Pieces of the Puzzle

Erica Sterling Pic

by Erica Sterling  15C

I had been scrolling through my forty-two page chapter on my computer for two hours. Cutting and pasting sentences and paragraphs, painfully discarding hard work into a document labeled “Chapter 2: Junk Writing.” There were sections that I loved because they were well-written, thoughtful, organized. But there were many more parts – much scarier sections – that made me wonder how I ever made it to my senior year of college. The language was trite, sentences read out loud made me pause for breath, the same verbs were repeated too many times, transitions were nonexistent, and anecdotes that I once thought were relevant and compelling bored me.

As much as I wanted to give up and try again later, I couldn’t. I didn’t have the time. It was a Friday afternoon, the sun was finally shining, and I had told my thesis advisor that by Friday, February 27, chapter two would be submitted. As soon as I emailed her a week prior with the self-assigned deadline, I considered it a contract that couldn’t be broken. The only way I was going to finish my thesis was by sticking to these deadlines.

Another hour went by, and still, there wasn’t an ounce of seamlessness or clarity throughout the chapter. My eyes were tired from staring at the screen, and I grew tired of moving back and forth between page six and page twenty-two, where I felt that the ideas expressed could be joined together. I thought back to a story my roommate told me about her time in the first grade; how the teacher instructed the students to simply erase the words they didn’t want, or cut – with scissors – the words they felt were in the wrong place, and paste them elsewhere. This was a tactile writing activity, one that was probably used to engage the children as they practiced a new skill. And I thought to myself, “Maybe I should try that.”

So I printed the twenty-seven page, single spaced chapter (forty-three double spaced would have been too overwhelming) and laid the pages out on the ground in three rows. I began to re-read, marking up the pages with my red pen, crossing bits out. I used scissors to cut out whole sentences and paragraphs, and shuffled the pieces around trying to make sense of the chaos I had created. I sat on the ground for hours amongst scraps of paper as an office mate occasionally laughed at how ridiculous the sight must have been.

But there was something oddly therapeutic about being able to see the whole chapter laid out in front of me, and how I could physically shift ideas as I edited. By the end of the day, the chapter still had its flaws. And I left the Fox Center that night with more tasks added to my to-do list. But I no longer felt (entirely) hopeless about chapter two of my thesis. The pieces of the puzzle would eventually come together.

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Engaging Historical Discourse

Ostdiek Picby Bennett Ostdiek 15C

Over the course this semester, I have filled up my bookshelf in my office at the Fox Center with countless volumes on subjects relating to the Civil War, Confederate diplomacy, Anglo-Americans relations in the 1860s, and 19th century British newspaper practices. The shelves practically groan under the weight of thousands of pages and millions of words written as far back as the 1860s and a recently as last year.

This bookshelf represents everything that I love about both my fellowship at the Fox Center and the process of writing my honors thesis. It is an incredible thing to have a desk and bookshelf dedicated to my private use. They give me a place to call home during the long hours of writing and research and make me feel like a legitimate scholar rather than a college student flying by the seat of his pants. These resources have made the act of writing my thesis much more fulfilling than it would have been otherwise.

But my bookshelf has also been of practical value. With all these books on related subjects in the same place, I have a treasure trove of interconnected information at my disposal. The number of times that I have followed the trail of footnotes from one book on my shelf to another has been astounding.

Upon first recognizing this phenomenon, I was simply grateful that my bookshelf saved me from having to take extra trips to the library. However, I soon realized the broader implications of this phenomenon – all the books on my shelf are engaging in a dialogue with each other.

As I read more and more, I eventually became an incredibly informed observer in that dialogue. As I read different account of the same historical event, I came to recognize the questions that historians were asking about the issue and the different sides involved in the debate.

And as I became aware of more and more of these debates, a strange thing started happening – I found myself taking sides and developing my own opinion on these issues. At the same time, I began to see the ways in which my research touched on these debates, giving credence to some beliefs and contradicting others.

And at that point I realized that I was not longer an observer of the dialogue that was taking place on my bookshelf, but had become a participant. And, in my opinion, therein lies the essence of writing an honors thesis. It is about the transformation from being a student into a scholar.

When I look at the books on my shelves now, they are immeasurably more meaningful to me than they were when I first began this process. This is not only because I now understand much more of what they are trying to say, but also because I now know that I do not agree with everything that they are saying. This disagreement does not stem from any fault of the books. Rather, it is simply a part of me becoming a participant in their dialogue.

From Word to Movement

by Sarah Freeman 15CDancePicMy friends tell me that when I walk around campus they can always pick me out from the number of bags I am carrying. There hasn’t been a backpack invented that can handle a laptop, chargers, 7 packs of gum, water bottle, seltzer bottle, coffee mug, 2 notebooks, a folder, running shoes, change of sweatpants and a sports bra, lapa skirt for African class, sculpture reflection for modern dance class, packed lunch, silly string and candy bar props for rehearsal, costumes for 21 dancers, and 17 library books. For three years I embraced the bag lady look, even playing it up with a homeless style hairdo that was really just laziness. Being a dance major is a different kind of study all together, so the supplies I need are much different from a normal student, and usually I am happy to get a workout by lugging around 50 pounds of life. But last fall, when I started choreographing my senior honors thesis concert and researching for my corresponding paper, things got out of control. My car looked like a person had lived in it for 4 years with leftover snacks and enough changes of clothing for the entire dance department. It might sound silly and unimportant, but a physical space of my own on campus was the greatest gift anyone could have given me.

The Fox Center Fellowship came in with just that gift, and the small office I have on Clifton Road has been invaluable this semester. I can store my books on the bookshelf, my costumes in the closet, retreat from the rest of the campus into a comfortable desk and get a cup of coffee. Motivation comes in all forms. For me as a dancer, the physical location is almost as important as how my body feels, how tired I am, what deadlines are coming up, in inspiring or forcing me to get to work. My thesis is both paper and performance, and the latter aspect is a continuous source of inspiration. I work with a cast of 10 phenomenal dancers to create two dance pieces based off the writings of Flannery O’Connor, in particular the short story The Displaced Person. It’s easy to come to rehearsal excited to create with my friends, or to reread and reimagine a brilliantly bizarre piece of writing. I find it much harder to motivate myself to sit down and research methods of combining dance and text, or write about my process.

O’Connor was forced to move back to her childhood home in Milledgeville, GA after being diagnosed with lupus at age 25. My thesis performance examines how physical limitations both affected her interpersonal relationships and provided a writing environment of rich landscape and emotional intensity. Having the environment of the Fox Center as location of sanctuary and retreat on campus gave me a new and particular understanding of how the routine and comfort of O’Connor’s setting played into the development of her work. As the date of my thesis performance approaches (2 weeks!) I know that whether I need to hole myself up in a cozy room to write or lay outside on the grass to de-stress, the physical location of my process will make its way into the work itself, just it did for O’Connor.

Freeman’s senior honors thesis All Being Displaced: Movement Translations of Flannery O’Connor will be presented in the Schwartz Center Dance Studio on March 26 and 27 at 8 pm. Admission is free and no reservations are required.

The Space of Scholarship

Jovonna Jones Pic

   by Jovonna Jones 15C

I am a space person. I grew up watching my dad reorganize the thousands of books in his office to let more light in. I relished choosing the honeydew melon green main color for my room, for I knew that hue would make all the difference in my budding teenage awareness. For as long as I can remember, space, to me, has always coincided with the possibilities of life—or at least how I could make room to think about it. So when I learned about the benefits of communal and office space through the Fox Center fellowship, I yearned for the opportunity to surround myself in the energy of learning, where scholarly contributions line the walls, coffee awaits in the kitchen, and our only purpose in this space is to explore the expanse of humanistic knowledge.

To be a humanities undergraduate can be quite lonely at Emory, especially when you have the gall to know your work matters. With humanities relegated to the broad world of liberal arts, it began to feel like I was deeply passionate about the material that other students only engaged in to add on to their more “practical” career paths. As much pride as I have in my African-American Studies major, it can feel hard to feel like the only support you receive is within your department. Luckily, my mentors in AAS introduced me to the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship early on in my time at Emory, so I was able to find affirming independent research spaces leading to the Fox Center honors thesis fellowship. Nevertheless, I never knew there was an entire space/place dedicated to humanistic inquiry, appreciative of this particular knowledge process.

What happens in the Fox Center is really quite miraculous. “Humanities” is an umbrella for a slew of disciplines with their own politics, biases, theories, etc., although we all deal with the nuances of the human condition. In each office, scholars are tackling such important work, and sometimes, they are the only ones in the university doing their specific work. Imagine how isolating that can be. For example, my work focuses on the visually-based philosophic trajectory of Blackness in America, and I argue that the photographic realm reveals structures of being that extend beyond Western modernist notions of “the human.” While I have loved the mentorship I have received from professors in multiple disciplines, in and outside of Emory, I still had this yearning to feel like my scholarship had a place in this University—that there was extra space and resources just for humanities folk. Just like business school students can go to the B-school library, law students can go to the law library, chemistry students meet up in the lab, etc. etc., I wanted somewhere to go where other students were engulfed in the same sense of humanistic complexity, even if we were working on completely different topics. I wanted to be in a space where I know others are dedicated to elucidating the fabrics of humanity, however it ends up manifesting to us.

Even though I have not yet been able to attend the Center’s events and lunches, the Fox Center houses have affirmed in me a sense of scholarly place in the University. Every time I see the undergraduates’ names on the plaque in the front corridor along with accomplished graduate students and faculty, I remember that our ideas matter. Furthermore, I am motivated by the possibilities our scholarship can unfold when we have the intentional space to really to think and create.

An Unusual Routine

by Nathaniel Meyersohn 15C

A month ago, when I began the writing process, I was behind on my thesis. My advisor was worried. My parents were too. Even I was not pleased with the direction my project was headed and began to question whether I was capable of dedicating three months to the challenge. My doubt vanished as soon as I settled into my new office at the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry and began carving out a draft of the first chapter of my thesis on Charles L. Weltner, who represented Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District from 1963-1967. My project seeks to examine Weltner’s progressive racial attitudes and explain his vote in favor of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act against the backdrop of the civil rights movement and the tumultuous period in the region. Building on the political history of the twentieth-century South, I feel, however slightly, that I’m contributing to our understanding of Weltner’s overlooked place in the era.

My passion for studying Weltner’s career, dormant for a semester, has awoken once again with the help of the Fox Center. The Center has not only provided me with a place to park my books and notes, but it has become my home. I spend more time at 1635 North Decatur Road than I do at my own apartment. I’ve embraced the Center’s relaxed atmosphere and often tell people that I walk around the Center in my socks.

I make coffee in the downstairs machine, read the Center’s daily subscription of The New York Times in the seminar room, and write my thesis in my shared upstairs office without my shoes. Some days I wear white Nike’s. Other days I walk around in my polka-dot blues. But I have a routine, and my fellow undergraduates and the Fox Center’s dedicated administration—Mr. Anthony, Ms. Erbil, and Ms. Barlow—accept my oddities. I had the great honor of meeting the late Bill Fox last spring while he was working for Michelle Nunn’s Senate campaign, and we emailed in the months before he passed away. I know he would have been interested in my thesis on Charles L. Weltner, who served in Congress just years before Mr. Fox began his remarkable career at Emory, and I have a feeling he would not mind my habit, either. (I promise my feet are clean.)

I’m excited to head to the office each day early in the morning, walk up the stairs, take off my shoes, and dive into the next chapter of Weltner’s career and my own growth as a writer, thinker, and historian. I’m at home.

Challenging Scholarship

Lizzie Howell pic copy

 

by Lizzie Howell 15C
Managing Editor, The Emory Wheel

 

One of my least favorite assignments in history courses is the book review (sorry, professors!).

It’s a typical assignment — you select a book, read it, and write a short paper critically assessing its argument and position compared to other works.

It’s not the hundreds of pages of reading that deters me. It’s the critical analysis of the book, which, unfortunately for me, is arguably the most important part of the assignment. When I had to write my first book review in preparation for my thesis, a little over a year ago, I was shocked at this portion of the assignment. First, how could someone with a PhD publish a book that did not have a sound argument? Second, how was I — an undergraduate student — going to identify its potential shortcomings?

In hindsight, perhaps my concerns were unwarranted. I came to realize that critiquing a book did not mean I had to find fault with it. Also, the books I read were well established in the field I chose to study; their arguments had few holes for me to find. However, since beginning research for my thesis, I have learned that this is not always the case. Scholars often disagree with one another, and their arguments can be controversial, if not suspect. But, most importantly, I now know that I am allowed to disagree with them.

For much of my history education, studying meant diligently pouring over the assigned books and committing their content to memory; there was no discussion of whether that content was correct. For this reason, critiquing such books was daunting — and a little outside of my comfort zone.

But the process was only beginning. Over the past year, professors have continuously asked me how my thesis is different from the existing scholarship. At times, it still feels unnatural to talk as if my project is actually in a conversation with the works that have defined my area of study.

Prior to writing a thesis, I associated scholarship with the bookish academic, isolated and safe in the ivory tower of the university. The road that has led to my thesis, however, has often felt a bit risky. From traveling abroad to Vienna, where I discovered an interest in my topic, to reading primary and secondary sources in German, I have encountered new problems and situations that have shaped me as a student.

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My time at the Fox Center has undoubtedly contributed to my personal intellectual growth. I have continued to be challenged as one of few undergraduate students engaging in conversation with graduate students and professors at the Faculty Response Forum. I have also gained a sense of belonging to a community of scholars, even if everyone is consumed with their own projects most of the time.

The Fox Center is a sanctuary of sorts. As an undergraduate fellow, I have access to a quiet space to work — complete with coffee, printing, and space to store my books — at all hours of the day and night. However, in addition to these material amenities, the center had provided me with something less tangible — the opportunity to continue to find my own scholarly voice.