Story of a Thesis, Part 1: Conception

(This is the first installment of a multi-part series detailing my undergraduate thesis. See part two, part three, and part four.)

It has been nearly three months since I graduated from college, and almost four months since I submitted the final draft of my senior thesis. I remember dropping off my three freshly-bound copies to the history department in a surprisingly anti-climactic ritual. In my sleep-deprived state, eyes bleary from hours of proofreading close to a hundred pages of my own writing, I experienced more weary relief than triumphant euphoria. Those pages represented the culmination of not only close to two years of work, but in many ways my collegiate career. Despite this, on that day my mind was too burnt out to clearly reflect on the process. Now, with a couple of months to clear my head, I’m ready to revisit the subject. I was always told that you should be able to summarize your thesis in thirty seconds to someone with no prior knowledge of it. This is a modified version of that summary, with a narrative slant on the story and process behind it, and with a special focus on its digital methodology.

The road to my thesis began my sophomore year (2006), when Pomona’s Hart Institute for American History generously gave me a summer research grant. My original proposal included the intention to examine prominent free black merchants in the New England shipping industry. Once at home in Connecticut, I sat down at my computer and had the crippling realization that I might be in over my head. In my grant proposal, I had confidently listed a wide variety of sources, libraries, and archives that I would use. Abstractly thinking about doing research proved much easier than facing the hard reality that I was a 19 year-old who had only a couple of months in order to produce some kind of original historical research that would justify the grant I had received.

This intimidating reality forced me to narrow my topic, so as simply to avoid getting overwhelmed by the challenge ahead of me. I focused my area to a single historical figure: Venture Smith. Smith was born in Africa around 1728 the son of a wealthy regional leader, was kidnapped by slave traders as a child, and sold to a Rhode Island merchant who named his new purchase “Venture.” He spent the next three decades in coastal New England, working under various owners until he managed to purchase his freedom in 1765. Over the next decade, he bought the freedom of his wife, children, and several other slaves and established himself as a prosperous businessman. In 1798, seven years before his death, he dictated an autobiography that survives as a vivid account of northern slavery.

Over the course of the summer, Venture Smith seemed to pop up everywhere I turned. On the very first day I began research, my local newspaper ran an article (the first of many to come) on him. Within the week, I had met the head of an archaeological team who was excavating his former property (which happened to be on the site of a nuclear power plant). Within a month I went on an informal walking tour of another piece of his  former property, led by a UConn professor studying Smith. On this tour I was introduced to John Sweet of UNC, leading national scholar of colonial race and identity and who also happened to be working on a possible biography of Smith. The third person of note on the tour was Connecticut’s state archaeologist, just for good measure. Later that summer I saw a regional museum exhibit which paired paintings with a series of poems composed by the state’s poet laureate, inspired and culled from Smith’s narrative. And the icing on the cake became a project to excavate Smith’s gravesite in an attempt to recover genetic material for DNA analysis. This caught international attention, and included a BBC film crew that ended up making a short documentary of the project. In short, Venture Smith became a historical celebrity.

In the midst of this three-ring circus of film crews, archaeological teams, and nationally-renowned history scholars, was little old me: a teenager with barely two years of college experience. As the full extent of Smith’s popularity as a subject for crowded academic study dawned on me, I became increasingly convinced of the impossibility of completing anything original. The entire experience proved to be a baptism of fire in the perils of doing research on an explosively popular subject. By the time I realized this challenge, I was at an awkward point of no return, as I had already invested too much time into the topic to change course. As such, I decided to take a two-pronged approach to the rest of the summer: collaborate and specialize.

First, instead of trying to engage in an intellectual turf war for the topic, I would embrace the monumental wave of interest and research going on around me. I forced myself to contact anyone and everyone even remotely connected to studying Venture Smith. Second, I needed to carve out a niche for myself, to do something unique and creative in my approach to studying Smith. It was this second realization, of the need for creativity and originality, that would eventually lead me onto the academic and intellectual path that I am still walking down to this day.