As my thesis research has begun in earnest over the last month, I’ve recognized a few challenges in the process that I think are worth laying out.
First, I’ve realized that by starting with a narrative idea rather than an explicit source base, I’ve made it more difficult for myself as I struggle to find relevant evidence and evaluate it without preconceived ideas of what I should be seeing. Consequently, I’ve been trying to let go of my assumptions and concentrate instead on building a solid collection of primary sources – this means expanding beyond what I had previously conceived as my topic as well as challenging the potential arguments I’d developed before the project began. Easier said than done, but I think that only by ‘unlearning’ what I thought I knew can I foster a functional process of research and analysis. If I were to go at this process again, I would structure my thesis around a rich source base and then worry about differentiating my position from other historiographical contributions later. Ultimately, these challenges are exacerbated by the timeline of applying for funding for a research trip to Atlanta – for the sake of writing proposals, I find it difficult to ‘unlearn’ my assumptions when I need to present my project to outside parties in a comprehensive and meaningful way. Finally, I’m still struggling to focus in on a single character or event – although I’m beginning to develop a cast of characters (particularly black female reformers), I’m still not confident about selecting a central narrative that has a strong collection of primary sources.
Despite its challenges, September hasn’t been entirely rocky. I’m still truly enjoying the process and I’m quite invested in the topic. I’ve particularly enjoyed the investigative genealogical research I’ve begun on ancestry.com. Talking with the 2nd grand-niece of Mattie Childs Bray gave me new insight into her life and role within the family – as well as several photographs of Mattie and her husband, James Bray! I’ve also enjoyed talking to various archivists about their collections – I’ve been so grateful for their kind and helpful assistance as I try to figure out my focus. I’m also starting to develop better research routines. Although I’m somehow spending more time on this project than the rest of my classes combined, I’ve found that blocking out several hour chunks (mostly on Tuesdays and Wednesdays) and then working in an hour or so every night as my research develops has made the workload more manageable.
Overall, the past month has shown me that this process will not always be smooth sailing – but that it’s necessary to pinpoint where you went wrong in order to course correct. Although I’m not quite where I want to be, I think I’m generally on the right track.