Inquiring Minds

The History Honors Thesis Program trains students to research, argue, write, and add something new to our knowledge.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

By Susan Ahlborn

How do you prepare for a career in law, business, or journalism? For these Penn students, it’s by learning more about the influence of religion in Noah Webster’s dictionary or the mechanics of the Spanish Civil War. “I’ve gained analytical skills. I can go through a lot of material and pick out the information that’s important,” says Parker Abt, C’19. “I also know what questions to ask. I try to figure out why something is the way it is.”

Abt was one of 11 students in his class selected for the Honors Thesis Program in the Department of History. Their goal, as with any thesis, was to produce new knowledge, but also to be able to argue why things happened as they did, and why it matters. “We understand history not as a set of ‘facts’ to be learned, but as a process of discovery and interpretation in which we engage actively,” says Margo Todd, Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History and director of the honors seminar for the Class of 2019.

History honors students start in the spring of their junior year with a semester-long seminar on the skills needed for historical research and how to write engagingly, persuasively, and efficiently (“We spend a lot of time on writing,” says Todd). The students develop their project ideas and write proposals for funding from Penn’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships (CURF) and other sources.

During the summer, they conduct their research, travelling to access sources, whether in a library in Texas or a private collection that has never been examined before. If the sources are in another language, they must be fluent in that language; “For some students, this may mean three or four languages,” says Todd. The students write their theses in the fall, and present their work in the spring of their senior year.

“We seek students who combine a commitment to the hard slog of meticulous research with the creativity to pose new questions and imagine new possibilities for interpretation,” says Todd. “These students are prepared to proceed in whatever field they set their minds to. Overseeing the process of their development as scholars has been a sheer delight.”

Read more about what four honors students learned along the way:

The Subtext of Webster’s First Dictionary
Noah Webster was the author of the most popular schoolbooks in America in the early 19th century, so Courtney Carpinello, C’19, started to research him as a way of studying the effects of the Unitarian Controversy on education. She kept coming across footnotes that briefly mentioned that he had undergone a religious conversion in midlife, and she became curious.

The Unitarian Controversy was a split of the original English Puritans into more liberal Unitarians and conservative Congregationalists. At age 50, the previously progressive Webster became a “very conservative Congregationalist,” says Carpinello, of Villanova, Pennsylvania.

In “Defining America: Noah Webster and Educational Discourse in New England's 19th-Century Unitarian Controversy,” she describes how Webster believed the use of words could subconsciously affect people’s opinions and behaviors. “There’s a subtle religious bias in his dictionary and his school books,” she says. “He thought if he defined words in certain ways, it could convince people of his point of view, and so that’s why he became a dictionary-maker. In all of his personal notes and correspondence, it’s very clear that was his intention.” Carpinello examined Webster’s letters and documents, including notes on the dictionary, at libraries at Yale and in New York City. “I’d never done any archival work before, so I thought it was so cool to see and touch anything from the 19th century.”

After Webster died, she says, editors and publishers edited out the religious materials. “That’s how these original religious intentions were forgotten.”

“What I like about history is the ability to come up with a logical argument and have to defend it,” says Carpinello, who is headed to Harvard for law school. “But even when I go to law school, I’d like to get involved with modern religious conflict.”

What Makes a “Good Indian”?
Visitors to the World’s Fairs held in America at the end of the 19th century saw exhibits on indigenous ways of life from all over the world. While most of the indigenous cultures were presented as a past stage in the cultural evolution of humans, says Justin Estreicher, C’19, some aspects of Native American cultures were represented as positive—at a time when the U.S. government and others were actively suppressing Native American culture and society. He wanted to investigate this paradox.

Estreicher, from Dix Hills, New York, looked at official Fair publications and the papers of academics, like anthropologist Franz Boas, who helped prepare the displays. In “Celebrating Conquest: Broken Treaties, World's Fairs, and Constructions of Native American Savagery, 1875-1905,” he describes a repeated pattern of the justification of conquest that stretched back to the early 17th century, based on the idea that the persistence of Native life-ways was inherently threatening. He found that the World’s Fairs displays disparaged traditional native life in the present, while glorifying two alternatives: progress toward assimilation or as representing a vanished past.

A history major, says Estreicher, “gives you practice in thinking through an argument, pursing the evidence you need and not just seeking out evidence to suit what you think,” as well as sharpening skills of expression. He will be going to graduate school at William and Mary, where he plans to keep working on topics related to Native Americans. “I think it’s important to bring Native American actors into the stories we tell about American history,” he says. “In the history we learn in school, they’re either excluded or given their own little section in the corner of a page.”

A Fast Fall
In a matter of hours on July 18, 1936, a military-led coup overturned the Republican government of Seville, marking the beginning of the Spanish Civil War there. Sarah Marron, C’19, from Syracuse, New York, wanted to know how things changed so quickly: “What sort of factors or structural problems gave way?”

Fluent in Spanish, Marron travelled to Madrid and Seville to examine newspaper articles, diaries, and books, as well as government documents printed during and after the war, to write “Una Lucha Fratricida [A Fratricidal Struggle]:” Violence and Repression in Seville at the Start of the Spanish Civil War.” “I found that the violence and repression weren’t as one-sided as I thought,” she says. “At the beginning of the war, a lot of Sevillanos who supported the Republic did lash out at churches and institutions that were typically conservative. While these instances of violence were very intense, however, comparatively they were short-lived—the Nationalists (Francoists) were so much more organized.”

“The pre-war Republican government was one of the, if not the most, liberal governments Spain had seen,” she explains. Its administration had enacted several “fairly liberal, progressive reforms for the ‘30s, especially for Spain. I think that angered a significant percentage of the more conservative members of the population, especially certain high-ranking military officials.”

“This is the longest I’ve spent on any project, really a year and a half of my life,” says Marron. “Completing my thesis entailed a lot of hard work, including several nights spent alone in my room writing out my chapters, but looking back, I’d like to think it was the capstone of my academic Penn experience.” Marron plans to work as a paralegal at a law firm in Manhattan for a few years before either attending law school or earning her Ph.D. in history.

No Place Like Home
In the 1980s, news organizations started reporting that there were neighborhoods in the U.S. that lacked running water, sewer systems, and emergency services. “By 1990 about 300,000 people in Texas lived in colonias who often lacked some piece of infrastructure that most Americans take for granted,” says Parker Abt, of Parkland, Florida.

To write “What They Can Do Themselves: Agency and Politics in the Colonias of South Texas, 1945-95,” Abt delved into documents in archives in Austin and Edinberg, Texas, and public records databases of information like property transactions and commissioners’ meeting minutes. He also worked with a research partner, Atalya Santos of Florida State, who interviewed 12 people who had lived in the colonias.

He discovered that the desire of poor farm workers to own their own homes and land had been met by developers who would buy up cheap, unincorporated, unregulated land and sell it to them. Often the families would build the homes themselves, piecemeal. “It usually wasn’t up to any building standard but it was livable and something the family was proud of having built themselves and owning the land outright,” says Abt.

Over time, says Abt, the people living in the colonias built their own non-profit organizations and political action groups, and were able to get federal and state money for improvements. “That progress is a testament to the community and their success in community organizing, even in one of the lowest-income counties in the U.S. I think people should say, well, if they can do it, I can do it.”

Abt has presented at two conferences, winning an award at one, and published editorials about the colonias in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and the Washington Post. He wants to work in some way that impacts the lives of real people, whether in public policy or academia or law.

“I became a history major because I like hearing the stories, telling the stories. I feel like it gets you closer to what human nature is, and helps me understand my own values.”