Schuylkill students and professor present at national communication conference

An image of two female students and professor with campus mall walk behind them.

Left to right: Valerie Schrader, associate professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State Schuylkill, and two of her undergraduate research students — Courtney Weikel and Sophia Bates.

Credit: Kim Mousseau

SCHUYLKILL, Pa. — Penn State Schuylkill corporate communication students Sophia Bates and Courtney Weikel joined Valerie Schrader, associate professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State Schuylkill, to present peer-reviewed rhetorical research at the National Communication Association (NCA) fall convention. Attendance at national communication conferences has become an annual event for Schrader and her students, in-person or, in this case, virtually.

Bates, Weikel, and Schrader presented three of the four top papers in this year's Theater, Film, and New Multi-Media Division, with Bates and Weikel’s papers named the two top student papers in the division this year. Student papers are written by either graduate or undergraduate students, and it is rare that undergraduates receive this honor.

According to the NCA website, "The NCA annual convention is the single largest gathering of communication teachers, researchers, administrators, students, and professionals. We invite you to share in the experience with over 4,500 member attendees."

Using conflict to reveal self-image

Courtney Weikel, a corporate communication major, is no stranger to national research conferences. This is her second appearance at NCA, and she has previously presented at the Eastern Communication Association conference and the Ohio Communication Association (OCA) conference where she received a top undergraduate paper award and after which her paper was published in the “Ohio Communication Journal.”

Weikel's NCA paper, which resulted from an independent study, represents a rhetorical analysis of the musical "Hamilton." In "Talk Less, Smile More: Exploring Facework Through 'Hamilton''s Lead Characters,” Weikel examines the musical through the framework of facework theory — the focus of her independent study. Facework connects the idea of how the “face,” or a self-image is communicated to others, especially during times of conflict. When one is facing threat or unease, a set of communicative behaviors is used to help maintain the self-perceived image.

In her paper, Weikel explores the relationships of four main characters: Hamilton, Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s wife Eliza, and Eliza's sister Angelica through this analytic construct as they encounter and resolve conflict.

Weikel, a Lion Ambassador and treasurer of the campus chapter of Lambda Pi Eta — the national communication honor society, has decided that this will be her final communication conference and is not currently working on a new project. However, with this NCA conference appearance, she leaves undergraduate research on a high note.

"Courtney is one of my most accomplished research students,” stated Schrader. "She’s had three top papers at NCA and OCA in just two years. She has exceptional editing abilities and excels in just about anything she puts her mind to; I know she will go on to do amazing things."

How characters influence audience perspective

Sophia Bates, a third-year corporate communication major, has previously participated in the Eastern Communication Association conference; however, this is her first NCA experience and her first conference top paper. Bates is a member of the Honors Program and Lambda Pi Eta, and both she and Weikel were inducted into Lambda Pi Eta this semester. Bates is also one of two Penn State Schuylkill students participating in the Penn State Undergraduate Research Ambassador Program. Bates and fourth-year biology major Mike Russell represent two of only three ambassadors from a campus outside University Park.

For this research paper, Bates used the theory of invitational rhetoric to analyze the musical "Memphis." In “Sharing the Music of my Soul: A Rhetorical Analysis of Invitational Rhetoric in the Musical 'Memphis',” Bates asserts that it is through the diversity of characters sharing varied and evolving perspectives that the audience is motivated to understand the perspective of others.

Set in the American south in the 1950s, "Memphis" explores interracial relationships against the backdrop of the nascent American rock-and-roll musical scene. Bates' conference presentation focuses on two lead characters: Felicia Farrell, a Black American singer, and Gladys, the white mother of Felicia’s love interest, as their perspectives shift throughout the musical narrative and are shaped and then changed by the environment. Using invitational rhetoric, Bates suggests that the audience comes to “see the world” through the eyes of the various characters, and through empathy with those characters, finds a deeper understanding of their own beliefs and prejudices.

Bates is also minoring in biology and is interested in a career in health communication. Currently, she and Schrader are looking at graduate schools and programs for Bates.

"Sophia is one of the most talented undergraduate writers and researchers I've ever worked with,” emphasized Schrader. “She is hard-working, shows great attention to detail, and is passionate about the topics she studies. I have no doubt that she is going to make an impact on the health communication field in the future."

Pop culture as a fresh historical lens

Schrader’s contribution, “The Case for Katherine Howard: Reconstructing Public Memory of Henry VIII’s Fifth Queen Through the Musical 'Six,'” follows her recent work on public memory, an idea that broadly describes how a group of people share a collection of memories or information about history or parts of history that may involve selection, interpretation, and even revision.

In Schrader’s paper, she explores how the British musical "Six," a modern take on the six wives of Tudor king, Henry VIII, contributes to a new understanding of Katherine Howard — both as a victim of sexual abuse and her circumstances — thus countering the long-held public memory and historical depictions of Howard as “promiscuous, unintelligent, and careless.” Through her analysis, Schrader suggests that musical theater presents an opportunity to redeem the perception of maligned historical figures who may have previously suffered from negative perceptions through the legacy of public memory.

Using the musical "Six" and the case of Henry VIII’s fifth queen, Schrader suggests a new lens with which to see and understand Howard as a victim of her circumstances and environment.

Schrader has been presenting her research papers at state, regional and national conferences since her graduate school days. Her first NCA paper submission was in 2009, where she earned the best student paper in the Theater, Film, and New Multi-Media Division, where she currently serves as vice chair. While she does participate in other NCA divisions, Schrader considers Theatre, Film and New Multi-Media her home division and is looking forward to the responsibilities of her new role in developing the division programming for next year’s NCA convention.

Undergraduate research

Participation in national conferences, like the NCA and other communication conventions, is a hallmark of undergraduate student research at Penn State Schuylkill. Whether in communication arts or chemistry, collaborative research with faculty and national peer-reviewed research and presentation opportunities are widely available to any undergraduate ready to pursue them.

To learn more about academic, scholarly, and cultural extracurricular activities at Penn State Schuylkill, visit