In order to highlight the range of new research by graduate students and to encourage students to practice explaining their work to other historians as well as non-specialists, the AHA Research Division has organized a dissertation lightning round. This session will feature three-minute presentations by historians describing their dissertation research.

The session will build on the success of previous lightning rounds as well as intersect with the AHA’s Career Diversity for Historians initiative, which emphasizes the importance of communicating ideas as a skill that is important for the careers of history PhDs inside and outside the academy.


Session Information

AHA Session 131

Date: Friday, January 5, 2018
Time: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Location: Roosevelt Room 1 (Marriott Wardman Park, Exhibition Level)
Chair: Jennifer Serventi, National Endowment for the Humanities




Peasants, Skinners, and Dead Cattle: The Social Transformation of Rural Japan, 1600-1890

Michael Thomas Abele (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign), @mtabele

During the Tokugawa period (1600-1868), the skinners of Japan owned property rights over draft animal carcasses as a status-based right. Though a source of stigma, this ready access to hides gave skinners a monopoly on leather production. As the value of leather rose in the late eighteenth century, some skinners began to buy and sell hides as their own property for personal profit, circumventing the privileges of their own social group. When Japan began to westernize in the late nineteenth century, these skinners were already operating by a capitalist conception of property rights despite living on the margins of Japanese society.

Imperial Material: Objects and Identity in the U.S. Colonial Empire

Alvita Akiboh (Northwestern University)

My dissertation examines the relationship between material objects and national identity in the U.S. colonial empire. I argue that since the early twentieth century, there has been a fundamental disconnect between the presence of American iconography throughout the colonial empire and colonial subjects’ liminal status within the American national community. U.S. officials believed that objects like the American flag and U.S. currency and postage stamps could help Americanize colonial subjects. But spreading American iconography to the colonies invited people who were legally and politically excluded to nonetheless imagine themselves as Americans, destabilizing the boundaries of the American national community.

Black Muslim Evangelization of Southern Prisons

Chet Cornell (Carl Albert State College)

Broadly speaking, my research focus is on African American religion, with particular interest in the various manifestations of black Islam in the United States. The most famous of these was the Nation of Islam. Few studies have explored the impact of black Muslim movements on political and social reform. I am particularly interested in the question “Has religion served as an opiate or stimulant for black political protest?” And my research attempts to answer it by chronicling the experiences of black Muslims in southern prisons. My dissertation builds on Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010). Alexander argues that with the War on Drugs initiative in the early 1980s, black incarceration exploded. As a result, the criminal justice system became a new tool of white social control of black Americans, replacing the old system of Jim Crow segregation.

“Thinking with Things: Reimagining the Object Lesson as a Feminist Pedagogical Device in the Humanities Classroom”

Krista Grensavitch (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)

The object lesson emerged from the theoretical basis that knowledge is gained through sensation and reflection; a pedagogical device, it provides an approach to learning through and with objects. Drawing from feminist and material culture theory, I analyze the object lesson and argue that it can be reimagined to fit the pedagogical goals of contemporary humanities classrooms, in both traditional fields such as history and interdisciplinary fields such as gender studies. I attempt to provide answers to a central question: what are the possibilities when we no longer rely on written texts as our primary means of learning, knowing, thinking, and teaching?

Breaking Habits: Identity and the Dissolution of Convents in France, 1789-1815

Corinne Gressang (University of Kentucky), @CorinneGressang

The French Revolution (1789-1799) provoked a crisis in identity which has dramatically shaped the religious history of France for the ensuing two centuries. The increasingly severe restrictions on convents encouraged, and sometimes forced, women to assume new identities, resist identities being thrust upon them, and shaped the idea of what it meant to be a woman, a Catholic, and a citizen throughout these years of persecution. These women created imagined communities of “sisters” which persisted even after their physical convents were dissolved.

Spanish Religious Sanctuary and Inter-Imperial Marronage in the Eighteenth-Century Caribbean

Fernanda Bretones Lane (Vanderbilt University)

My dissertation is a comprehensive study of the historical phenomenon that allowed fugitive slaves from foreign colonies to regain their freedom in Spanish territories through escape and conversion to Catholicism. I examine the inception, establishment, and demise of Spain’s religious sanctuary legislation in the Caribbean between 1664 and 1791, using primary sources from Cuban, Spanish, and English archives, such as legal and ecclesiastical records, government reports, and correspondence. Moving beyond the regional narrative that has characterized studies on this topic, I show how local-specific events related to wider imperial politics, weaving in the big picture of imperial politics and micro-histories.

To Dance at Two Weddings: Jews, Nationalism, and the Left in Revolutionary Russia

Joshua Meyers (Stanford University)

My dissertation follows the General Jewish Labor Bund through the Russian Revolution. Advocating an innovative blend of Marxism and national liberation 40 years before the rise of the New Left, the Bund was the largest Jewish socialist organization in the world. The party experienced a crushing defeat in 1917, yet its veterans went on to play key roles in Comintern, the American Communist Party, the anti-Communist left, and elsewhere. By studying this party at a crucial moment in its history, my work sheds light on the construction of the modern left and of modern Jewish politics.

Benevolent Republicans: Philanthropy, Identity, and Foreign Relations in Early America

Laura Michel (Rutgers University, New Brunswick)

During the early American republic, philanthropy was deeply entangled with the construction of national identity. Free from the perceived political and social impediments of the Old World, Americans had the opportunity to take the best of Enlightenment philosophy, republican ideology, and religious teachings in order to create a more just and effective means of addressing social issues such as poverty and crime. Yet, early republican philanthropy was also deeply entangled in transnational networks of exchange and collaboration. My dissertation analyzes these multiple, and at times seemingly contradictory, functions of benevolence among a diverse range of actors in this period.

The Threat of Rebellion: Gender and the American Revolution

Melissa Morales (Fordham University), @melissapmorales

Women’s exclusion from the Revolution’s legacy of equality continues to generate many unresolved issues. The public and private writings of men in the revolutionary and early national periods demonstrate that there was actually considerable anxiety about women’s equality and its potential consequences. Through the examination of newspapers, almanacs, magazines, letters, and diaries from the period 1763-1820, my project seeks to provide a previously unexamined link between women’s writings and public actions; men’s understanding of the Revolution’s radical legacy; and the subsequent reinforcement of gender hierarchy in this period of great societal transformation.

Cows, Cars, and Criminals: Rural Communities, Law & Nation in the Twentieth Century

Emily A. Prifogle (Princeton University), @EmilyAPrifogle

Our social and legal histories of the twentieth century focus primarily on (sub)urbanization, modernization, and the growth of the federal government and administrative state. Those histories fail to take rural communities on their own terms. In contrast, this dissertation takes rural communities as individual and dynamic places in their own right, not as aspiring cities, and tells a social history of the ways in which rural communities articulated rural identity through their use of law, and how the law worked to constitute the rural in the twentieth century Midwest. It asks, what is rural in an urban America?

The Southern Negro Youth Congress: Legacies of S.N.Y.C. and the Southern Radical Tradition 1937-1949

David Rothmund (College of Charleston)

This thesis argues that Southern social movements on the radical left in the 1930s and 1940s paved the way for the civil rights movements of the 1960s, even with Cold War disruption. It examines the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC) and the leaders within the growing African American left during the New Deal/World War II era. An additional goal will be to trace the long term trajectories of the SNYC activists and rank and file supporters while suggesting that those who argue for discontinuity- should understand something about the postwar lives of one-time SNYC activists.

The Democratic Kaleidoscope in the United States: Vanquishing Structural Racism in the U.S. Federal Government

Mary Ryan (Virginia Tech)

My dissertation investigates if U.S. democracy is adequate to the task of racial justice. I suspect the Kerner Commission and federal policies on structural racism are a cosmetic repair which fail to recombinant the country’s racial ideology and political DNA. Applying Daniel Gillion’s (2013) framework of the continuum of information theory he devised to address the question in The Political Power of Protest: Minority Activism and Shifts in Public Policy, “does minority political protest influence the actions and rhetoric of federal government?” (148), I contend American governance must be understood as a pyramid of racial paradox; liberalism; and moral institutions.

Equal Opportunities on Ice: Gendered institutional change in twentieth-century Antarctic science

Morgan C. Seag (University of Cambridge), @morganseag

Lingering gender disparities in Antarctic science are rooted in decades of sex discrimination enforced by state scientific institutions. For example, the US barred women from Antarctic fieldwork until 1969; the UK, until 1983. Both countries kept certain prestigious opportunities closed to women for at least another ten years. My research investigates the conditions under which these state institutions sustained discriminatory policies until the late twentieth century, and the processes through which change eventually occurred. This research contributes to scholarship on the histories of science, labor, and extreme environments, and to discourse on gendered institutional change. Research is based on archival analysis and oral history interviews.

Between Ourselves and the World: Advertising and the Rise of the New Corporate America

Daniel Story (Indiana University), @danieljstory

The turn of the twentieth century is usually framed as the tipping point for the rise of mass consumer society in the United States, including and especially the advertising industry. But what if this moment was merely advertisers’ last hurrah, the peak before a swift decline? That is what some Americans thought. From starkly different perspectives, corporate and socialist voices had arrived at a similar conclusion: as competition declined, so too would advertising. My dissertation explores how advertisers navigated this challenge and frames their progress in the new century as a period less of inevitable growth and more of reinvention.

The Continental Army: Leadership School for the Early Republic

David Ward (College of William & Mary)

My research examines Continental Army junior officers and sergeants who moved westward and used their military acquired skills to establish communities in the early Republic’s new states. Historians have long overlooked the effect of veterans’ hard-won wisdom and experience in the Revolutionary War. These men often migrated westward, and became law enforcement personnel, local politicians, merchants, and religious leaders. My research upends the current narrative, which concentrates on soldiers’ resentment at their treatment during the war and their poverty in later life. Instead, I argue, the benefits of Continental Army service were seen for decades afterwards.