Posted in Blog Post

Doing Senior Thesis Research with the Fellowship for Research in Europe

Senior History major Anna Morrow discusses her experience with the Senior Thesis Fellowship for Research in Europe in Summer 2019, and how it helped her thesis, and reveals her favorite thing that she found doing the archival research.

Interview conducted and edited by Caroline Montague

Tell me a bit about yourself.

My name is Anna Morrow, I am a history major and I focus on colonization and decolonization studies. I’m in my senior spring and I’m graduating in May 2020.

What’s your senior thesis topic?

It’s on the 1931 Colonial Exposition in Paris. In particular, I’m studying the importation of indigenous peoples from the various French colonies and their subsequent display at the Exposition; and I’m studying the conception of the leadership of the exposition and what their expectations and desires were for how those people were going to be displayed, because they they wanted to change this conception, as opposed to not seeing these people as wild or inhuman or savage, and wanted to shift it to being more like citizens of “la plus grande France,” like the idea of France being something that’s not just metropolitan France. But then the actual experience of the people who were coming from the colonies and were then existing at the exposition, and also the visitors’ perception of them, was utterly different from what the overarching vision was. So, I’m studying the tension between those two realities and desires, and how that’s representative of a larger cultural shift in France at the time with how it was seeing its colonies.

What made you decide to apply for the fellowship?

I had remembered seeing signs about it around campus in my freshman year, and I was like, “Getting paid to go study in Europe? Sign me up!” So literally it was kind of on the back burner in my mind for like a long time in advance because I love doing research so I was like “Why not?” and I really didn’t have a strong idea of what I was going to be doing, so I kind of came up with an idea semi-last minute but it was like what I had done in a paper in a prior year. With the colonisation stuff, a lot of the colonial European archives are based in Europe, so I figured it would make a lot of sense to do research in Europe as well.

Pictures Anna took near Aix-en-Provence during her travels around southern France to different archives.

Tell me a bit more about what the Senior Thesis Fellowship for Research in European Archives entails. 

It is a fellowship run by both Columbia and Barnard, so they have a set of reserved spots for Barnard students and for Columbia students, and it’s specifically for history research in Europe. Essentially, they give you a grant of $4,500 to just go over there and do what you will, and then you have a week together as a cohort at Reid Hall in Paris, which is Columbia’s Paris campus, where you’re workshopping, telling each other all your ideas, people giving you feedback. There’s a couple of professors from Columbia who run that part, along with a grad student coordinator. You meet one-on-one with those professors, at least a couple of times, and hang out. It’s a good time. They put you up in a hotel nearby, you go get dinner a few times, it was nice. For the application process, you write a proposal for what you want to research and how you think you’ll use that money, in terms of where you want to go, the subject matter, why you’ve chosen that subject, and where you think you’re going to go with it. 

Did studying abroad in Paris during your junior spring semester help you decide on your topic idea?

Well, my original idea had been about the Indo-China Wars and France’s involvement in the colonisation of Indo-China, so that’s really what I thought I was going to be doing, but it took the turn to a completely different subject because of studying abroad. I had gone to the Museum of the History of Immigration in France, and the contrast between the fact that it was built for this Exposition in 1931 and that those statues and photos were all juxtaposed with modern understandings and French conceptions of what it means to be a French citizen was really fascinating. There’s a lot of colonial history in Paris that the general public does not know about, and that I had no idea about. So I thought it would be cool to look at the Metropole for the first time, because a lot of what I study has to do with the colonies as opposed to the metropole governments and people themselves. I thought it would be fun to do something that was completely different from anything that I learned about in classes, so I wouldn’t get bored. 

Studying abroad helped solidify my French speaking skills so that I was actually comfortable doing all the reading and research. Before studying abroad, my French was dismal, to say the least, and I would not have been able to do the stuff that I was doing. Before going into it, I assumed that all the reading and research I would be doing would be in English, so I wasn’t even thinking about using French archives, so that was a major shift. 

Image of the Museum of the History of Immigration in Paris on a cloudy day.
The Museum of the History of Immigration in Paris. Credit: emilio11 on Flickr.

How would you say this has helped your senior thesis?

So much! I would not be able to do my senior thesis without it, just because there are some primary sources that you can get while over here but not the majority, there’s very few [It’s not digitized.] Yeah, no. Not at all. You would not be able to do the research that I’ve done without being there.

What advice would you have for someone either in the process of applying for the fellowship or going to do it?

Start brainstorming as early as possible in terms of what you think you might do. It doesn’t mean that you can’t change it, which obviously I did, but it’s always helpful to have some sort of idea of where you would want to go and what types of archives you’d be looking in. Also, just keeping track of deadlines before they come up, and just knowing this is something that you can apply for. Reach out to the grad student advisor, they’re always really helpful in terms of providing a template for what your proposal should look like, giving you suggestions for who to contact. Sometimes there’s PhD candidates who are doing similar research or who have done similar research, or professors who have done similar research, and can point you to particular archives that would be helpful and can give you the lowdown on how to do that kind of research, which is pretty invaluable because some archives are a little bit tricky in terms of navigating them and getting permission to go in them.

Once you’re there, reach out again to the graduate advisor and to the professors, just to get advice on the archives. Even if you think it’s going to be totally fine, you’re probably going to hit some bumps in the road, and you don’t really realize how political those archives can be, in terms of how they let people in, what the application process is like, if they have one, how you’re going to access the materials. Sometimes it’s not that hard, but it’s really helpful to have someone who’s able to explain it to you and help point you in the right direction, so you’re not just needlessly going through endless amounts of material without really knowing what you’re doing, which I definitely did for large portions of my time there, but you know, you live and you learn.

Two of the many libraries and archives Anna visited.
Left: library of the Hôtel de Ville in Paris; Right: Archives nationales d’outre mer.

Bonus question: What’s your favorite thing that you found in the archives this summer? 

There are these French spy government documents where they have internal spies infiltrate Communist parties in France, particularly because Communist parties in France were made up of a large Indo-Chinese expat population. They would have spies infiltrate these groups, go to their meetings, figure out what the lowdown is on what they were doing. In particular, these groups were involved in trying to push back against the Exposition because they were not please by how their own countrypeople were being displayed, and about the conditions of their treatment and how they were living. The spy documents are really funny, because their spy names are like “Guillaume” and literally I’m not kidding, like the most stereotypical French names you could possibly think of, and it’s just like “Note from ‘Guillaume’” and then his whole report, and it’s just amazing because the things they learn or the way that they write down what they heard is just hilarious. So that was the best thing I had ever heard, because I had no idea that they would have been so concerned about the Communist Party and what they were doing at the time, but they totally were. And it was just wild to me, because it felt like all these different pieces of like what I’ve studied, because again, I’d thought about doing Indo-China relations, so to learn about that component, and how there was a big student Indo-Chinese movement within France, and I had no idea about that, so that’s fascinating.

Applications for Summer 2020 (pending virus-related updates?) are due March 27, 2020. More information on the Senior Thesis Fellowships in European History can be found on the History Department’s page on Research Funding

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