Taught as part of the Genre and Audience cluster, the WR 150 seminar “Global Documentary” asks students to design independent research projects entirely motivated and shaped by their interests. For Gayle Tan, whose essay won one of this year’s prizes, the question she pursues—What challenges do internationally adopted children face in forming their identities?—emerged from her experiences as an international student from Singapore. As she reflected early in the research process, “[I]t was living away from home that helped me to see how big a part my nationality and race play in determining who I am.”

Gayle sought answers to her questions by locating two documentaries that represent in different ways the experiences of American children adopted from China. Drawing on historical and anthropological scholarship, Gayle demonstrates how concerns about identity imbue all international adoption discourse, even if such concerns aren’t directly acknowledged. In the process, she challenges the optimistic assurances of the documentary Wo Ai Ni Mommy and anthropologist Signe Howell. And she reveals, through the adoptees’ words and physical gestures, an underlying anxiety and confusion. Gayle’s analysis of evidence from the films is a particular strength of this stellar essay.

What can Gayle’s essay teach us about designing and executing a research project? She answers this question with the same insight that she brings to the finished project: “to conduct my research with an open mind, and to explore different material without a preconceived idea of what I wanted to find.”

WR 150: Global Documentary