Choosing a Topic

People who know me well know that in 2008 I was finishing up a bachelor’s degree and applying to graduate schools — a variety because I was torn between several areas of study — when Matt convinced me to skip grad school and redesign WordPress/work for Automattic instead. People who know me well also know that I am the worst tech worker ever and never back things up, and have frequent electronic failures. Kevin has been making fun of this “crazy electromagnetic energy that computers hate” since 2000, and for a while Matt was calling me Jubilee. Where these combine is that when I agreed to take the job and was leaving NYC, my final papers in a couple of courses were lost in a computer death (I loved you, 2007-era macbook!), and with no backups, I just decided to move on without wrapping up college at all. 

It’s bugged me, because while I don’t need a degree for the job I have now, nor even necessarily for a job that I may want in the future, having a degree does provide options. If I wanted to apply to grad school now, I could, if I’d finished that BA. Instead, I’d have to go back and re-do a couple of courses whose final papers never got turned in, and jump through a number of administrative hoops to clear out “you didn’t officially drop this course the term in the middle when you took a break” type things, and probably delay it a year. Being in NYC would make this significantly simpler, but alas I’m not there.

Several of those classes were write-offs. They’ll simply need to be re-done, because undergraduate courses fail you if you don’t finish. Graduate classes, on the other hand, have a delightful notion of an incomplete that can last for years. I suppose this has to do with long-running dissertations and the like, but in this case, taking a graduate course for undergraduate credit left me with an INC that the professor said I could overwrite if I ever sent in that final paper.

That paper was so specifically NYC, though: it examined the role of women in 1920s society through the swimwear at Coney Island. It was a really great topic, but research saved on that dead computer wasn’t stuff that would be easily re-acquired. Weeks of sitting in a microfilm (not microfiche, microfilm) carrel scrolling page by page through 1920s newspapers and magazines published in New York City to find every advertisement and news photo that showed a woman in a bathing suit had been torture, and I had no interest in repeating it. So I never went back to it.

This fall I started thinking about going back and finishing college, tying up all those loose ends. The need to be in NYC for weeks at NYPL for the research was still an issue, though, so I wrote to the professor and asked if it might be allowed to change topics. He agreed, and since then I’ve been struggling to come up with a topic that interests me and that has enough of a visual culture record to be doable without being so over-saturated with research that it’s boring.

It’s only a 30-page paper, so it needs to be something specific (like the specificity in that Coney Island swimsuits paper) but tied into a broader historical context (like the shifting role of American women in the ’20s) and with a record in visual culture (ads, editorial cartoons, photographs, paintings, whatever) that can be accessed without needing to spend weeks on a microfilm machine somewhere away from home. I’ve had trouble picking one. Passing thoughts (some to the point of clever titles, some just general topic ideas) have included:

  • Environmental Activism in America
  • Cover Girl: The Changing Face of Women’s Magazines
  • Women in Medicine
  • Women of Capitol Hill
  • American Spinsters
  • Passing Brave: Women Soldiers Who Fought as Men
  • Centerfold: Sexuality for Sale
  • Women’s Work
  • Romance Novel Covers
  • Role Reversal: The Sadie Hawkins Dance
  • Pirates, Pilots, and Prostitutes: Women at Sea in the Age of Sail
  • Witches in America
  • Women in Tech (and/or Science)
  • Lynching in American Culture
  • The Transition of Teaching: a Male to Female Occupation
  • Sewing Machines and Women Laborers in [location and/or time period]
  • Women of the Oneida Community
  • Congregations, Cults, and Concubines: Women in American Religion  [some year span here]
  • The Martha Washington Hotel, 1911 — 1983

All those thoughts (tempered by how difficult it might be to find source images) wound up in the idea Suffragettes, Spinsters, and Scientists: Non-traditional Women in American Visual Culture. But then that sounded too broad for 30 pages. So then I was thinking of narrowing it to Suffrage and Anti-Suffrage movements. But really I just can’t decide — I’ve had to make so many decisions in the past couple of months, my brain is fried. What topic should I choose?



12 thoughts on “Choosing a Topic

  1. There’s topics there that *I* would choose, just for the heck of it. They sound fun.

    Somewhere in the mid-eighties I did a collage of Cosmo covers. I’d amassed quite a bit for some reason, and the similarity of the covers, month after month, struck me. The collage was one larger cover, composed of multiple cover images – article headlines, model parts – snipped and glued in chunks. The larger effect still was a recognizable Cosmo cover.

    Insert some sort of artist’s statement about the sameness of oversexualized & interchangeable models of the 80s here.

    I dunno what happened to it, but it’s a piece I’d like to recreate at some point.

  2. A lot of these have been overly done, especially in social media, but I like the Witches in America one. Maybe a broader spectrum like Witches in Alternate Religious/Spiritual genres.My older daughter is Wiccan, hence the interest in it, but even though she is, it amazes me just how much misinformation there is out there on women who practice alternative forms of spirituality.

    Of course I’m learning as I go along, but in random comments from some family members and others she knows, it’s annoying to see people trying to depict her as dancing in fields, blithely fluttering flowers around, or sitting in a witchly circle casting spells. She is nothing like that, her beliefs are firmly rooted and decisively felt.

    Of course, women who lead more traditional churches also would apply as, while things are changing, it’s still quite difficult to break into a leadership role within. Anyway, just my take.

  3. As I was reading through the list, the “Romance Novel Covers” idea really stood out to me. The covers of books in general over the years, and their depictions of gender roles, has often fascinated me.

    From Mills & Boon, to The Chronicles of Gor, the similarities and differences are sometimes surprising.

  4. I am exactly in the same confusion as you. I started with newspapers from my 7th grade and now I finished my high school (college, according to the education system in Bangladesh). I’m already working as contributing journalist and my goal is to become a full time tech journalist for some int’l publishing house.

    While becoming a journalist does no require a degree in this field, I do find myself convinced to get a degree in it. I’m a business student but I’m looking for a degree in journalism. I’m confused whether I should go with journalism or for a degree in communication, which, according to some websites, cover a major area of journalism field.

    In addition to all these, I’m looking to do my undergrad from NYC, so I’m researching for a university (or community college, as they are more affordable) in NYC and hoping to get admitted in undergrad. I don’t know if that’s the right thing to do. All I want to do is journalism and I don’t necessarily need a major in that. Some of my friends living in the US say that degree in journalism as a major would be a waste. But I don’t know.

    Sorry for the rnt. :P

    • If you want to do it in NYC, I highly recommend CUNY, and given your wavering between majors, if you have good grades I suggest the CUNY BA program, or as it’s formally known, the CUNY Baccalaureate for Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies. It’s a program for motivated students that allows you to design your own major under the guidance of a faculty mentor, and to choose classes from among all the CUNY campuses. In many cases students are able to take graduate courses for undergraduate credit, and the CUNY graduate school for journalism is quite good.

      • I was actually studying CUNY for a while as I was suggested by a friend of mine. But it appears that there are many colleges under CUNY. They say Community Colleges are most affordable, and CUNY has a lot of them. I was checking out Borough of Manhattan Community College the other day.

        In short, I’m having confusion about which one to choose from the list of colleges and community colleges listed under CUNY.

        Any suggestions?

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