Carnegie Mellon University
March 09, 2015

Ph.D. in Rhetoric Student Wins First Round of Thesis Competition

Stack was only permitted to use this one PowerPoint slide during his presentation.Stack was only permitted to use this one PowerPoint slide during his presentation.

Garrett Stack’s research project, “Damming the Romantics,” took one year to complete, but he only had three minutes to explain it to a panel at CMU’s Three-Minute Thesis Competition (3MT®).

The internationally recognized competition challenges Ph.D. students to present an engaging presentation on their thesis in language anyone could understand.

Stack’s presentation on the Sierra Club’s involvement in debates over two dams earned him a win at the first round of the competition. He’ll move on to compete in the championship, April 7, for a chance to win up to $3,000.

“The competition is a great way to begin thinking about how you are going to talk about your research to someone other than your adviser,” said Stack, a Ph.D. in Rhetoric student in his third year.

“All Ph.D. students, no matter what their fields, need to be able to produce brief summaries of their dissertation projects that are clear to people in other fields, and that's exactly what this contest is about,” said Barbara Johnstone, professor of English and Linguistics, as well as Stack’s dissertation adviser. “It also encourages students to think about ways of presenting their work other than the traditional conference paper, a skill that is becoming more and more important.”

Stack said the amount of teaching that English Department Ph.D. students do helped him to win. Giving three to six lectures per week enabled him to feel comfortable speaking.

“I think it was easier for me because I just treated it like another lecture (albeit a really short one),” said Stack.

Stack was up against about five other presenters from a variety of departments ranging from Chemistry to Business to Engineering. Another challenge for presenters: each one was allowed only one static slide to use as a visual aid.

“I was certainly surprised I won,” said Stack. “There were a lot of really neat projects in my group and a lot of great presenters.”

Stack’s rhetoric research project focuses on why the Sierra Club lost the debate over the Hetch Hetchy Valley, Calif. dam in 1915 and then won the debate over the Dinosaur National Monument dam located on the Colorado-Utah border 25 years later.

“Damming the Romantics” examines the transition from arguments based on Romantic tropes, or commonly used themes, to more complex arguments that utilize and blend a number of rhetorical tactics to create public support.

Stack used the Sierra Club archives as a resource to examine this argumentative shift with the goal of discovering what made the Dinosaur National Monument dam campaign so successful, and how this strategy might be repeated to affect change in modern damming debates, such as the current one surrounding the un-damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley dam.

If he wins the championship, Stack plans to use his cash prize towards funding his trip to the Sierra Club archives at the University of California, Berkeley.

Eleven doctoral students, including Stack, will compete in CMU's 3MT Championship April 7, from 5 p.m. until 6:30 p.m. in Rashid Auditorium, Gates Hillman Center. The event is free and open to the public. Learn more about the competition here.