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English undergrad finds online book discussions revealing


Photo of Riki Meier
April 14, 2009

Every year for her birthday, Riki Meier does something she has never done before. One year she went skydiving. The next year she swam with dolphins. Each year, she strives to meet and exceed new challenges for herself.  As an Arizona State University undergraduate student majoring in English, Meier is excelling far beyond her years.

Meier is one of the recipients of the Sun Angel Excellence in the Humanities Research Scholarship. The annual award encourages and supports undergraduate research in the humanities through the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The award helped Meier jump into an analysis of a female online book discussion group called BookTalk. The site is seen at www.WeightWatchers.com.

Meier began her look into online book discussions in fall 2007, while working as a research assistant for Patricia Webb Boyd, an associate professor of English. "Riki is already working at a level that many incoming graduate students have not yet achieved," says Boyd. "Her intelligence is complemented by her enthusiasm and unwavering commitment to learning, growing and her education."

Meier's work with Boyd developed into an independent study course the following semester.

"Dr. Boyd has afforded me the extraordinary opportunity of working side-by-side with her as an intellectual equal on an independent research project," says Meier. "She encourages independent critical thinking and allows my ideas to help shape and define my research."

Throughout her study, Meier implements an analysis from a feminist perspective. Her main research questions for the Sun Angel project are:
• How is the gendered self composed in online discussions?
• How is the gendered self integrated into the everyday identity of the person?

The BookTalk group allows Meier to study a broad female demographic in a single study. Moreover, the women in the group maintain various professions from homemaker to English professor. They are a diverse and meaningful community to investigate.

Meier argues that society has to understand and appreciate the role narrative plays in the construction of everyday identities. The choice of what to write and not write, and read and not read, allows individuals to systematically select what to include in their scope of identity.

"Internet discussions are increasing at an exponential rate in popular culture, yet there has not been sufficient research completed to determine how the self is composed in a new media environment," explains Meier. "A deeper exploration of cybercultural studies is necessary to deconstruct and understand the new online identities being formed, like those in the BookTalk group."

The project is an extension of Meier's Honors' thesis, a requirement for graduation from Barrett, the Honors College at ASU. In addition to her previous research questions, Meier is exploring how the gendered self is composed and presented. Her ultimate goal is to determine how people author their gendered identity within multimodal, online communities. Meier recently defended her thesis in early March. Her paper is set to be a chapter in Boyd's upcoming book entitled Reading and Writing Women's Lives Online: Feminist Analysis of Representations in Weight Watchers Discussion Boards.

"Riki inspires me when my interest has lagged or when I've hit roadblocks in my research," says Boyd.

In addition to her narrative analysis, Meier voluntarily developed and taught an English as a Second Language class in a low-income, high-risk area of Mesa, Ariz. She is also the current president of WORD: Creative Writers at ASU.

"I plan to continue on to graduate school and only the very best education can prepare me for such a task. I seek an institution that reflects those high standards and provides the finest education possible," says Meier.

After graduation, Meier's ultimate goal is to become a professor of English Literature and make a significant contribution to the field of English through research and scholarly publications. The research she has already completed gives her a head start.