Erica Ciszek, a first year SOJC doctoral student, says she was “incredibly honored” to win a Top Student Paper award from the AEJMC GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender) Interest Group for her paper, “My Body, My Gender, My Story: A Qualitative Analysis of Transgender Narratives and the It Gets Better Project.”

“This paper and research is incredibly timely as the It Gets Better Project continues to gain momentum,” Ciszek says. “It all started with a video by [columnist] Dan Savage and his partner as a response to a string of gay teen suicides. I am particularly honored that my paper was selected a Top Student Paper because it addresses an often marginalized and forgotten group within the LGBT community.” Since Savage and his partner, Terry Miller, uploaded their video to the It Gets Better Project YouTube page in September 2010, more than 10,000 other videos have been submitted. (The project eventually had to move to its own website – http://www.itgetsbetter.org/ – because of the huge response it received.)

Ciszek is one of five SOJC doctoral students to win prestigious Top Student Paper awards from communication association conferences this year.Lauren Bratslavsky, Jacob Dittmer and Mara Williams, all second-year doctoral students, each won Top Student Paper awards at the International Communication Association (ICA) conference, which was held in late May in Boston.

Lauren Bratslavsky is a winner of two previous Top Student Paper awards, each from the AEJMC, in 2008 and 2009. Her ICA paper, “Is That Supposed to be Funny? Sarah Silverman’s Standout Delivery in The Aristocrats,” examines Sarah Silverman’s performance in the film, The Aristocrats. The paper’s Top Student Paper award came from the ICA Feminist Studies Division and was developed in SOJC Professor Carol Stabile’s Feminist Media Studies class, which Bratslavsky took in the fall of 2009.

Silverman is known for her show, The Sarah Silverman Program, and other work that includes her repertoire of what some would call inappropriate humor, which often touches on religion, race, and class. “I was thinking about feminist approaches to media and The Aristocrats and comedians in particular because it’s mostly a male-dominated profession,” says Bratslavsky. “There’s only a few women in the movie, and the other women in it have a similar stand-up delivery as men, but Sarah Silverman has a totally different joke delivery.”

“There’s very little written about the difficult position of women in comedy, particularly stand-up, which tends to be a pretty misogynistic cultural space,” says Stabile. “Lauren’s paper on Sarah Silverman breaks new ground in this area, raising timely questions about humor, gender, and ethnicity.”

“I think the fact that I’m one of three Top Student Papers at a well-known, well-regarded international conference in communications research speaks to the quality of the scholarship that we’re getting at the SOJC,” says Dittmer on his Top Student Paper award in the ICA Journalism Studies Division for his paper, “The Dyad of Sources and Rhetorical Frames: A Network Analysis of Framing the Iraq ‘Insurgency.’”

“We have some great mentoring and perspective provided to us, which is in itself unique,” he adds. “I don’t think that there are a lot of programs that take some of the approaches that we do to communications research and that might be partly reflected here in terms of why we are being recognized.”

“It’s gratifying to be recognized for the scholarship and it’s the first award like this that I’ve won,” continues Jacob. “Also to be part of an international organization and get recognition is exciting.”

Dittmer’s paper, developed out of his Master’s thesis, used a network analysis concept to map relationships between journalists and sources related to the use of the word “insurgency” in U.S. media coverage during the early years of the Iraq War. “Mapping data on some sort of social network can be illustrative of relationships and the dynamics of a complex world,” explains Dittmer.

“It poses some questions of the control that the source has in framing the context, the ideas, the story itself,” he says. “The journalists have been viewed as having power, traditionally … but my supposition was more so that the source has power in that they’re able to use certain language, say certain things, exclude certain ideas and include others as a way of promoting their ideology or their ideas.

“The actual application was on the Iraq War and the insurgency question and how U.S. media presented the insurgency … as I call it, frequently and to the effect that it was accepted by all without any sort of context as to what it means. It separates the U.S. from the role of occupier.”

Mara Williams’ major areas of study are “emotion and emotional connections as organizing principles in online communities for marginalized queers,” she explains. Her award-winning paper was an auto-ethnographic study of the Queer Zine Archive Project (QZAP) (http://www.qzap.org), which, she says, “is something that I’ve been involved in for six years. They’re my friends but it’s also the place where I learned a lot about the critical possibilities of queer media production and thinking about alternative media production. There’s theory in it and there’s practice but there’s also a politics to it. Before I went to grad school this was the project that I was involved in that got me thinking about media in a critical way.”

“Mara is highly deserving of the award,” says Professor Leslie Steeves, SOJC Associate Dean, Graduate Affairs and Research, who worked with Mara on the paper in her Pro Seminar II class. “Her paper is exceptionally well written, meticulously researched, and makes a significant contribution to both media history and the emerging scholarship of LGBTQ within our field.”

“I feel pretty great about winning the ICA award,” says Mara. “I got really good reviews and one of the coolest things that I’m really excited about is the panel,” which was called “Queer Digital/Media Landscapes.” Williams hopes to work with Prof. Stabile over the summer to prepare the paper for publication.

“Mara’s paper was far and away the best presentation on her panel at ICA, which included another award-winning paper,” says Stabile. “Her research on sexuality, archives, and queer media production is original and amazing work. As I was leaving the session, the editor of a major journal in the field grabbed my arm, asked if Mara was my student, and then told me that she wanted Mara’s finished essay for the journal!”

Arthur Santana, a third-year SOJC Doctoral candidate, also won a Top Student Paper award from the AEJMC, in the Minorities and Communication Division, for his paper, “Pushed to the Periphery: Incivility in Online Newspaper Readers’ Comments.” Santana says winning another Top Student Paper award at this year’s AEJMC “felt wonderful. It was nice to see the important topic get some attention. I intend to continue this line of research for my doctoral dissertation.”

Santana’s paper is about “how, in a new era of participatory journalism in which anyone can voice their opinion (usually anonymously) in forums provided by conventional newspapers, many comments can be uncivil. In cases where race is the catalyst for the opinions, that incivility often descends into bigotry and even outright racism (despite moderator controls at some newspapers). My research found that when it comes to stories about immigration, Latinos are regularly debased and maligned, thus ‘pushing’ them into silence and out of the public debate, essentially further marginalizing them and undoing the democratizing process the comment forums were meant to engender.

Arthur has seized upon a timely and important topic,” said Associate Professor John Russial, who advised Santana on his paper. “He’s analyzing a very troubling byproduct of the effort to bring online readers into the journalism conversation, and he’s going to be exploring it in greater depth throughout the coming school year.”

Santana and Ciszek, along with several other SOJC graduate students, will head to the AEJMC conference in St. Louis in August.