1.14 HIST485 Report

What is this?

Over the next 16 weeks I will be doing a weekly blog post about my history thesis. Each post should include things such as book reviews, notes on scheduling, talking over assignments as well as initial drafts. As I’ve talked about in other posts, the history thesis is a huge project that really only has a few due dates to track. Lack of consistent due dates causes me to go into pro-procrastination mode, so I figured weekly blog posts will keep me honest about my progress. Further, it’s a great way for my adviser…or anyone interested in my project to keep up to date. Writing every week should help me constantly think about the project as well as note when I am lagging behind. Dr. Fernsebner said that larger projects tend to move at a “snail’s pace.” The researcher often can’t see the type of project she is making. So who knows maybe writing out what I do every week will make a great progress report.

The First Progress Report

As this is the first week, I spent the majority of my time trying to get organized with paper work, know when the due dates are, and settle into a new semester. Even though it’s the first week, the history department at UMW encourages students to dig into their projects over breaks before the semester even starts. I have to admit that the little bit of legwork this winter gave me a lot of material with which to start. Dr. McClurken (current chair of the department) had a meeting with us to discuss the syllabus. It’s a serious project that requires major effort.

Thinking Thesis Topic

Saying what one’s topic is can be the hardest part about the project. It requires pegging some ideas down, not too mention solidifying just what you have decided to research. In the simplest way, I will be researching Chinese script reform during the 1950s and 70s. Initially I wanted to focus on just the 1950s but found the actual record of reformation extends further back then that. At the moment, I am reading English sources that outline the history of language reform. That history includes discussions of state language versus a choice to have multiple languages, romanization systems and character simplification. These conversations find their beginning in Chinese nationalist thinking at the fall of the Qing dynasty. Looking at all of these issues is more the stuff of a dissertation, not a senior thesis, but it is important to have a grasp of everything that is happening around these issues. Who are the people debating? Why do they take the stances they do? How does the rhetoric shift over the decades?

I have already read John DeFrancis’ book Chinese Nationalism and Language Reform which is an older book written in the 50s concerning what we would now consider the early phase of the language reform. It is my hope to effectively bring in a wide range of knowledge to a more specific set of sources. What good does it do to only read one set of documents without knowing the circumstances from which they came? While such talk is near blasphemy for certain schools of thought (literary studies?), for historians context can be key. I have found a specific publishing company called the Publisher for Character Reformation (文字改革出版社)which appears to be a government mouthpiece for the issue starting in the mid 1950s. My current objective is to track down the series of documents that publisher has produced concerning Chinese script reformation. Thus far, I am still unsure who would be considered some of the power players for/against reformation in this period. I at least already have a set of documents that I retrieved from the University of Virginia’s Alderman library. While I do not have too many documents thus far, I have enough to begin understanding some of the key vocabulary (all of these documents are in Chinese) about character reformation and policy making. I am still formulating questions and wondering if investigating a little bit about Chinese mass education at the time would also prove beneficial.

I have spent this past week contacting both the C.V. Starr Library and Harvard’s Yen-ching Library to get some ideas about my project as well as track down other resources. Admittedly, this process was not very easy as I had issues introducing myself “cold” over an email. I often felt awkward presenting flimsy credentials “senior at the University of Mary Washington” to librarians that have worked with doctoral students and professors. Despite my reservations, I have already heard back from two librarians and expanded my bibliography and my pool of questions for research. My ultimate goal is to go and visit one of those libraries’ archives. Suggestion for future projects, research a little more before sending out an email. I noticed that my “clear” project topic was less than crystal to the librarians who could not see into my mind. The initial difficulty forced me to clarify my project as well as dig into archives for sources that I could show others. Saying “I am researching Character reformation in the 50s,” sounds far less professional than “I am interested in studying Chinese script reform (including simplication as well as romanization schemes) during the Republican Era and early PRC. I have x books thus far and would like to focus on xyz readings. Would you have suggestions for further materials?” You have to give to get. The more you know about your project, the more you can talk about it, the better librarians can help you. I lost a little bit of my “musing” tone, but I cannot drive home hard enough how important understanding your topic is. I hope to have more information about the separate libraries and their collections for another blog post.

Other News

I am extremely interested in starting a history thesis group. I already started a doodle schedule and based it around to a few classmates. The group would be another method of breaking the monotony of solo research. The process does not have to be as lonely as many of us make it. While we are expected to do our own leg work, I find nothing wrong with meeting together and discussing what everyone is doing. I hope to encourage active discussion of our topics. Much like my work with the librarians thus far, if someone forces you to talk about your project, eventually you will be able to clearly articulate what you are doing. The first few times may be awkward or uncertain, but I am 100% certain this exercise could be beneficial to anyone participating. I hope to turn the group into a sort of space where we can exchange ideas about each others projects. What is your topic? Who are the big players? What sort of primary sources are you using? What are the debates about the event? Further, it gives everyone the opportunity to play the expert in the group. The students that have expressed interest in the group so far have a wide variety of intellectual backgrounds, even the China theses only overlap but so much. I hope for this to be a regular practice. Why make research a fully solo project? It’s our responsibility as scholars to work together to produce knowledge, challenge ideas and hone the writing craft. As due dates come up, I would like to exchange papers and elicit people’s opinions about writing style and mechanics. One step at a time for sure.

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One Response to “1.14 HIST485 Report”

  1. SF says:

    Looks like a great start. A sidenote: research can *feel* like it’s going at a snail’s pace, incremental and slow, with a bigger picture that’s not always clear to see. But even when it feels that way, it’s a) always constructive, and b) often moving faster than you think. It’s much like language study that way, actually…