Oberlin Blogs

It is an honor!

May 17, 2011

Patrick Doherty ’11

Now that I've completely finished the honors process, I've decided that it is time to blog about the experience. Please bear with me as this is one of those ridiculously long, nerdy blog posts that I enjoy so much.

I declared my history major by the end of my first year (read more about my journey to the history major here). By midway through my sophomore year, I had decided that I wanted to do honors. I don't really know what caused me to make up my mind, but I knew that it was something that I wanted to do.

Before I go on, let me clarify a couple things. Each department has different major requirements. Most of the departments have some sort of honors program, but each department's honors program is different. The details about honors in this post apply only to the history department's current honors program.

Even though I had made up my mind about honors, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to research. The more classes I took, the more diverse my interests became. During my second year, Diana Shull was at Oberlin as a visiting professor and taught 5 courses about British and European history. I took three of them - Disease and Public Health in Europe, The Social History of European Consumerism, and Prejudice and Policy in Victorian Britain. These classes caused me to fall in love with social history and with British history. Though I had a brief flirtation with French history my first year, I was convinced that I wanted to focus on British history for my honors thesis.

Enter Pete Soppelsa. Pete Soppelsa was at Oberlin as a visiting professor during my third year. I took two classes with him my junior year - European Modernities from 1789 to 1989, and Science and Technology in World History. Pete Soppelsa is a French historian by trade and I began to fall in love with French history all over again.

At the same time I was taking classes with Pete Soppelsa, I was taking private reading courses with Professor Ari Sammartino (who would eventually become my honors advisor). Private readings offer students the opportunity to work one-on-one with a faculty member and explore a topic that isn't covered by a typical class. In the fall of my junior year, my private reading focused on liberalism and imperialism in 19th-century Britain. On the surface, these two ideologies appear to be in conflict and I wanted to explore how 19th-century Britons were able to rationalize what I believed to be the inherent conflicts between these two ideologies. Turns out this was way less interesting than I thought it was. This derailed what I believed might be my honors topic, so I was forced to reassess my options.

When thinking about aspects of history that I found particularly intriguing during my first two-and-a-half years at Oberlin, I found myself returning to world's fairs. I approached Professor Sammartino with the idea of researching the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition. She pointed out that a significant amount of research already exists on this particular exhibition and that I might find another exhibition to be a better research option. She actually suggested at looking into some of the French expositions, since I had an interest in French history. We narrowed it down to either the 1889 or the 1900 Paris World's Fairs and I set about prepping for honors through my last winter term project.

This photo is from the 1900 Exposition. The Eiffel Tower was built for the 1889 Exposition, which commemorated the centennial of the French Revolution.

I've blogged about my winter term experiences before, but let me recap the important aspects of this particular winter term. I read four books - two about the 1889 expo and two about the 1900 expo - with the goal of narrowing down my topic of choice. I picked the 1900 expo for a few reasons. First, very little historiographical research exists on the 1900 expo. Second, of the research that does exist, it usually focuses on one particular aspect of the expo - art, architecture, etc. Third, I thought that investigating the turn-of-the-century would be interesting and that I might be able to contextualize the long nineteenth century. For those of you who don't know, the long nineteenth century refers to the periodization of Europe from 1789 (or 1791, depending on whether you believe the French Revolution begins with the publication of Déclaration des droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen or the declaration of the first French republic) until 1914 (or 1918, depending on whether you believe the outbreak of the Great War had a more significant impact than the close of the First World War).

One of my favorite discoveries when researching the 1900 Exposition was footage from the fair that has been uploaded to YouTube. I still can't get over how awesome it is to be able to watch videos like this.

My private reading in the spring of my junior year was devoted to historiographical research on world's fairs and simultaneously drafting the prospectus required by the history department in order to apply for honors. My seven-page prospectus went through six drafts (yes, you read that correctly) before Professor Sammartino would let me submit the prospectus to the department. About a week later I received an email from Len Smith notifying me of the approval of my honors topic.

I was able to effectively summarize my research topic in my prospectus into the following sentence: "This thesis...will explore debates concerning modernity [in the fin de siècle] through the reactions of the British and the French press to the 1900 Exposition Universelle."

Bam. My honors topic was approved! My excitement was not enough to eliminate my laziness, however, and I did absolutely no work whatsoever on my thesis over the summer. My bad.

Professor Sammartino was on leave during the first semester of my honors research, so I paired with Professor Smith during my initial research process. Historical research is slow and often frustrating. My research involved reading newspaper article upon newspaper article only to find that after hours of reading I had maybe five articles that would be useful. I was not alone in my frustration, however, and the honors seminar gave all the history honors students ample opportunity to discuss research woes and accomplishments.

The honors seminar met every other week throughout the honors project, giving us honors students a built-in support system as well as a way to keep each other accountable. We started off meeting in the library, but our meetings were soon moved to Professor Lasser's house. We would meet in her living room and discuss our research while sipping a variety of beverages and munching on tasty snacks. I was surprised that though each of our topics were completely different, we all were encountering similar situations in our research. The nice thing about having 5 other students also doing an honors thesis is that we were all able to talk about our issues and have people who were able to relate to our struggles and successes.

My fall semester became overwhelmingly busy (so much so that I opted to give up more than one of my extracurricular obligations) and I began to falter in my research process towards the end of the semester. I felt confident, however, that I had enough research to dive into writing my thesis.

The Porte Monumentale served as one of the entrances to the Exposition. It was criticized for its over-the-top design and grotesque appearance.

I should also note that at some point along the way I stumbled into a wealth of sources about the 1900 Exposition that came from US sources. When I realized how involved the Americans were in the fair, I opted to include the US sources as a third country for comparison in my thesis, despite my embarrassing lack of training in US history.

Fall semester came to a close and I had a (very broad) outline of my thesis. My goal for winter term was to draft my introduction. I was home for part of winter term, so I ventured to my hometown's library on several occasions in order to work on my intro. This first attempt at my introduction was painful. Nothing was flowing the way I wanted, my argument was disjointed, and, at times, I didn't even know what I was trying to say. I learned a very painful lesson this winter term about my writing - if it doesn't flow naturally, it isn't worth using. I'm pretty sure it took me at least two weeks to write 10 pages. That pace is extraordinarily slow, especially since I often write quickly.

At the end of winter term I sent my 10-page introduction to my advisor and awaited her response. Two days after I sent Professor Sammartino my introduction she emailed me back, outlining her concerns with what I had written thus far. She basically didn't tell me anything I didn't already know, but it was an extraordinarily frustrating experience. I had to scrap my entire introduction and start from scratch.

This was the first time I seriously doubted my ability to complete this thesis. I will not lie - I definitely cried more than once during this entire process, and this was the first time that I broke down in tears of frustration and self-doubt. It took me a couple weeks before I could even seriously begin to approach my thesis again - a dangerously long period considering the fact that I had about three months to write and edit my thesis. I persevered and, after a series of discussions with Professor Sammartino, was able to begin writing again.

After several attempts at writing without a strict schedule, we came up with a schedule where I was writing a chapter per week. I actually ended up writing my chapters in reverse order. The introduction ended up being the second-to-last section that I drafted, with the conclusion coming last. Every week I would write a chapter (often waiting till far too close to when I was supposed to send it to my advisor...shhh!). Jordan would scold me every time I was up late writing a chapter because she knew that, being a self-proclaimed procrastinator, I had waited until the last minute to draft that particular section.

Fun fact: Campbell's Soup won a blue ribbon at the 1900 Exposition, a fact they still display on all their soup can labels.

Just when I thought things couldn't get worse, I encountered two more rather major snags in my process. Around the beginning of March, I lost the notebook with the vast majority of my thesis notes. To this day, I have absolutely no idea where it went. This meant that I was forced to reread sources, take notes, and insert said sources into my thesis. I avoided talking to people about this snag because I was embarrassed by the fact that I was irresponsible to not have my notes in duplicate and that I was careless enough to actually lose my honors notes. This is another one of those moments when I seriously doubted my status as a prospective honors student. Nevertheless, I persevered.

The most frustrating and terrifying part of my thesis process was when my computer crashed less than 6 hours before I was due to leave Oberlin for my cousin's wedding. Granted, my chapters existed in electronic form thanks to the fact that I emailed them to my advisor for comments, but, once again, I had managed to lose notes about my sources. I had backed up my computer earlier in the semester, but not recently enough that I didn't end up losing some notes and sources. I was able to recover almost everything, but, once again, the fates were conspiring against me to try to break my spirit.

I somehow managed to have a full draft (without a conclusion) by the beginning of April. I began the rather extensive editing process after spring break and, with the help of Jordan, began polishing what would become my 51-page thesis. My conclusion was drafted the Sunday before my thesis was due. On the Monday before my thesis was due, I sent my draft to Professor Sammartino for final comments. She read through my thesis once more, gave me about 15 comments of varying scale, and I polished until Friday, 29 April, when I submitted my thesis to my three readers.

Each history department honors thesis has three readers. Because she was my thesis advisor, Professor Sammartino was required to be a reader for my thesis. My other readers were Professor Len Smith (who kept tabs on me while Professor Sammartino was on maternity leave) and Professor Renee Romano, whom I had met once prior to my thesis defense.

My thesis defense took place the Thursday after I submitted my thesis to Professors Sammartino, Smith, and Romano. The defense itself went slightly better than I had anticipated. Part of it was due to the fact that the interactions among Professors Sammartino, Smith, and Romano were rather amusing and part of it was due to the fact that I felt like I was able to provide satisfactory answers to most of their questions. Professor Sammartino asked me some tough questions near the end of my defense, but I survived (barely). My favorite memory of my defense is and always will be Professor Smith using a Nat King Cole song and the 1964 New York World's Fair to transition into his questions about my thesis.

Having completed my defense, all that remained was for me to give a 6-minute presentation on my thesis. I opted to go for the entertaining route with my presentation, attempting to fuse the academic aspects of my thesis with what can only be described as incredibly dorky humor. I managed to include my favorite quote from my research, which got quite a few laughs (much to my pleasure).

The Palace of Electricity was a featured component of the 1900 Exposition. It was central to one of the chapters of my thesis and was the main focus of my presentation.

And now I'm done! The end result of this process was a 51-page thesis entitled "Fin de rêve: Reactions in the British, French, and American Press to the 1900 Exposition Universelle." I am proud to say that my thesis now exists as part of OhioLINK.

Now that this process is done, I can honestly say that, despite the mishaps along the way, I am glad that I made it through the honors process and produced a paper of which I am quite proud. I wouldn't have been able to make it through this process without the constant support of my friends, family, and, most importantly, Ari Sammartino, my wonderful advisor.

And on that note, I leave you with a quote from my thesis:

"Negative reactions to the 1900 Exposition Universelle in the French, British, and American press began with the tarnishing of France's international reputation due to the resurgence of the Dreyfus Affair. These reactions escalated when, upon the opening of the fair, it became clear that the exposition failed to realize its goals of synthesizing the nineteenth century and creating a vision of the twentieth century. In failing to realize its goals, the Exposition Universelle gave the press a focal point for discussion of the general unease that was characteristic of the fin de siècle; a discussion that was, more often than not, framed in language directly tied to debates about modernity." - ME!

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