The 2020-2021 academic year has presented unprecedented challenges, from a global pandemic to social turmoil, for faculty and students alike. Yet, despite these disruptions and disturbances, six History majors were able to successfully complete Senior Honors Theses. For most students this is the largest and most in-depth project they undertake in their college careers. The rigor of the Honors thesis program is demonstrated by students’ commitment to conducting original research to produce a paper that is, on average, 75 pages long. The students who embark on their thesis projects are supported by a faculty adviser and the instructor of the thesis two-course sequence, led this year by Professor Marcus Bull. This year’s thesis cohort is unique from cohorts of the past in that the exceptional challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic affected these projects from start to finish. Professor Bull remarked that the fact that these thesis students “confronted and dealt with these challenges does all of them great credit.”
This year’s Honors students worked on an impressive range of projects which relate not only to the field of U.S. history, but also to modern European, South African, colonial and gender history. Patrick Clinch and Flannery Fitch worked on nineteenth-century U.S. history. Clinch investigated how the life and career of P.T. Barnum, exemplified through his popular human exhibits, reflected and influenced the racial politics of the Reconstruction Era. Fitch offered a comparative analysis of the diaries of two female spies on opposite sides of the American Civil War. Josh Howard’s and Kasha Seltzer’s theses focus on two important developments of the U.S. twentieth century. Howard researched evangelism and identity in the Orthodox Church in the U.S., while Seltzer’s work unpacks the social, political and institutional consequences of ABSCAM, an FBI investigation in the late 1970s that led to the conviction of six members of the House of Representatives and a senator. Kimathi Muiruri and Jona Boçari, coincidentally the cohort’s only international students, worked on South African history and Italian history respectively. Muiruri analyzed the livelihood and political strategies of African migrant laborers in Durban from 1874 to 1906. Boçari’s work explores the intersection of gender, memory and politics in post-1945 Italy by focusing on the analysis of four autobiographical accounts.
Kimathi Muiruri and Kasha Seltzer shared with me their experiences conducting research and writing an Honors thesis in an academic year as tumultuous as 2020-21. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted both their plans to conduct research over the summer. Seltzer said that her initial topic idea was to focus on the one person, Senator Harrison Williams Jr., and to consult archive papers held at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Because she was unable to go on her research trip, Seltzer had to pivot to working with any digitized documents that were available online. This challenge forced Seltzer to modify her topic, which was discouraging at first but proved far more enjoyable for her later on. Similarly, Muiruri’s plans to travel were also disrupted by the pandemic, causing him to lose access to many sources and to work with online sources instead. For Seltzer, Muiruri and their cohort peers, the ability to think creatively around these challenges proved essential to their work. These strategies included relying on the UNC Library and the loan system, HathiTrust temporary access, digitized primary sources and purchasing books whenever unavoidable and necessary.
Beyond the limited access to primary sources, the remote-learning environment placed an additional burden on the students working on their honors theses. “The fatigue of Zoom classes was worse than previous years of in-person class — no moving around throughout the day, no punctuation with natural breaks, and little social interaction made work exhausting,” Muiruri stated. Seltzer added that the lack of in-person support and limited opportunities to connect with other thesis classmates made this endeavor especially hard. The support provided by faculty advisors helped mitigate some of these challenges. For Muiruri, working with his advisor, Dr. Lauren Jarvis, was one of the best parts: “Her approval and criticisms let me know when I was on the right track and how I could get better. Without that guiding light I would have been overwhelmed.”
Despite the challenges and the toll of isolation and a public health crisis, the experience of starting and finishing an Honors thesis proved extremely rewarding. Seltzer added that she greatly appreciated the opportunity to meticulously research a fascinating topic and the autonomy over the entirety of her project. The successful defense of her year-long work in front of a committee of faculty members was, for Seltzer, “the best feeling. It made it all worth it, because I knew that all my time had been spent in doing good work.”
History majors who complete senior Honors theses showcase their work in the department’s Honors Symposium. This year’s Symposium was held virtually on May 6, 2021 and featured two panels: Conflict Within and Without, and Cultural Adaptations and Resistances. While the Symposium is always an opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of the thesis writers, this year’s Symposium was especially meaningful not just because of the pandemic’s challenges, but mainly because of the determination, creativity and fortitude that we all have shown.