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Using poetry to present research findings

February 18, 2019   /   by Mary Lee Clark

Madison Gaines recently won an award for her research which explored the formation and understanding of biracial identity through a series of poems. Photo by Lathan Goumas.

From papers to graphs, there are multiple ways to present research, but one Honors College student at George Mason University decided to take a more creative approach.​

Sophomore creative writing major Madison Gaines recently won an award from the Honors College for her research, “Illuminating Biracial Identity at the Juncture of Social Science and Poetry,” in which she explored the formation and understanding of biracial identity through a series of poems based on interviews she had with individuals who identified as biracial or multiracial. ​

Using analytic software for qualitative research, Gaines was able to code the interviews by identifying common themes and concepts. For example, one of her codes, “disassociation from one side of your identity,” was assigned to a section of an interview with a Chinese Italian girl who, after being bullied for being of Chinese descent, pushed away that part of her identity to fit in with her white classmates.  ​

“I would highlight any sections she used to talk about that,” said Gaines. “It wasn't just her—other people also did it. So, when anyone talked about it, I could highlight it and go back and look at all the people and where it overlapped, and how it was different depending on what race they were.”​​

One of Madison Gaines' poems on biracial identity.

The inspiration for her research comes from a class project she completed in her HNRS 130 class, Conceptions of Self, taught by Blake Silver, director for data analytics and assessment in the Honors College. She studied injustice and its different forms, and at the end of the class, Gaines wrote an autoethnography, a form of qualitative research where the author uses self-reflection and personal experience to explore wider social meaning. ​

Some students wrote essays, while others made videos. Gaines expressed herself in the way she knew best—through poetry. ​

In her class project, she wrote about her own biracial identity, but through an Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research grant, Gaines was able to expand her concept to include faculty and students across the university. So far, Gaines has conducted 13 individual interviews and is in the process of transforming the data into poetry. ​

“[Madison] is a creative, thoughtful and highly motivated student, who asks fascinating questions about the social world,” said Silver. “These questions and the interviews she has collected come together in interesting ways to inform her poetry on biracial identity. Madison has merged the creative process with the theory and tools of sociological research to produce some truly outstanding work.”​

Gaines made the subjects’ voices a priority in her project. She used multiple forms of poetry, using what she felt would best communicate that person’s experiences. In some cases, she said, she would print out the interview, cut it into pieces and rearrange the sentences to ensure she was using their own words. ​

"What was really important was making sure that even though I am also biracial and understand their experiences, the point of the project wasn't to tell my story—it was to tell our story,” Gaines said.  

Gaines will present her research at the Cultural Studies Association’s annual conference at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, from May 30 to June 1.