One year of work, six archives visited, 800 miles travelled, all of the memory on my laptop taken up by document scans and research notes and draft after draft – and finally, my thesis has been submitted to the department! Looking back on this experience, I can recognize just how intense and rewarding this process has been. Writing this thesis has been the greatest academic challenge of my Dickinson years, but also one of my most meaningful accomplishments. I am both exhausted and 100% sure that I would do it all over again.
I did not know when I decided to pursue the honors thesis that I would spend far more time on this one project than all of my other courses combined. I could not have anticipated the sheer amount of hard work that would go into this research – regularly waking up at 5 am to get in some good writing time before class or spending hours trying to make out tiny print on microfilm or realizing that certain narratives had reached a dead-end and having to start over. There were many moments of frustration. As I learned, they are part of the process.
But I also could not have anticipated the rush of uncovering an amazing primary source, following a footnote to some useful discovery, or finding just the right words to express my thoughts. I was surprised by the sense of duty I felt to this topic as I recognized the importance of telling this forgotten story. As I finished the thesis, I was so excited to share the story of these women who had long been overlooked in other historical narratives. I discovered I loved worked independently, directing my own reading and learning and setting my own standards and schedules. I know that I’ve grown a lot as a researcher, a writer, and a thinker over the past year – and ultimately, it will be these skills that will prepare me for the real world in a way that a classroom-based experience never could.
As I told several juniors and sophomores thinking about doing a thesis a few weeks ago, the honors thesis is one of the most valuable opportunities that the history department offers. As long as you know what you’re getting yourself into, I believe there is no better culmination of your academic trajectory at Dickinson. For those who are beginning the process soon, I’ll offer a bit of advice based on my experiences in hopes that it can make your year just a little bit smoother:
- When choosing a topic, recognize the importance of a (local) source base. While I love my topic, a study of Atlanta is not the most convenient when you’re stuck in Carlisle! Although the History Department generously aided my access to Atlanta archives through a research trip, I also had to rely heavily on internet-based sources given my distance from my research subjects. This project can be a whole lot easier if you choose something with a defined source base that you have continued access to (preferably locally, or else online).
- Leave your pride at the door. A year of tutorial-style courses during my year abroad at Oxford was perhaps the best preparation for my thesis. Not only did it prepare me to self-direct my learning, but it also helped me realize that critiques of my work are opportunities for growth. If you take negative feedback personally, the thesis process will be a long and emotionally taxing year. Reframe failure and struggle as the chance to strengthen your final product, and both your mental health and final product will be better for it.
- Pick your advisor wisely. Professor Pinsker’s support was the true backbone of this project and process. Even beyond our weekly meetings, his incredible investment of his own time and energy into my project was fundamental to its success. At every step, he went above and beyond what was required. I recognized from my internship at House Divided that Professor Pinsker was an excellent editor and a strong supervisor. Even though the topic was a bit outside of his normal historical focus, I knew when I decided to work with him that his high standards, talent for organization, and clarity of feedback would be crucial assets. When you’re considering who to pick as your thesis advisor, think not only of a similar domain of study but also a compatibility of working styles and project expectations.
When you reach this point in senior year, you start to reflect on the experiences that defined your time at Dickinson. Especially since I completed most of my major abroad, the thesis has been one of the most significant events in my Dickinson education. I am very aware that this is not an opportunity available at every school, or even at every department at Dickinson. I am so fortunate to have had this incredible opportunity – and without the support of the department, Professor Pinsker, and Professor Burgin, I know that this project would have never gotten off the ground. Thank you so much for this opportunity – I hope that future students will enjoy the process as much as I have.