Senior Seminar focuses on "the rhetoric of identity"

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Western Carolina University students recently got the opportunity to share the research they’ve been doing all semester at the Senior Seminar. This year’s seminar was based on the theme of “the rhetoric of identity” and was held in the Blue Ridge Conference Room on Nov. 14. It was presented by Western Carolina’s English Department, the Association of Seniors and Dr. Carol Burton, the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Studies.

A total of five panels were held between 9 am and 4:15 pm and featured a total of 19 speakers. The speakers discussed the role of gender, race, sexual orientation and other cultural identities in determining the civil discourse surrounding a variety of social issues. Some drew on personal experiences, others on trends in popular culture and others on literature they’ve researched this semester.

One particularly popular subject of discussion was J.M. Coetzee’s “Waiting for the Barbarians,” a 1980 novel about a powerful empire and the fear tactics it utilizes in an ongoing conflict with a neighboring country of “barbarians.” In the first panel, Dillon Jeffrey discussed the correlations between the empire in the novel and the narrative created by the Bush administration during the early years of the war on terror, citing instances of dehumanizing the enemy, ignoring due process and prolonging militant conflicts longer than originally planned.

“Both the empire and the United States are fighting a war with no end in sight,” Jeffrey explained.

Steven Jernigan also discussed the novel, drawing connections between its story and Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Jernigan noted that the empire mobilized its citizens through nationalism and otherizing outsiders, particularly in physically keeping them out of the country. He saw this concept manifested in President Trump’s calls for a wall on the Mexican border and his stance on the Syrian refugee crisis.

Another popular topic was the impact of mental illness on social interactions. Samantha O’Brien talked about anxiety, a condition that affects over a fifth of American adults. Despite its prevalence, O’Brien noted that fewer than five percent of sufferers seek treatment, partly because of social stigma surrounding it and even questions of its reality. She discussed the complicated relationship between anxiety and social media, which gives sufferers the chance to interact with people in a low-pressure environment, but also creates more pressure to document and report on every aspect of one’s life.

Makayla Smith talked about how relationships between coworkers can have a profound effect on depression sufferers, mentioning that poor workplace relations can be a leading predictor of major depression.

“Being social with coworkers is important,” Smith said. “But the type of relationship is just as important for people suffering with depression as making the effort to have social interactions in the first place.”

Other presenters included Elizabeth Byrd on the influence of childbearing on cultural perceptions of femininity, Megan Smith on the presence of women in STEM fields, Nathaniel Evans on the impact of persuasive journalism and D’Myia C. Gause on literary portrayals of prostitution and the black market.

One of the biggest hits of the day was Aria Ashburn’s presentation on coming out in the LGBT+ community. Ashburn is transgender and pansexual herself, and her personal story of coming out to a professor in 2015 offered an encouraging and honest portrayal of the struggle that members of the community face in being public with their identity. However, she also showed the important point that coming out is an ongoing process, the nuances of which are different for every person in every relationship.

Ashburn said, “Just do it, man. I let myself be paralyzed by fear for too long. Don’t do what I did.”

For more information on the English Department and its projects, email them at or call at (828) 227-7264.