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Washington and Lee Wins Teagle Foundation Grant for Study-Abroad Planning

Washington and Lee University, in collaboration with Union College, of New York, and Gettysburg College, of Pennsylvania, has received a $230,000 grant over 25 months from the Teagle Foundation, of New York City, to improve learning outcomes on their respective campuses.

This latest grant follows a planning grant that the three institutions received from Teagle a year ago.

Washington and Lee will use the grant to design ways of integrating the four-week study-abroad courses in its revitalized, four-week Spring Term with student learning in the fall and winter terms, which are 12 weeks each. During Spring Term, students take only one class.

“We appreciate the support from the Teagle Foundation for these efforts,” said Marc Conner, the Jo M. and James Ballengee Professor of English, head of the English Department and program director of Spring Term. “Although the specific programs for which the three institutions are using this grant are different, the underlying focus on student learning is powerful in each instance. In all three cases, we are breaking the barrier of traditional classroom practice.”

While W&L’s focus is its Spring Term study-abroad programs, Union is working to strength integrative learning by developing a plan of study around existing curricular programs. Gettysburg plans to promote and reinforce students’ mastery of curricular goals through its First-Year Seminar/First-Year Experience program.

According to Conner, the ad hoc consortium has met several times to discuss the ways in which the specific programs can use innovative pedagogies to engage faculty and students in ways that traditional education has not accommodated.

In Washington and Lee’s case, the goal is to explore ways to extend the Spring Term study-abroad programs beyond the term’s four weeks through effective orientation programs, courses in the winter term and/or re-entry programs in the fall term.

“The goal here is to take those intensive four weeks and not have them just stop,” said Conner. “We don’t want these programs to be seen as islands but to have clear connections.”

Although shorter study-abroad programs have become more and popular at colleges and universities, many educators view them as less effective than either a semester-long or year-long immersion. Conner thinks that W&L’s Spring Term mitigates some of those issues by virtue of the kind of programs it offers.

“The difference is that in our four-week terms, you have a Washington and Lee professor leading the program rather than having the students participate in a generic program operated by another institution,” said Conner. “In addition, you have the intensive teaching and learning nature of our Spring Term, in which students are working 50 or 60 hours a week on just this one course.”

Still, the goal of the Teagle grant will be to work with faculty planning for Spring Term study abroad on extending the experience beyond the four weeks.

For example, chemistry professor Erich Uffelman requires students enrolled in his Spring Term course, Science in Art, held in the Netherlands, to prepare by taking a three-credit course in the preceding winter term.

“I’ve copied that model and required a full three-credit seminar this past winter term for those students who were going to Ireland for the West of Ireland course,” Conner said. “The students got to know each other. They bonded. When we got to Ireland, they already knew a lot more about Irish culture than many students do after they leave. This is a really good way to augment a short study-abroad experience.”

In some cases, students could continue the experience with faculty-led research in the summer after Spring Term, followed by an honors thesis the following fall.

“In that way, it becomes almost a two-year practicum and starts to approach graduate-level education, starting with the Spring Term abroad but building it into the larger program,” Conner added.

Through the Teagle grant, several workshops will be held in the fall and winter of the 2012-2013 academic year for faculty scheduled to lead Spring Term study-abroad programs.

The Teagle Foundation was established in 1944 by Walter C. Teagle, longtime president and later chairman of the board of Standard Oil Co., now Exxon Mobil Corp. The foundation intends to be an influential national voice and a catalyst for change in higher education to improve undergraduate student learning in the arts and sciences.

News Contact:
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs
jhanna@wlu.edu
(540) 458-8459

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A. Benjamin Spencer Named Director of W&L's Lewis Law Center

A. Benjamin Spencer, professor of law at Washington and Lee University School of Law, has been appointed director of the Frances Lewis Law Center by Dean Nora V. Demleitner.

The Francis Lewis Law Center is the independently funded faculty research and support arm of W&L Law. As director, Spencer will oversee the center’s agenda, which includes sponsoring symposia, enhancing the intellectual life at the School of Law, and providing support to faculty in their scholarly endeavors.

“The faculty and I are unanimous in our belief that Ben Spencer is the perfect leader of the Lewis Law Center,” said Demleitner. “A prolific and highly regarded scholar himself, he is deeply devoted to W&L Law’s intellectual enterprise, as exemplified in the Lewis Law Center.  I have no doubt that Ben will brilliantly direct the center and take it to the next level.”

Spencer joined the W&L faculty in 2008. A distinguished scholar and teacher, Spencer is an expert in the fields of civil procedure and federal jurisdiction. In addition to numerous law review articles, he has authored two books in the area of civil procedure, Acing Civil Procedure and Civil Procedure: A Contemporary Approach. Both are used widely by professors and students throughout the country.

Spencer’s scholarship was included in a recent study analyzing the most-cited law review articles of all time. In addition to producing a listing of the 100 most-cited articles of all time, the authors of the study generated most-cited lists for recent scholarship by year for 1990-2009. Two of Spencer’s articles were included in the recent scholarship lists. “Plausibility Pleading,” in the Boston College Law Review, was the third most-cited article of 2008 and “Understanding Pleading Doctrine,” in the Michigan Law Review, was third on the 2009 list. Spencer is one of only a handful of legal scholars to appear more than one time in the study.

Spencer has also been honored for his teaching. In 2007 he was awarded the Virginia State Council of Higher Education “Rising Star” award, given to the most promising junior faculty member among all academic fields at all colleges and universities in Virginia. Spencer was the first law professor to receive this award.

“I am honored that the dean and the faculty have entrusted me with stewardship of the Frances Lewis Law Center,” said Spencer. “The Lewis Law Center is the lifeblood of our research efforts at W&L Law, and I will do my utmost to ensure that it continues to provide the support needed by our outstanding scholars.”

In addition to his teaching and research, Spencer serves as a special assistant U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia. In this capacity, he has argued and won several cases in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on behalf of the government, including United States v. Stewart, United States v. Hicks, and United States v. Burns. Spencer is also chair of the Virginia State Bar’s Section on the Education of Lawyers and a member of the West Publishing Company Law School Advisory Board.

Prior to joining the Washington and Lee faculty, Spencer was an associate professor of law at the University of Richmond School of Law.  He also formerly worked as an associate in the law firm of Shearman & Sterling and as a law clerk to Judge Judith W. Rogers of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.  Spencer holds a B.A. from Morehouse College, a J.D. from the Harvard Law School and a master of science from the London School of Economics.

Established in 1978 with a generous gift from Frances and Sydney Lewis, the Law Center’s mandate is to support faculty research and scholarship that advances legal reform.

News Contact:
Peter Jetton
School of Law Director of Communications
pjetton@wlu.edu
(540) 458-8782

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W&L Track Teammates Train, Teach in Ghana

Washington and Lee cross country and track teammates Molly Ortiz, a senior from Ketchikan, Alaska, and Annelise Madison, a junior from Roka, Neb., teamed up this summer for a fascinating internship experience in Ghana.

Molly and Annelise volunteered with the Ghana ACT (Alliance for Community Transformations) education program. They spent eight-and-a-half weeks teaching English, math, science and computer skills to students at McColin’s Primary School in Fiave, Ho—a school that “focuses on providing a good education to underprivileged children: orphans, children with single mothers, children of teenage parents.” They also showed the kids how to throw a football and how to play basketball, using equipment that had been donated by many at W&L before they left.

And when they weren’t teaching or coaching, they were running and writing about their experiences.

First, the writing. All the the entries on both Molly’s blog (click on stories and read from the bottom up) and Annelise’s blog are worth reading. Some posts are duplicated on the other’s blog, but they are invariably filled with wonderfully rich detail and anecdotes—showing the students the internet, a small-world encounter with a VMI alum, erecting basketball goals at the school and teaching the students how to play.

Then there was the running—a whole lot of running as they worked their way up to 70 miles a week. Annelise is the Old Dominion Athletic Conference champion in the mile; Molly was third in the ODAC steeplechase. Both are also on the cross country team: Annelise was fifth and Molly 15th in the ODACs last fall. So a constant refrain in their blogs is the work they’ve been doing to prepare for the upcoming cross country season.

In one of her first posts, Molly wrote that they wanted to not only maintain, but increase their fitness level in order to reach their goal of qualifying for the NCAAs in the fall.

With the Doremus Fitness Center unavailable, Molly and Annelise had to improvise. Mostly, they found some rocks to lift. And the Ghanaians clearly enjoyed watching them train. In their final post from Ghana, Annelise paints a delightful picture with this passage:

Our cross country training has been going well…we continue to increase our mileage and, as we don’t have the nutrition that we are used to in America, it is taking its toll on us. Two-a-days are especially exhausting, as we run at 5:30 am and then again after teaching, playing, and coaching the children at 5:00 pm. Molly and I continue to have a following — people literally stop whatever they are doing and run with us for a few steps or an entire mile. Sometimes we feel how Forrest Gump must have felt on his long run.

Now it’s back to the States and preparing for Aug. 31, when the Generals travel to the ODAC Cross Country Preview in Harrisonburg.


Puzzling Alum: Neville Fogarty '10

Fans of Neville Fogarty’s crossword puzzles from his days with the Ring-tum Phi need not wait until he publishes his next puzzle in the New York Times to match wits with the 2010 Washington and Lee alumnus.

Neville has just opened his own site, where he publishes a new puzzle each Friday. The first of those puzzles, on July 20, drew 200 players. Here’s the link to Neville’s site. You can download the puzzles as either .puz or .pdf files. If you choose the .puz option, you’ll want to also download either the Across Lite or the Crossword Solver application that opens the files. (Of course, if you’re a heavy-duty crossword player, you know this already.)

A mathematics and economics major at Washington and Lee, Neville is working on his Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Kentucky. He also stays plenty busy constructing puzzles for various sources, and his puzzles have even been seen on the new TNT drama “Perception.” He also blogs each Tuesday and Thursday about the Los Angeles Times puzzles on the “Diary of a Crossword Fiend” site.

Why would Neville give away his puzzles for free? Here’s his answer: “First, I want to get better at writing puzzles. How do you get better? Practice. So writing puzzles and posting them here gives me a reason to write a puzzle each week and gives me a chance to get feedback from you, the seasoned solver, as quickly as you can solve it and type in some comments. Also, some of the puzzles I want to run on this site just aren’t right for many of the outlets that I can submit to. Some of them have words or themes that I think an editor would find too esoteric.”


Studying the Praying Mantis with Nets and Isotopes

The praying mantis is an arthropod and a predator, a skinny tough guy (or gal) with jointed feet and an exoskeleton. It’s willing to attack larger prey, from mice to snakes to hummingbirds. There’s even been a report of a praying mantis eating a turtle.

Thrilling YouTube videos of the creatures aside, we know little about their lifetime dietary habits. Larry Hurd, Washington and Lee’s Herwick Professor of Biology, is adding to that bank of knowledge this summer by analyzing the stable isotopes of wild mantids and their prey, a procedure never before used on mantids.

“Are they eating other predators mainly? Are they eating phloem-feeding herbivores? Or are they eating things that eat vegetation?” asked Hurd, who has studied the praying mantis for more than 35 years. He thinks that mantids are frequency-dependent predators, eating whatever is most abundant in their habitat.

The project is a collaboration with Maj. Pieter deHart, an assistant professor of biology at VMI, and research assistance from sophomores Megan Shearer of Columbia, Md., and Joseph Taylor of Petersburg, Va.,, both Robert E. Lee Summer Scholars at W&L.

DeHart is the team expert on stable isotope analysis, a research method that involves parsing and weighing the basic chemical elements of an organism to determine its chemical signature. For the mantid study, the team is comparing the isotopes of wild mantids against the isotopes of other organisms within their habitat and within their probable food chain. They are examining lab-fed mantids as a control group.

Stable isotope analysis is groundbreaking when it comes to mantids because scientists have never observed their long-term eating habits in the field. Recording what mantids eat, over an extended period of time, may lead to a better understanding of how predators control biological diversity and species interactions within eco-systems.

The procedure is also more informative than an insect autopsy. “All that tells you is what’s sitting in its gut. It’s not telling you what that incorporating into its tissues,” said deHart. “Stable isotopes are the way to tell that because we’re essentially taking the whole organism, grinding it up, combusting it, running it through a machine and saying ‘What do these elements look like?’ ”

Once a week, Shearer and Taylor take handheld nets to several fields on campus. There is a fourth field in Norfolk, Va. “We sweep them back and forth, and it catches the insects,” said Shearer. “We catch maybe two or three mantids at each site.”

At W&L, the students sort and identify the captured mantids and insects, then carry them to VMI for further preparation. “We have to freeze-dry our sample first so that there’s no moisture,” said Taylor, “because if you grind it up and there’s moisture, it’s just a mess.”

The students grind the dried insects into a powder, which they then scoop into tiny cups with a micro-spatula for weighing. Once they weigh it, they send the powder to an out-of-state facility for processing by an isotope mass spectrometer.

Inside the spectrometer, air heats to a temperature of 2,400 degrees Celsius, which combusts the insect powder into a gas. A magnet then pulls out and sorts the insect’s basic elements, primarily carbon and nitrogen.

After the insects are processed in the spectrometer, the team will place data about the weights of these elements onto a graph, also known as a food web. By comparing the elemental weights, or chemical signatures, of wild mantids with those of other insects from the same habitat, the team can draw conclusions about the mantid’s food chain and eating habits. Animals higher on the food chain have a heavier elemental weight.

“As one of my colleagues puts it, it’s kind of hocus-pocus, like a magic box sort of thing. You put in there, it spits out a number, and you make sense of the number,” said deHart. “There’s both science and art with it, and you have to interpret the data based upon the best available literature.”

The students are looking forward to getting back the first results. “We’re doing something really new. No one’s mapped out the ecology of mantid ecosystems, so it’s pretty exciting to be doing something new to science that might contribute to knowledge,” said Taylor.

And for those still wondering how a praying mantis stuns a larger animal, the answer is straightforward: “They just grab it with their forelegs, and they hold it in front of them,” explained Hurd. “You’ll see them go after really huge wasps, and the wasp is trying to sting them, and the stinger keeps glancing off the armored prothorax. They just hold it like a crane and just eat the head off. Once they have something, it’s toast.”

— by Amy Balfour ’89, ’93L

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W&L Gold Medalists

In advance of the upcoming London Olympics, two members of the Washington and Lee community recently captured their own gold medals–in track and field competition on the master’s level.

Competing earlier this month in the USATF East Region Masters Championships at Howard Community College, in Columbia, Md., Roger Crockett, professor of German, won the long jump in the 60-64 age division with a jump of 4.62 meters. With that effort, Roger now ranks fifth in the nation in the current outdoor season. He finished second in the triple jump with a leap of 9.12 meters.

Roger will try to capture another national title in August, when he competes in the 2012 USA Masters Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Benedictine University, in Lisle, Ill. Back in 2008, his first year in the 60-64 age group, Roger won the national indoor championships in Boston and was ranked No. 1 in the nation in both the long jump and the triple jump during the indoor season.

Meanwhile, W&L’s former dean of students, David Howison, won the 800-meter race in the men’s 70-79 age group at the Virginia Commonwealth Games, in Roanoke. David, 70, ran a time of 3:21.54. He ranks 10th nationally in the 800 meters and is third-ranked in the mile run in the 2012 outdoor rankings.


W&L Historian Writes New History of Siege of Leningrad with Previously Unseen Sources

Washington and Lee University historian Richard Bidlack used previously secret Soviet documents to paint a vivid picture of the 872-day siege of Leningrad by the Germans and Finns during World War II in his new book, “The Leningrad Blockade, 1941-1944.” Co-authored with Nikita Lomagin, professor of economics at St. Petersburg State University, it is the latest book in the Yale University Press series Annals of Communism.

“I contend that the siege of Leningrad was not only the most horrific siege in human history, but also an act of genocide on the part of the Germans,” said Bidlack. “Using these new documents that had been classified and unavailable, along with some diaries by Leningraders , we wanted both to clarify the high-level politics that led to the lengthy siege and to look at popular attitudes of the people in Leningrad.”

Between approximately 1.6 and 2 million Soviet people died within the city of Leningrad and in battles of the surrounding region between 1941 and 1944. Bidlack observes that even the lowest estimate of deaths would exceed the total number of Americans, both civilians and military personnel, who died in every war, from 1776 through Afghanistan.

The number of civilians who perished by hunger, cold or the aerial bombardment of the blockaded territory is estimated at about 900,000.

“No city ever suffered more over a comparable period of time than did Leningrad during its epic struggle to survive,” the authors write in the introduction.

The key difference between this book and others about the siege is the documents to which the authors had access. The book includes reproductions of 66 documents and 70 illustrations  The documents reveal tensions and sharp conflicts among leaders of the Communist Party, the NKVD (political police, who were the forerunner of the KGB), and the military.

Some of the key documents are reports from secret informants on political attitudes.Both the Communist Party and the NKVD had thousands of informants through the city, Bidlack said. The NKVD reports, in particular, are controversial because the police were preoccupied with stamping out anyactivities they considered to be subversive

“You have to be careful in using those materials to gauge public opinion,” Bidlack said. “The Communist Party basically wanted to show that the people of Leningrad were loyal, while the NKVD was looking for bad guys, as they defined them.”

The documents were declassified after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and some of them were made available only shortly before the book was published. Because Soviet historians did not have access to the documents and because their histories were censored, their accounts of the Leningrad blockade were heavily distorted, Bidlack said.

For instance, Bidlack added, Soviet historians tended to write glowingly about the heroic struggle of the people of Leningrad.

“The whole concept of heroism is a tricky one,” he said. ‘The heroic struggle of the people became one of the foundational myths in the way the history of the siege was written.

“It’s not a myth in the sense that it’s a falsehood. But it’s overemphasized. There were heroes, but there were also people who were very selfish, who didn’t care at all about their fellow man.”

In particular, Bidlack said, the documents demonstrate that some people who had special access to food made a fortune on the black market by purchasing works of art for loaves of bread.

At the same, Bidlack noted, “youlearn something about human nature as you examine an event of this kind through these documents.  People were willing to put up with extraordinary privations to defend their homes and their families. Hitler thought the city would collapse in chaos, but it didn’t happen.”

German barbarism together with the repressive policies of the NKVD, which punished overheard subversive comments with long prison sentences or execution, encouraged Leningraders to remain loyal to Soviet authorities.  Leningraders were also hoping for a better future.  Soviet propaganda implied that at the end of the war there would be more autonomy for the people, a greater role for the church and the return of traditional institutions to the fore. None of those things happened.

When it came to heroism, the documents make clear that those who acted in the most heroic fashion were mothers. “Most of the men were off at the front, so the city was predominately female in terms of the adult population, and these women would make any sacrifice to take care of their children.” he said.  Many also took care of orphaned children of which there were many thousand in the city.

Some desperate mothers resorted to cannibalism to survive.

“Altogether, about 2,000 people were arrested for cannibalism — something that was never included in Soviet histories,” said Bidlack. “This ranged from hacking corpses for food to murder with the intent to sell human flesh.”

“Most of those who were hacking food from corpses were women who were not from the city itself but were part of an influx of refugees into the city before the blockade  started. They did not have access to food ration cards and had two or three kids to feed.””

Bidlack contends that the siege of Leningrad was, next to the Holocaust, the greatest act of genocide in Europe during World War II, because Hitler would not accept surrender of the city through the winter of 1941-42..

“They were trying to subdue the city by starvation and hoping that it would be like 1917 in Petrograd in World War I. I think Hitler wanted a collapse but not a surrender, because, for logistical reasons, he did not want to be responsible for feeding 2.5 million people,” said Bidlack. “They were just going to let them starve.”

A member of Washington and Lee’s faculty since 1987, Bidlack specializes in Russian and European history. He received his bachelor’s degree from Wake Forest and his master’s and Ph.D. from Indiana University.

News Contact:
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs
jhanna@wlu.edu
(540) 458-8459

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Marketing Renegade John Zamoiski

When John Zamoiski, of the Class of 1974, spoke at Washington and Lee’s first AdLib Conference (Liberal Arts in Advertising) in March, he dubbed himself a marketing renegade.

Visitors to Comic-Con 2012 in San Diego earlier this month got a little taste of what John meant. His company, Bottlerocket Marketing Group, of New York City, was the guiding force behind one of the most-discussed exhibitions at the event — a 15,000-square-foot, “fully immersive” experience to promote A&E’s upcoming made-for-TV movie, “Coma.”

According to various reports from Comic-Con, the installation allowed visitors to “feel first-hand what it’s like to go up against the all-knowing, all-powerful, and heavily financed Jefferson Institute.” If you remember the 1977 novel by Robin Cook and the 1978 movie by Michael Crichton, the Jefferson Institute is where unwitting patients are kept in comas in order to have their organs harvested. Ridley Scott and Tony Scott’s remake of that movie airs on A&E Sept. 3 and 4, and the marketing that John’s company has created for it is getting a lot of buzz.

The W&L students who heard John talk about his marketing exploits, starting with his job as an advance man for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, would hardly be surprised at the scope of the Comic-Con installation, let alone the various other ways in which Bottlerocket is working to bring attention to its clients.

One of the case studies on Bottlerocket’s website is The Great Summer Zoofari for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which featured life-size Lego sculptures of animals around the Bronx Zoo. Another award-winning campaign that John’s company produced was the “VH1 Divas Salute the Troops” mosaic.

In his presentation to the AdLib conference on campus, John paid tribute to his liberal arts background as the key to his success in the world of marketing. He also cited several W&L faculty members who played a role.

“Being a successful business professional comes from mixing up a witch’s brew of learning — learning you get at W&L,” he told the students. “In my case, it’s what I learned in my marketing courses from L.K. Johnson (I still have notes from his classes to this day). It’s combined with my editorial writing courses from Pax Davis in the journalism school, served with a strong dose of history courses from Charlie Turner, adding the spice of film courses from John Jennings, with a dollop of sociology from Ken White, with English classes from Huntley, art classes from Dr. Ju, with economics from John Gunn, with accounting from Jay Cook. You put it all together, and that makes sense of the world you live in.”

John describes Bottlerocket’s work on the Coma project and others in the interview below, conducted at Comic-Con 2012:


Cats and Dogs and Domestic Relations

Maybe you thought that odd business combinations like a shoe store doubling as a law practice a la “Harry’s Law” happened only on television. Think again.

In Culpeper, Va., Washington and Lee law alumna Monica “M.J.” Chernin, of the Class of 1988, practices family law and operates a pet store, Reigning Cats and Dogs.

Unlike the fictional “Harry’s Law,” where the shoe store and law practice operate from the same building, the Law Offices of Monica Chernin are about five blocks away from the store. As a feature in the July 2012 edition of Washingtonian magazine notes, the businesses operated under the same roof when M.J. opened the pet boutique in 2005. A fire forced a separation.

When M.J. is dealing with the law, her 87-year-old mother manages the pet store, which she started after careful research that concluded the pet industry is booming. She was predisposed to the idea, though, because of her 12-year-old black Lab, Lady Justice (Justi for short). She was M.J.’s constant companion at the office until the amputation of her front left leg three years ago because of cancer.

M.J. told Washingtonian writer Marisa M. Kashino that the pet business is a good balance to her legal practice because people are happy when they come to shop for a pet, as opposed to their mood when they come to see about a divorce.

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W&L Psychology Project Examines Cell-Phone Usage and Adolescent Health

How are changing patterns of communication associated with the health and well-being of teenagers?

Washington and Lee psychology professor Karla Murdock and Robert E. Lee scholars Sarah Gorman, a senior from Moores Hill, Ind., and Melissa Derby, a junior from Estelline, S.Dak., are tackling that question in a pilot study this summer.

Texting has become the most popular form of communication between teenagers, surpassing cell-phone calls, landline calls, face-to-face conversation and e-mails. This finding, published by the Pew Research Center in 2010, is probably not news to teenagers and their parents. But a closer look at the statistics reveals just how quickly and substantially communication has changed. According to the study, 72 percent of teenagers aged 12–17 are texting, up from 51 percent in 2006. One in three teens sends more than 100 texts per day—about 3,000 per month.

“Cell phone use has increased rapidly and has become ubiquitous, especially among adolescents and early adults,” said Murdock. “I’m sure there’s good and bad that will come of the trend, but it is amazing how little research has examined its implications for teenagers.”

According to the same Pew study, 75 percent of teenagers aged 12–17 owned a cell phone in 2010, up from 45 percent in 2004. And while there have been concerns about the health effects of new technologies in the past, from television to the Internet, Murdock and her team are curious whether cell phone usage has different repercussions.

“The thing that makes cell phone use particularly interesting to us is that it’s a form of communication accessible at all times,” said Murdock. “Many people feel a compulsion to answer their phone, check a new text, or text right back. In fact, the literature suggests in some circles there is a social expectation for immediate responding via cell phones.”

Some research has explored safety issues relating to texting and driving. However, it is unclear how mobile phone habits and social expectations may affect teenagers’ overall communication patterns and well-being.

With children using cell phones at a younger age, health-related issues may start cropping up even earlier. “I’ve talked to elementary school guidance counselors in this area who are seeing more and more  cell phone use among their students,” said Murdock. Will cell-phone use affect their ability to communicate face-to-face, or influence the development of their reading and writing skills?

Gorman and Derby, both psychology majors, spent the first part of the summer working with Murdock to create a one-hour survey concerning communication and well-being. The team prepared a successful project proposal for W&L’s Institutional Review Board (IRB), an ethics panel that reviews all projects using human and animal subjects. Murdock and the students are now recruiting 50 high school students, along with a parent, to participate in the Communication and Health in Adolescence (CHA) Study (see sidebar).

To create the best questions and methods for the survey, Gorman and Derby analyzed the latest psychological literature about communication in adolescence. They also reviewed various ways to measure the psychological constructs in the study, from standardized questionnaires previously deemed valid and reliable to different modes of behavioral observation.

“There are a handful of measures out there for the material we’re studying that have already been validated in previous research,” said Gorman. “And if there isn’t an existing measure of something, we can still build off the results of other studies to create a new measure.”

More recently they’ve been fine-tuning their questions and “just making sure that the survey is as efficient as it can be,” said Gorman. “There are a lot of nuances in building a good survey.”

Since this project is a pilot study, with a small subject pool, the primary goal is to get a better understanding of the key issues associated with adolescent well-being and communication. “We’re trying to build a foundation for future research,” said Derby.

— by Amy Balfour ’89, ’93L

News Contact:
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs
jhanna@wlu.edu
(540) 458-8459

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