Rhyme, Writing, Revenge, and All That Jazz

Each spring, dozens of students are recognized for exceptional creative and academic accomplishments. A sampling of award-winning work illustrates the diverse talents and interests of a select few.
August 1, 2007

They range from fresh-faced teenagers to seasoned grad students, small-town kids to urban sophisticates. Depending on your point of view, the topics explored by this year's recipients of departmental and university recognition range from esoteric (examining the effect of two parallel tethers on atomic force microscope distributions) to altruistic (working on sustainable development in rural areas of Uganda) to downright enviable (conducting a photographic investigation of Gothic architecture in England and France).

There are, of course, the usual, remarkable suspects—those who earn the top grade point average in the department or are singled out as most outstanding for cumulative performance within and beyond the classroom. There are others who are tapped for the potential they have shown. The Divinity School, for example, awards a preaching award to fledgling pastors, an encouragement of sorts rather than a "best of" prize.

In selecting the students you will meet on these pages, we strove for a broad cross-section of class years and disciplines.

Tracy Gold: Giving voice to emotion

Tracy Gold Giving voice to emotion

Megan Morr

Horseback riding and writing have been Tracy Gold's passions from a young age, and her writing is often inspired by her experiences riding. Gold, a rising sophomore from Towson, Maryland, attended Carver Center for Arts and Technology, a public magnet school, where she concentrated in literary arts. She plans to major in English and tentatively hopes to pursue a career involving some combination of teaching and writing. Gold is this year's recipient of the Academy of American Poets Prize, awarded through the English department for a poem or group of poems by an undergraduate.

"This poem originated from an assignment for [English professor] Deborah Pope's class, 'Writing and Memory.' The assignment suggested writing about a place. I combined two places, as well as my own experiences with those of a friend from home, whom the poem is mostly about. Seeing (and smelling) this dead deer, mutilated so mysteriously, triggered memories of my friend's father's mysterious and traumatic death. Though I did not always get along with this friend, I had grown up with her at the barn, and her father's death changed not only my relationship with her, but my relationship with my own father.

"In writing this poem, I was trying to accomplish what I want in all of my poetry—to give voice to emotions and experiences that changed me, in a way that will allow readers to identify with these emotions and experiences enough potentially to change them, too, or at least make them think. Yet, in the initial stages of writing, my only goal is to get it out. There are some topics (in my opinion, the best topics) that give me an ultimatum: Write, or go insane. This poem was inspired by one of them."

The Smell of a Dead Buck's Bones

She knows the smell of a dead buck's bones:
it is the smell of burning leaves;
of the red jacket covered with white horse hair,
    mud and sweat;
of the stagnant water pooling in the stream
    she's trotting by
when her horse spooks
at the dead buck.
Thin grey antlers jut out of his coated head,
crushed against his ribcage.
His eyes—still glassy
stare into the empty skeleton.
His hind end lies a few strides beyond his head,
legs spread out in the pose of a fully extended run,
as if his spine
split mid leap.

She knows the smell of a dead buck's bones:
it is the leather of the brand new Mercury Mariner
that her father
shot himself in.
The bloody parts were replaced
and every day now, she drives it to the barn
where she rides through fields of
dead bucks, burning leaves and stagnant water.

She doesn't know how he died;
Was he hit by a car, left to drag himself to the field,
almost reaching the forest?

Did he sell his liquor store only to crawl
from the bed to the couch and back again,
hitting his wife and screaming at his daughter
between drunken stupors?
"I hate my father"
she would say,
before he died.

She was quiet, at his funeral:
                         the smell of a dead buck's bones,
                         burning leaves, and brand new leather.

 

Corey Sobel: Scripting a cultural disconnect

Corey Sobel Scripting a cultural disconnect

Megan Morr

Although he came to Duke on a football scholarship, Corey Sobel's pivotal field experiences have had nothing to do with athletic success. Sobel '07 designed his own Program II major, "Writing Conflict: Reporting International and Ethnic Violence," to focus on the intersection of philosophy, political violence, and journalism.

Last summer Sobel lived and worked in Nakuru, Kenya, where he wrote educational materials about HIV/AIDS for Kenyans living with the disease. When he returned to campus in the fall for his senior year, Sobel signed up for a series of screenwriting classes. The resulting screenplay, WinterSummer, won the Reynolds Price Award for Scriptwriting, given by the department of theater studies to an undergraduate for the best original script for stage, screen, or television.

"What struck me the most about Kenya—about HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa in general—is that, among all the gender issues and problems with domestic violence in the region, the most nefarious manifestation was when disloyal husbands or boyfriends traveled, became infected with HIV, and then came home and forced their (otherwise abstinent) significant others into having unprotected sex. The script, my first, was a way of considering this kind of abuse, its implications for African men, its consequences on African women.

"One of the central characters in the play is Robert McCain, a twenty-five-year-old American man who has traveled with his church group to Kenya. There, he meets Joyce Odhiambo, a young Kenyan woman whose husband died of AIDS. Joyce refuses to be tested and is living with the stigma of having had an HIV-positive husband. Robert reintroduces her to the possibilities of her life, and the two fall in love. But the Americans' time [in Kenya] has run out, and they have traveled to Nairobi to catch their flight back to the U.S. In this scene, Robert is considering his life, wondering if there's anything worth returning to in America."

Excerpt fromWinterSummer

FAIRVIEW HOTEL LOBBY Robert is trudging down the front staircase with his luggage, hung over from last night. It is about 10 a.m., and the lobby is filled with people coming in and going out.

He reaches the base of the stairs and looks around. He sees American Woman #1 in one of the red leather chairs behind him. He tries to look away but she catches his attention and smiles. He has no choice but to go over and sit in the chair next to hers.

American Woman #1 has her feet resting on top of several large suitcases. She is smiling though exhausted in posture. She watches Robert take a seat.

American Woman #1: Out of Africa, huh?

Robert: (surprised at the allusion) Yeah.

American Woman #1: I'm sorry we didn't arrange to stay longer. It's a shame, all the things we couldn't…

She doesn't finish and exhales and looks at Robert and smiles.

American Woman #1: This is the first time I've been outside the country.

Robert: Haven't been to Canada?

She laughs at this, not acknowledging the sarcasm.

American Woman #1: Do you think about all the places we flew over, on our way here?

Robert is looking down at his lap and shakes his head.

American Woman #1: I was looking at the television screen in front of me on the plane. There was the line…

Robert: That showed where the plane was.

American Woman #1: Oh yes. And, for the eight hours from London to Nairobi, I didn't watch a single movie. Not a TV show. I just watched the plane nudge over Europe, and then over the Mediterranean, North Africa. We flew over France and Italy. Did you look?

Robert: I was in the aisle.

American Woman #1: (smiling apologetically) My face was pressed against that cold window, and I watched mountains in France. I was amazed, seeing them all red and brown and yellow. I've never thought of France as having these mountains, looking so bare in the summer time.

A pair of housekeepers giggle as they walk by. We can hear the clatter of the nearby restaurant.

American Woman #1: I began to cry when we went over the Sahara.

Robert is surprised by this, looks up at the woman. She is getting a bit flustered and looks like she's deciding whether or not she should cry.

American Woman #1: And now I can say I've been to Africa. Everyone I'll talk to at home, my kids, even my husband. They'll assume that everything between America and Kenya, that I've covered that.

Robert is watching her now.

American Woman #1: But I haven't seen anything, have I? I've been to two countries in the world. I can tell people I've seen the Sahara. But what if they ask me about it? I can't tell them about the heat or the sun or what I wore to stay cool. All I'll be able to talk about are colors, shapes. And my children will ask me about Kenya. And there, well I'll tell them about children with torn clothing and food that hurt my stomach. Bottled water, animals I've dreamed of seeing since I was a little girl.

Robert waits for more but the American Woman has caught herself. She looks up at him. She smiles.

American Woman #1: I'm fifty-five. How old are you?

Robert:Twenty-five.

She nods.

American Woman #1: It's strange sitting here, knowing you'll never step foot on this floor again. Isn't that just weird?

She waits for Robert to respond. When he doesn't, she smiles and becomes quiet. We can hear the chatter of American women coming down the stairs.

American Woman #1: I just wish we'd arranged for a few weeks longer. I know I'll be sitting in the house, watching television. And I'll start to think about spending that time here. I know, it's just going to make me sad, thinking about that, thinking about this place.

The American women catch sight of American Woman #1 and Robert and head over. She sees her friends and sucks in her breath and then exhales in resignation. Robert is looking at her, and she smiles and pats his leg and stands to meet the others. We are left looking at Robert…

 

Lydia Wright: Firsthand encounters with history

Lydia Wright: Firsthand encounters with history

Donna Edmondson

Growing up in West Virginia has strongly influenced Lydia Wright '07. Her surroundings instilled in her a love of mountains and an unusual perspective on the issues of the working class, education, and oppression. As a history major, she concentrated on modern America with a special focus on social and labor history. Last summer, with the help of a Deans' Summer Research Fellowship, Wright was able to travel to archives in West Virginia, the District of Columbia, and Pennsylvania to investigate a subject that had sparked her interest in history: education and labor issues in West Virginia's coal company towns. The thesis that resulted from that research, "A Miner's Education: Schools in the Coal Company Towns of Southern West Virginia, 1863–1933," was awarded the LaPrade prize by the history department for best senior honors thesis.

"The initial inspiration for this thesis came from my own experiences as a student in the public schools in West Virginia. As I came to understand the ways in which power and politics influence, and have always influenced, the actions and curricula of public schools, I reflected on my own education. We received two full years of West Virginia state history, in which the early twentieth-century battle between coal companies and union miners was portrayed in a decidedly pro-union light. This approach to historical teaching led me to wonder how subjects such as history and government would have been taught to students experiencing those struggles in the 1910s and 1920s.

"I first approached the subject with many preconceived notions about what I would find, mostly involving the evil coal companies using education to oppress the children of miners. As I proceeded with my research, however, I found history to be much more nuanced and complex. Coal-company actions were motivated by a variety of factors, including not only a desire to produce a contented, obedient working class, but also real pressure put on them by workers who wanted good schools for their children. In many ways, my thesis raises as many questions as it answers. But by delving into the complicated world of politics, education, and corporate power, the thesis attempts to challenge the idea of schooling as isolated from the society in which the schools operate."

Excerpt from A Miner's Education: Schools in the Coal Company Towns of Southern West Virginia, 1863–1933

While it lasted, coal company involvement in school development brought many positive additions to the lives of local residents. Company funds paid to build many new schoolhouses, which were often furnished with the most modern equipment and facilities. The supplementary salaries [the companies] provided allowed school boards to entice highly qualified teachers to work in these new schools. As both miners and their children learned to read and write, illiteracy rates dropped. Immigrants acquired English-language skills in company-sponsored night schools, and vocational education for both young and old helped make coal mines safer places to work.

But the positives on the company school ledger were balanced by the negatives. Because companies decided how and when to support local schools, the educational expansion serviced the business needs of the industry as much as the intellectual betterment of company town residents. The schools' funding depended on the coal industry's prosperity, as both direct company donations and taxes drawn from the one-industry economy fluctuated with the market. Company and government officials tailored the curricula to the particular conditions in the coal towns, equipping children to succeed in mining, but little else. With such intricate connections to industry, local schools, like the company towns that they served, declined when King Coal no longer thrived in the West Virginia mountains.

Kristina McDonald: Understanding conflict

Kristina McDonald Understanding conflictMegan Morr

Megan Morr

Psychology graduate student Kristina McDonald wants to know why people are more likely to seek revenge in some circumstances and not others. And what are the larger implications for groups engaged in conflict? Her dissertation proposal, "Interpretations and Belief Systems Associated with Revenge Motivations," received the 2007–08 Kenan Dissertation Fellowship in Ethics, presented to a graduate student in any discipline whose forthcoming dissertation has a substantial ethics focus.

McDonald is collecting data over the summer and early fall from children, adolescents, and young adults in the Durham community. She'll work with undergraduate research assistants to analyze the data, and write the results for her dissertation, which she plans to defend in the spring of 2008.

"On a daily basis, individuals may face situations in which they are teased, left out of groups, betrayed, and treated badly by both peers and loved ones. Coping with being wronged is a difficult social task that humans must master. When confronted with various types of minor as well as major provocation, individuals could choose to respond in many ways, one of which is to seek revenge.

"Yet, revenge motivations are potentially damaging for people's psyches, as well as for their relationships. Nietzsche wrote that feelings of vindictiveness were 'self-poisoning' or damaging to the self. There is also evidence that taking revenge does not improve how one feels or decrease the pain felt from the original offense…. Revenge may not gain anything for the retaliator and may just prolong a cycle of violence by promoting the continuation of the aggression chain, ultimately hurting the avenger more.

"My dissertation will help scientists and interventionists understand the perceptions and behavior of people in provoking interpersonal situations, experiences that many face in their daily lives. Understanding how and why children and adults retaliate when provoked has great implications for character education in elementary and secondary schools….

"Additionally, my dissertation addresses an ethical challenge that is also a concern for intergroup conflict and national relations. Research on revenge seems particularly relevant now, when there is increased violence among ethnic and religious groups. Questions about the ethics of retaliation are also central to our government's policies about foreign relations and how to handle aggression toward our nation. While all the factors pertinent to revenge in interpersonal situations may not be relevant to revenge between groups, it seems that understanding more about personal revenge motivations may also be helpful for understanding revenge on the larger world stage."

Todd Hershberger: Inspiration for improvisation

Todd Hershberger Inspiration for improvisation

Megan Morr

Todd Hershberger's Concerto for Free Improvising Alto Saxophonist and Jazz Orchestra had its world premiere this spring as part of the annual Milestones Gala Concert, co-sponsored by the music departments of Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The performance featured the North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra and German soloist and composer Frank Gratkowski, with Hershberger conducting the half-hour piece. The concert was the culmination of a process that had begun years earlier, when Hershberger A.M. '03, Ph.D. '08, casting around for dissertation ideas, heard Gratkowski perform at a small, now-defunct club in Carrboro, North Carolina.

Hershberger had written music for solo instruments and a variety of ensembles, including the Ben Adams Sextet, the Lawrence Chamber Orchestra, and several at the University of Kansas (his undergraduate alma mater). But something about Gratkowski's performance that night captured his imagination.

Concerto for Free Improvising Alto Saxophonist and Jazz Orchestra won the music department's William Klenz Prize in Composition. To listen to the work, visit www.duke.edu/~tbh5.

"I was astounded at the way Frank's approach to improvising combined the traditions of avant-garde jazz and experimental classical music," says Hershberger, a bassoonist who plays locally with the musical collective pulsoptional. "Over the course of the next year, I became involved in learning more about the tradition of free improvisation—which is the tradition that Frank does most of his playing within. On a return trip to the area, Frank invited me to participate in a recording session with him, so when it came time to submit my dissertation proposal, I presented the idea of writing an original score" inspired by these musical traditions in general, and by Gratkowski's work specifically.