of discovery.
The paper’s first draft earned a humble A-minus from the course, but my co-authors and I recognized that the project was an opportunity to shed light on an issue that was important to us. We continued to work on the paper over the summer break, and upon our return to school in the fall, we had written a new draft; around forty typed pages that were the product of countless hours of blood, sweat, and (sometimes literally) tears.
With the enormously appreciated help of a couple of supportive faculty members, we submitted the paper to the ATINER Conference in Greece and – to our great surprise and excitement – it was accepted. We received funding from the university to attend the overseas conference, and spent an unforgettable week in Athens. We met scholars from Brazil, Israel, Slovenia, Australia, and countless other places. We presented our paper and attended the presentations of others; we participated in round table discussions about the emergence of “fake news,” about the effect of feminine iconography in political upheavals, about popular representations of conflict in the Middle East, and a number of other equally fascinating topics. We cruised the Greek islands of Paros, Aegina, and Hydra; enjoyed a cultural evening of traditional Greek music and dance; and networked with PhD candidates and university professors from around the world.
Now that the trip is over, my research team and I have submitted the paper for publication in an academic journal. If it is accepted, it will mean another round of gruelling edits and rewrites and deletions and additions, but it will also mean the opportunity to share what we have learned with a larger audience and maybe even improve our community. Our research journey is only just beginning.
Even if this incredible opportunity had not been given to me, I would still insist to students that research is meaningful and “worth it.” I learned so much, not just about content analysis and coding categories and the mechanics of political rhetoric, but about myself and my own capabilities and passions. Research is a tedious chore only if you choose to make it that way. But if you decide that you will use research as a way to better yourself or your community or society at large, and if you push through and overcome the tedium and frustration and dead ends and all the rest of it, you may just surprise yourself at what you can do – and at what opportunities might await you.