Notes From Thesisland

Ever since high school, I’ve vaguely assumed I would end up writing a thesis or senior research paper in college. I had romantic daydreams of myself poring over dusty old books late at night, thinking thoughts no one had thought before. As I write my senior research paper for my history major, I can confirm that the late nights are a thing. Dusty books? Not so much. (I mostly use online databases like ECCO.) Thoughts no one has thought before? Also not so much–but plenty of thoughts I’ve never thought before.

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My thesis carrel. One friend of mine calls this stretch of the library “Thesisland.”

My research is about medical writing on hermaphrodism in 18th century London. Basically, I want to know how medical writers represented and made sense of bodies not easily classified as “male” or “female.” As it turns out, the existence of “hermaphrodites” was controversial among the medical community; many argued that all so-called hermaphrodites could actually be classified as “men” or “women.”

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Slide from a presentation I created early on in class. My understanding has become slightly more nuanced since then. 

This topic captures what I love about history as a discipline. My history classes here at Swarthmore have helped me to understand that even the things we take most for granted, like the human body, have history. People throughout time and space have interpreted, experienced, and classified the body in fundamentally different ways. My research is an opportunity to participate in telling a piece of that history.

Romantic scholarly fantasies aside, writing a senior paper has generated a lot of really weird and wonderful experiences that I never could have predicted. I’d like to share some of them below. In the course of researching this paper, I have:

  • Become all too proficient in 18th century English words for human sexual anatomy.
  • Finally learned how to use interlibrary loan! 
  • Become very comfortable with “s’s” that look like “f’s. (Yay, 18th century typeface!)

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Most of my sources look like this. Does this make any sense to you?

  • Evaluated every historian I happen to read as a potential model for my own scholarship.
  • Written an email to a major scholar I admire. (He didn’t write back.)

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Hope I didn’t accidentally send the wrong version…

  • Sought help from a professor mentor in a totally different discipline.
  • Put my high school Latin skills to use for the first time… ever?
  • Viewed way too many images like this:

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Image from Wikimedia Commons.

My research has been joyful, funny, frustrating, tedious, surprising–probably every adjective you can think of, except “easy.” And yes, I’ve had my share of late nights, frustrations, and tears. But I’m grateful for the opportunity to pursue a topic of my own choosing, with constant support and guidance from my professors. By the end of this semester, I hope to have a piece of work that makes me proud. 

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