Two students present research at NeMLA conference

Gabby Wilbur and Sydney Alves at conference
Gabby Wilbur ’24 and Sydney Alves ’25 recently presented their research at the Northeast Modern Language Association Undergraduate Forum.

Junior and senior among first to represent Wheaton at Northeast Modern Language Association Undergraduate Forum

Gabby Wilbur ’24 and Sydney Alves ’25 recently became among the first Wheaton College students to participate in the Northeast Modern Language Association Undergraduate Forum (NeMLA). At the March 2024 event, each student presented original research among peers representing institutions from across the country.

“These national conferences give students a chance to see the real-world impact of their humanities scholarship, and it helps them hone their skills in conducting and presenting their research,” said Winter Werner, associate professor of English. “I believe this is the first time we have had Wheaton students participate in the conference.”

A double major in English and philosophy, Wilbur presented her research titled “Colonial Encounters and Epistemic Virtue and Vice in The Hikayat Abdullah.” She was first introduced to the literary work during a senior seminar led by Werner last spring. Wilbur then took José Medina’s modern theory of virtue and vice epistemology and applied it to this mid-1800s autobiography by Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, considered the “Father of Modern Malay Literature.”

Werner encouraged Wilbur to submit her research—originally sourced from her final seminar—to the NeMLA Undergraduate Forum, and upon acceptance, accompanied Wilbur and Alves to the event held in Boston.

“My participation in NeMLA 2024 allowed me to take an interdisciplinary approach to English in my own research and to engage with the incredible work of undergraduate students from other institutions,” said Wilbur. “I also discussed my work with established scholars in the field, who offered encouragement and support, constructive feedback and suggestions for further research.”

Wilbur’s research illustrated how her majors could work together to help illuminate hidden facets of a 150-year-old text, according to Werner.

“I was glad to see a student take such keen interest in this Malay autobiography,” she said. “Perhaps Gabby’s most important contribution is in how she heightened American awareness of this foundational text. Sadly, the English-language edition is out of print in the U.S. I hope that the interest she generated might lead to the release of a new English-language edition.”

Alves, an English major, presented the research she conducted from expanding upon a paper she had authored at the conclusion of a “Postmodern American Literature” course taught by James Byrne, senior professor of the practice of English.

According to Byrne, Alves’s research involved re-examining Octavia Butler’s fictional investigation of American slavery in the seminal Afrofuturist novel Kindred.

“Told from the point of view of Dana, a Black woman from 1976 who finds herself suddenly and mysteriously transported back to 1815 Maryland, Butler’s novel interrogates America’s history of racism,” Byrne said. “Syd’s paper astutely and effectively showed how Butler’s novel puts a spin on the typical historical fiction genre [that] makes readers question their historical knowledge and the way that history has been constructed.”

Alves gained much from her research and participation in the forum. “Going to a conference and having other academics very actively engage in conversation with me about my research made me realize my potential to do more research, or maybe expand on what I’ve started and work toward becoming published,” she said.

“Preparing for and presenting at NeMLA helped me put everything I’ve learned at Wheaton into practice. Building my research, critical thinking, public speaking skills and more over the past three years put me into a position to be able to do this,” Alves said. “During and after the conference, I became more excited by the possibilities of what doing literary research may look like next year as a senior.”

After graduating, Wilbur is considering pursuing a master’s degree in publishing, and Alves intends to teach English in high school while seeking opportunities to dance professionally and/or obtain an advanced degree in English.

—By Troy Watkins