My Thesis, and Reflections Since Graduation
Today, I want to share a bit about my time spent studying for my second degree (a second BA in sociology), as well as my capstone project - my honors thesis. It was two and a half years in the making, and will serve as the foundation for my career in a lot of ways. Changing as I changed, it became this fluid, dynamic piece of research and writing that feels alive - like a snapshot of where I am in this moment, and not just professionally, but personally, as well.
When I started thinking about this project, I didn't know what it would become when I was done. With no conception of scholarship or real research, I began mostly out of a desire to build my CV. Though I did fairly well as a student during my first degree, I said no to a lot of really amazing opportunities for social reasons or because of insecurities. No, I don't want to be a part of the honors program. No, I can't study abroad in Italy because of my anxiety. No, I can't be your TA because I'm not good enough. I didn't push myself or find my stride as a student until my senior year of college. One of the reasons I returned to school was because I felt like when I finally figured out how to study, and when I finally realized that I loved school and might want to become a professor myself, it was too late. College was over. I wanted a second opportunity to kickstart my career, especially considering how competitive academia is. References from past professors were getting old - they didn't know me anymore, and I had no writing sample worth much at all. If I wanted to study at an elite program, I'd have to rebuild my network and portfolio.
The list I had of potential thesis ideas was broad - I didn't know what I wanted to do with sociology when I began the degree, only that I knew I loved it. I thought about writing on the Dust Bowl to explore environmental sociology, topics in women's history, LGBT students at faith based colleges, and more. I probably had 12 ideas at one point. What finally honed it in was meeting a professor who would become a mentor to me, Dr. Isaac Reed. He was beginning a project on theories of empire, and studied early American history. He is also a historical sociologist, which I didn't even know existed when I began. I became extremely resourceful in my pursuit - I applied to be his research assistant, took several of his classes, and even found ways to continue my research with other professors while he was on sabbatical. I was relentless because I fell in love with the work. Here was a career that combined my passion for history with my insatiable desire to know why things happen. Theory became like a treasure, and the library my haven. I didn't make many friends at the university (until I started working for a political campaign) - but you try being the 27 year old in a room full of college freshman. I didn't mind too much, once I found a few pals who were serious in their work, too. Assisting Dr. Reed in his project introduced me to a world of early American history that I hadn't ever given much thought, and it was clearly a path worth following.
Throughout my time doing research for Dr. Reed, and then later for myself, I read probably 30 books about the Puritans and the early years in Massachusetts when it was still an English colony. While this may seem like some niche, arcane bit of American history, studying the Puritans is actually extremely worthwhile - and I'm not just saying that because it was my topic of choice. There is a reason why the American Puritan project is one of the most heavily researched and written about moments in history - there is so much there to uncover. The colony was the bedrock of American democracy, it introduced the concept of separation between church and state, the Enlightenment traveled to America through its printing presses, ministers, and alchemists-turned-scientists, early evangelicalism took root here in the Great Awakening, and, most important to me, the intersection between religion and civil society has fundamentally shaped the self or identity of the American. It's a BFD, people.
While doing this research, I had the most incredible experiences. I won several grants, one of which allowed me to travel to Boston to try my hand at archival research at the Massachusetts Historical Society. While I was there, I actually got to hold in my hands (!!) old journals and letters from the early 1600s. I mean, come on. I also completed an independent study with Dr. Fred Anderson, a treasure of American history and one of the foremost historians in the world (and not just in my opinion). I traveled to two professional conferences to present my work. I had these incredible humanist moments in the classroom where material and reading would crossover, and sparks of inspiration lit up my mind in a way I'm supposing drugs do for some people. Most of all, the dozens and dozens of conversations I had with Dr. Reed over the years cultivated my intellect and my professional path in a beautiful way that I never could have expected. I suppose it's best summed up with what I wrote in the first pages of my thesis, thanking him "for calling out my potential, for encouraging me to take bold, creative steps, and for catalyzing an interest in academic work out of a state of trepidation into an exciting passion and career that will fill me for years to come."
So, this is what my thesis became: an investigation into power structures, and how religion has the capacity to shape and interpret truth and knowledge into norms and conditions of authority.
While reading, I came upon this book about a man named John Winthrop, Jr. who practiced alchemy in early New England. I was fascinated that these early Puritans conceptualized magic in two distinct ways: good magic and bad magic. This was popular thought throughout Europe at the time, the idea that God ordained certain types of magic and mysticism in order to see his mission realized. But having grown up in a charismatic American evangelical church, I was taught that all magic was evil and satanic. How did this split come about, I wondered?
And beyond this one instance, how else is truth interpreted based on historical circumstances? Why does the divine get a gender pronoun, for instance, other than for our own interpretive understanding? Why would God create an expanding Universe, with mysterious and elusive things like mass, matter, energy, light, and most mind blowing of all, gravity, and in the same breath say, "Being gay is evil, people..."? More and more, it seems to me that truth is interpreted selectively based on the environmental and historical conditions in which we live, and so, for me, the Puritans offered a specific and unique moment for which I could study these questions.
More specifically, I studied how they structured their system of authority, a structure or type based in a classic element of sociological theory called "charismatic authority." I postulate that the New England Puritans in the first generation of their settlement in Massachusetts Bay colony were something called a "charismatic community," and that they were held together, not by their allegiance to one charismatic person, but to a sense of duty to a shared revelation - a divine revelation about being a city on a hill, a shining example of the Augustinian notion of the visible church. I won't get into too much detail, but I explored different aspects of their community to see how this authority manifested itself, and how and why it changed in the middle of the 1600s.
In the end, my thesis won lots of awards and will serve as a killer reference for my work upon applying to graduate programs. But more than that, it has become a life giving project that will continue to fulfill me for years to come. I'm not done studying the Puritans - their religion, their family, their communities, or their thoughts on education or the state. I hope that I can continue to find ways to make my work relatable to contemporary society, and I'm optimistic that I'll be a bad ass teacher one day, too. Now that the degree is done, I'm eager to get back into the classroom and back into conversations with my academic community. I miss it everyday.
I want to thank a few people, too, for their help along the way. Here is the Acknowledgments section of my thesis in full:
In the preface to his book, Errand Into the Wilderness, the preeminent historian Perry Miller wrote, “As for that interminable field which may be called the meaning of America, the acreage is immense, and the threshers few. Too often, as in my case, they are sadly deficient in the several skills required for the gigantic labor.” And a gigantic labor it is. When I first set out to complete this honors thesis, it was out of a long-time interest in the story of the American Revolution. Like Miller, I thought it rational to start at the beginning of the American cause. And like him, I got stuck there. Though it seemed early on to be tangential, the Puritan mission captivated me. I have enjoyed exploring the landscape of this social movement – its foundations and its byproducts – and I am indebted to many who helped me navigate the complexity of theology, philosophy, history, and sociology that is encompassed in this project.
Many thanks are due to my parents and my friends who have supported my interests in the social world and history for a very long time, as well as to the teachers of my youth: Pete Rosato, Diana Adams, Jennifer Hevelone-Harper, Graeme Bird, and David Wick – thank you for committing to me as a student, for encouraging free inquiry and respectful dialogue, and for guiding me through the intersections of history, literature, and philosophy. Thank you to my community from Gordon College who are steadfast in their commitment to the mission of “freedom within a framework of faith,” and who pursue justice and knowledge with a fervor that is not for the faint of heart – Ryan Groff, Marri Stratton, Chloe Parsons, Paul Miller, and Andrew Carlson-Lier. And to the scholar who inspired my academic journey in sociology – Lawrence Holcomb, I am thankful for your courage, your commitment to humanistic sociology, and for the polemic ferocity with which you read and taught and served.
Research for this paper was supported by two University of Colorado Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program grants: a research assistantship grant with Dr. Isaac Reed of the Sociology Department (2014) and an individual research grant (2015), the latter of which allowed me to travel to Boston for archival research at the Massachusetts Historical Society. I would not have completed this project without the community of faculty members and friends at the University of Colorado who have opened their doors to dialogue, who encourage me as I am introduced to the world of academia, and who, most importantly, inspire me with their passion for and commitment to learning – many thanks to Stefanie Mollborn, Jill Harrison, Lauri McNown, and Wisam Alshaibi.
I also would like to thank historians Drs. Fred and Virginia Anderson for their guidance and counsel throughout the various stages of this project. To Dr. (Fred) Anderson: it has been, truly, a blessing to be taught about the creation of, and many rounds of editing to, these United States by you. You are a treasure to the institution of American history, and I am proud to call you my teacher. To Dr. Isaac Reed, who has served as both a mentor to me and as the committee chair for this thesis: thank you for teaching me the comparative-historical method, for setting me up for advanced study, and for consistently challenging me. Most importantly, though, thank you for calling out my potential, for encouraging me to take bold, creative steps, and for catalyzing an interest in academic work out of a state of trepidation into an exciting passion and career that will fill me for years to come.
Finally, thank you to my husband, Spencer, for sharing his life with me. This was your idea.