Alex Duncan, '16 and Ben Strawsburg, '16

September 3, 2014
Student research aims to understand inter-male communication

As Alex Duncan, ’16, interacted with other male students around campus, he noticed a strange phenomenon. “I noticed that a lot of guys at school here weren’t comfortable communicating praise,” he says. “There was this discomfort with intimacy, the notion that you would be perceived as gay if you complimented another guy.”

To Duncan, a double major in rhetoric and communication studies and philosophy, politics, economics and law (PPEL), it seemed strange and unnecessary. He began to wonder if he could remedy the situation using the skills he had learned in the classroom. He recruited classmate Ben Strawsburg, ’16, a Greek, Latin, and math major, and the pair devised a summer research project that they would undertake together. “We wanted to figure out why men were having such difficulty praising each other, and hopefully theorize some ways to improve inter-male communication through encomia,” Duncan says.

What is encomia? “It’s basically praise rhetoric from ancient times; praise in structured and unstructured settings was a large part of their culture,” Strawsburg says. “It dates back to Aristotle’s book of rhetoric, which describes 28 different ways that you can praise another person.”

The pair delved into studying inter-male communication and praise rhetoric, with Strawsburg focusing on ancient texts and the origination of encomia, and Duncan directing his research toward modern rhetorical theory. With support from their faculty mentors — Mari Lee Mifsud in rhetoric and Julie Laskaris in classics — they worked diligently through the summer reading a variety of texts to find information to support their ideas, and writing smaller essays and analyses to fully develop their theories before writing their combined final paper.

Mifsud also connected them with a unique opportunity to share their theories at Corvinus University in Budapest, Hungary. “One of Dr. Mifsud’s colleagues, Petra Aczel, is well-versed in our topic and became a big proponent of our research,” Strawsburg says. “She invited us to work with her and some of her students to get a different perspective on the topic in a post-Soviet environment rather than an American one.”

As Duncan explains, “Hungary’s history with democracy is far newer than ours, and as a result, people interact with each other in different ways than they do in America. They’re afraid of criticizing each other because for so long it was not considered proper.” Aczel is looking to change that culture through her teaching at Corvinus. Duncan and Strawsburg traveled to Budapest in July to share their research with several of her Ph.D. students and receive feedback. 

While they were initially worried that the Hungarian reticence to critique would not yield any useful information, Duncan and Strawsburg quickly learned that Aczel’s students shared her passion for changing the conversation around rhetoric. “The three students we worked with more than made up for the lack of ability to criticize that we encountered in the rest of the country,” Duncan says. “We ended up learning a great deal, and developed a lot of our ideas around encomia through conversations with Dr. Aczel’s students.”

Duncan and Strawsburg are now putting the finishing touches on their joint paper, which they describe as a labor of love. They hope to publish and present at conferences in the coming year. “The end product is stronger because we have both contributed to it,” Duncan says.

Duncan also hopes to find ways to share their research with other men on campus through his fraternity, and by working with Joe Boehman, dean of Richmond College, to encourage men to feel more comfortable with expressing of emotion. “It seems like we’re holding on to a remnant of the past, and we need to get away from that and recognize it’s time for something more enlightened,” he says.