From the AJHA Vault: A History of the AJHA Dissertation Award

28 Jun 2017 9:56 PM | Dane Claussen

By Erika J. Pribanic-Smith, University of Texas-Arlington

Julie Hedgepeth Williams holds the distinction of receiving the first AJHA Dissertation Award, presented at the 1997 national conference in Mobile, AL. Williams wrote her dissertation entitled “The Significance of the Printed Word in Early America: Colonists’ Thoughts on the Role of the Press” at the University of Alabama, under the direction of Wm. David Sloan.

Patrick Washburn said he proposed the dissertation award in 1996, at the first meeting he attended as a member of the AJHA board of directors. At the time, Washburn headed the graduate program in journalism at Ohio University and was chairing several historical dissertations. He hoped that the award would attract newly minted faculty to AJHA.

“It would be a way to keep adding young members to the association rather than the membership simply getting older and older,” Washburn said.

Washburn headed an ad hoc committee to investigate the award processes of other academic societies and propose a structure for AJHA’s award. Washburn said he suggested two primary things: giving the dissertation award at a convention time slot with no competing events on the program and giving a cash award to the winner.

“It would underscore the fact that AJHA considered this a major award,” he said.

Washburn credited David Abrahamson of Northwestern University with making the dissertation award session a major highlight of the annual convention. Chair of the Dissertation Award Committee for 20 years before handing the reins to Jane Marcellus (Middle Tennessee State) in 2016, Abrahamson made several decisions that defined the award. 

He solidified the judging process, appointing as jurists faculty members from schools without doctoral programs to avoid bias. He decided against ranking the honorable mentions to emphasize the importance of each dissertation. He created a special printed program just for the dissertation session, and he made sure to acknowledge the faculty members who chaired the dissertations.

“I and others who chaired dissertations that were honored appreciated that acclaim,” said Washburn, who has mentored three award winners and one honorable mention.

Abrahamson said the process for submitting and judging dissertations has remained basically the same since the beginning. Two juries review portfolios consisting of an abstract, table of contents, and sample chapter to arrive at the four finalists, and then they review the full dissertations of the finalists to decide on the winner. The committee receives, on average, 12 nominees per year, though Abrahamson said it has considered as many as 23 dissertations in one competition.

“My recollection is that we received 11 entries the first year, which was really reassuring because when we set up the prize, we had no idea how it would be received,” Abrahamson said.

Williams, who had been a member of AJHA since 1992, said that Sloan told her about the award and encouraged her to enter. 

“It seems David (Sloan) and AJHA go hand in hand,” Williams said. “I feel like he directed me with the idea of further AJHA papers from dissertation chapters in mind.”

Sloan said that Julie had demonstrated she was serious about history while working on her master’s thesis on the colonial South-Carolina Gazette, and he commended her excellence as an historian—both as a thorough researcher and a talented writer.

Williams presented her work at the Mobile conference along with three honorable mentions: David Domke, whose dissertation advisor was Hazel Dicken-Garcia (University of Minnesota); David Mindich, who wrote his dissertation under Carl Prince and Mitchell Stephens at New York University; and Doug Ward, whose mentor was Maurine Beasley at the University of Maryland.

Beasley has advised three dissertation award winners and six honorable mentions. She said that in addition to enhancing AJHA’s reputation as a worthwhile organization, the award helps keep journalism history a viable element in journalism and media education.  

“It aids in establishing journalism history as a contemporary means of scholarly inquiry,” she said.

Sloan added that the award encourages more student interest in becoming historians, which in turn encourages more involvement in AJHA. Washburn noted that no other organization gives a journalism history dissertation award, so AJHA’s award remains important.

Those who have advised multiple award-winning dissertations said that the award did not influence how they advised their students—they always mentored their students to exhibit the qualities that are the hallmark of the award. Beasley and Sloan both said they always have placed a strong emphasis on using primary source material. Advisor of two winners and an honorable mention, Sloan also stressed the importance of selecting a significant topic.

Over the past 20 years, 56 advisors have mentored 81 students to Dissertation Award honors. Among the most prolific mentors was Margaret “Peggy” Blanchard at the University of North Carolina, who advised the 2003 winner as well as honorable mentions in four competitions. One of her advisees, Mark Feldstein, suggested that AJHA name the award after Blanchard. 

The dissertation award has been called the Blanchard Prize since 2003. Abrahamson said that Blanchard was quite ill at the time—she died in 2004.

“As it turns out, Mark had been one of her last doctoral students and was quite passionate about the renaming and its timing,” Abrahamson said. “Given Peggy’s status among media historians, the renaming passed unanimously after a brief discussion.”

Other North Carolina faculty have continued Blanchard’s legacy. In total, nine UNC graduates have earned AJHA dissertation awards and honorable mentions—including two honorable mention recipients this year. Southern Mississippi also has produced several honorees, thanks largely to the mentorship of David Davies. Davies, who won the award for his dissertation under Sloan in 1998, has advised five honorable mention recipients.

For a full list of previous winners, including links to the dissertation award session programs for each year since 1998, visit 

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