Chasing History: Dissertation Research as Unique Experience

14 Feb 2018 9:01 PM | Dane Claussen (Administrator)

By Elisabeth Fondren
Ph.D. Candidate in Media & Public Affairs, Louisiana State University 

Who would have thought? On a late August night, I was chasing run-off chickens that were supposed to be sleeping in the front yard of my Airbnb cottage. Someone had left the gate open and the chickens had wandered off into the street. Thankfully, the Palo Alto moon was a bright one that night. I caught them all, feeling thrilled.  

This year has also been thrilling in other ways. While I am working on my dissertation – an institutional history of German wartime media governance – I often reflect on the places I was able to visit for my research, and the memories I made. 

Funding for travel, conference participation and research trips can be a headache, especially for mass communication graduate students. In fact, the participation in national conventions, let alone archival research, often depends on whether our departments and universities will support these trips. I know that AJHA’s support of graduate students’ work – through peer-reviewed comments, encouragement, research paper awards, and helping to pay for travel costs – has been instrumental in my professional development and research.

At LSU, Dr. Erin Coyle first told me about AJHA and the warm, collegial atmosphere that especially welcomes graduate students and young scholars. After my participation in two conferences in Little Rock and St. Petersburg, I completely agree with her. And I am already looking forward to presenting my paper on “the laws of propaganda” with my committee chair John Maxwell Hamilton at the Joint Journalism and Communication History Conference in New York City in March 2018.

This last fall, I taught an undergraduate class in American media history. Throughout the semester, we explored how a historical perspective can help to provide context for the current state of media, the pressures on free speech (from government, industry, economy, culture) and the ethical challenges of journalists. Both Dr. Coyle and Dr. Broussard guided me when it came time to write my syllabus, conceptualize assignments, and they shared their expertise with my students in class. One of my favorite days was introducing the students to working with primary sources and historical artifacts. The vast collection at LSU’s Hill Memorial Library allowed us to take a first-hand look at Louisiana’s diverse press during the American Civil War. The students analyzed personal letters, advertisements, Louisiana partisan editorials, stories written on the Union occupation of New Orleans, news printed on ornate wallpaper, and French and German immigrant papers.

For my dissertation research, I was fortunate to spend three months in Germany to work at various political and diplomatic archives in Berlin, Potsdam and Freiburg. The archival sources on government plans for propaganda and censorship in Germany between 1914 and 1918 were overwhelming. One highlight was finding an unopened letter from 1917, sent by a German correspondent in China who was writing to the German foreign office about the “success” of their propaganda strategies abroad. “These are the fun moments,” said the friendly man at the Foreign Office Archive’s reference desk. I watched him cut through the wax stamp, and he let me open the 100-year old brown letter. 

I also had the opportunity to work at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution Library and Archives this summer. This archive is a terrific resource for scholars researching political history, war, propaganda, and peace in the 20th and 21st centuries. The collection features international and U.S. records from both World Wars as well as the Cold War period. During my time at the Hoover Archives, I reviewed papers by U.S. diplomats and journalists working for the government as well as materials of the Captured German Records.

January, for a final trip for my dissertation, took me to the Library of Congress and the National Archives in Washington D.C. where I worked on U.S. World War I records. I would like to encourage other graduate students to seek funding opportunities and fellowships (many organizations advertise these up to a year in advance) through their institutions, doctoral summer schools, national organizations and archives.

I have been fortunate that LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication and other institutions have provided me with these opportunities. Thank you very much to the American Journalism Historians Association and all members for your sincere support, interest, encouragement, and review of graduate students’ research and their teaching development. 

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Fondren won the Jean Palmegiano Award for Outstanding International/Transnational Journalism History Research at the AJHA annual convention in Little Rock in 2017. She was awarded the Wally Eberhard Award for Outstanding Research in Media and War, and the Robert Lance Memorial Award for the Outstanding Graduate Student Paper at the AJHA annual convention in St. Petersburg in 2016.

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