Member Profile: Tony Atkins – WPA and Undergraduate Research Mentor

by Sarah Paterson


Dr. Anthony Atkins is an associate professor of English at UNC-Wilmington and the current president of CarolinasWPA. His work in writing program administration began while he was working on a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition at Ball State University, when he served as a graduate assistant for their writing program, and eventually ran a writing center and a “developmental” writing program. From 2007 to 2012, he was the Composition Coordinator at UNC-W and oversaw the university’s required two-course composition program. Currently, he specializes in integrating technologies, applied learning, curriculum development, and professional development, and involving undergraduate students in research projects.


Tony Atkins with Susan Miller-Cochran at the 2014 CarolinasWPA event at CCCC.
Tony Atkins with Susan Miller-Cochran at the 2014 CarolinasWPA event at CCCC.

Research, he says, can teach English students vital skills that will help them later in life. Through working on a research project, students gain an understanding of style guides, research designs and methodologies, as well as how to formulate good questions and present data in both qualitative and quantitative ways. “Paramount to being successful in any field or occupation is the ability to understand data, but even more importantly to write about and communicate data to others,” Atkins said. “Cultivating undergraduate research helps students further understand the nature of argument and persuasion and illustrates that writers and communicators have the power to control the display and interpretation of types of data, statistics, and arguments.”


According to Atkins, Honors students at UNC-W who work on undergraduate projects are doing graduate-level work. Students completing research in Wilmington’s professional writing and rhetoric/composition programs “often become IRB certified, develop (and revise) research questions, determine the best method and methodology [for their projects], and often they also learn about technologies that can help them collect, distribute, and display data and results.”


Atkins is currently working on research projects with two ENG Honors students – one with senior Tabitha Shiflett on “The Rhetoric of Fashion” which includes a rhetorical analysis of Vogue and Cosmopolitan magazines, and one with student Aaron Weekes, whose research about Gorgias and Nietzche he presented at the CarolinasWPA retreat last fall. With these projects, Shiflett and Weekes have been able to attend conferences, get involved with events for non-profit organizations, and win grants from UNC-W for conducting research.


There are some struggles to working on research with undergraduate students. “Undergraduates sometimes have a notion about what they want to do (or research) and when it does not quite work out the way they think it will, they sometimes become ‘frozen,’” Atkins says. Instead, undergraduates should be taught about research more broadly and have an open mind about what kinds of questions, methodologies, and styles they can use to conduct research, because “when things do not work out the way one thinks they will during a research project, that is often the place to begin.” Students should keep in mind that “one can research almost anything imaginable” and be open to their research going in unexpected – and compelling – directions.


Atkins notes that many professors are hesitant to engage students in undergraduate research projects due to a common lack of “tangible rewards” offered to university faculty for this type of teaching. He suggests an alternative. “I think that if universities recognized faculty who take time to teach undergraduates how to conduct research, publish research with them, or attend/present at conferences with them that it would be much more likely that university professors would involve undergraduates in their research,” he said.


Fortunately for Atkins, UNC-W encourages students to pursue research projects and often provides technology, equipment, travel funds, and even stipends for undergraduates doing research work. UNC-W also hosts ceremonies every fall and spring to celebrate student work. Additionally, they recognize faculty who take on a mentorship role in undergraduate research. “I can say, too, that this part of the job is definitely the most rewarding and the most fun I have every year,” Atkins says.


Sarah Paterson is an English major at Elon University with a concentration in Professional Writing and Rhetoric. She is completing an undergraduate thesis about multicultural rhetoric in adolescent slam poetry.