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Skidmore College
American Studies Department

Senior Seminar Topic Proposals

Fall 2009

Elizabeth Artz

My current thesis paper focus is gay activism, exploring the evolution from the homophile movement to the gay power revolution. Using the 1969 Stonewall riots as a pivotal turning point in the gay activist strategy, I will discuss the formation of homophile organizations such as the Mattachine Society, formed in the 1950 with the goal to end isolation and shame of homosexuals. In my description of the Stonewall riots as a catalyst to the gay power revolution, I plan to discuss how the bar’s location in the nonconformist West Village provided a safe haven for homosexuals. I will expand on the history of the West Village emphasizing the importance of this bohemian enclave as a stomping ground for the LGBT rights movement. I will delve into the controversial events the night of the Stonewall Riots highlighting riots as both as a turning point in the activist movement and in my paper’s exploration of a new strategy in gay activism. Turning to the aftermath of the riots, I will detail how old guard organizers clashed with newly rising rebels who were no longer content searching for acceptance but planned to dismantle the homophobic and exploitive societal structures. Radical groups such as the leading Gay Liberation Front forged a connection in solidarity with other oppressed minorities such as the radical black American rights group the Black Panthers. I will examine the strategies of the Gay Liberation Front discussing their battles with media outlets and attempts to communicate a message to the gay population. I plan to conclude my paper with a discussion on the current agenda of the gay rights movement and the plight homosexuals face today. In my essay I will attempt to answer the following questions: why did the goals of the gay rights movement shift in 1969? How did the strategies between the old and new guard of revolutionaries differ? Why was the West Village New York important to the LGBT movement? Why did the Gay Liberation Front want to align themselves with oppressed minorities? Where is the gay rights movement today? I plan to use a variety of primary sources that capture the isolation of homosexuals during the time period as well as the accounts written by organizers and artists who led the movement.

Emily Bresnick
Remove Lid, Heat and Serve:  Canned Food Advertisements as Condensed Narrative of American Culture

This paper investigates the impact of the emergence of canned food, focusing on advertising's role in engraining theses products in the lives of those living during World War II and the post-war years.  Starting with a brief history of the invention of canned goods, including the initially negative connotation canned goods had, I pinpoint how and why there was suddenly a drastic change in the consumer's image of canned food.  Ultimately, I focus on the World War II era and how canned food played an important, if not crucial, role in the lives of soldiers and their families back home.  This has been accomplished through analysis of the printed advertisements of these products, seeing how they were influenced by the historical, economic, social, and political contexts of the time.  Such ads were both the cause and effect of social norms in the war period, helping reflect expectations of the American self and illustrating how the addition or subtraction of canned foods from everyday cuisine would help the consumer adjust to the implications of these collective identities.  I further provide insight into how canned foods have helped shape American culture and the perceptions we have about nutrition, conservation, gender roles, and the government.  My discussion concludes with current conceptions and uses of canned food, and how the remnants of World War-era ideals have worked their way into our own mindsets, kitchens and society.  I further provide insight into how canned foods have helped shape American culture and the perceptions we have about nutrition, conservation, gender roles, and the government.  The advertisements I have selected all show how the convenience, versatility, and economy of canned foods were valued in the years during and after the Second World War.  These images help prove my thesis that the patriotic themes in these ads, which coincided with the government-backed war effort, emphasized the advertisement's goal of promoting brand loyalty and visibility when canned goods were scarcely available due to wartime rationing.

Rachel Cohen

   Sesame Street has been a staple of children’s educational television for the past forty years.  Over those years, characters such as Big Bird, Bert, and Elmo have helped children to understand some of life’s most troubling educational challenges, such as learning the alphabet, mastering numbers, and discovering how to become a good friend.  I plan to investigate how these Muppets have helped children understand the complexities of reading and writing, entertained entire families and taught lessons of morality and tolerance. 
   Throughout the paper, I plan to incorporate quotes from real viewers of the show.  I want to get their opinions on how Sesame Street and the Muppets have either helped or hurt their understanding of real life situations and ideas.  Although the memories may not be vivid, the lessons that Sesame Street has taught viewers have hopefully stayed with them.  I am interested to know whether and, (if so) how the show has sustained itself over the last four decades. I plan to set up a forum where people can give their opinions of the show and their reactions to the Muppets of 1969 and I hope to compare their impressions with those who watch the show today.
   Also, I plan to watch past and present episodes of Sesame Street with an eye to exploring how the show is put together. Hopefully I will be able to talk to people who have worked atSesame Street in areas such as education and gather from them some in-depth information as to production of the show.  In regards to secondary sources, the effects of children’s television have been a focus for many historical critics for decades.  I plan to read their articles about the effects of television on children in a broad sense and also to look at articles specifically about Sesame Street and what the show has done for children over the last four decades.

Krista Glencross (12/14)
The United States of Mass Incarceration:  Building Up Our Prisons and Tearing Down Society

This paper provides a body of evidence following the process of "delivering justice" in the United States, specifically through the correction system.  The 1980s established an era of "tough-on-crime" government especially through mandatory minimum sentencing to result in overcrowded prisons.  The 1960s witnessed a demand to build more prisons, and construction began in rural America.  Strict sentencing in legislation has resulted with socioeconomic disparities and the incarceration of 2.3 million Americans.  This has created a detrimental effect on American society.

Jordan Klein
A Fair to Remember: Depictions of the American County Fair

"…flashing, loud, familiar but exotic, deep-fried, manure-scented…spinning, cowboy-booted, hard-sell, soft-serve, purebred and homegrown, thoroughly American, county fair."
--Drake Hokanson and Carol Katz

   For many in America, the tradition of the county fair is synonymous with simplicity, nostalgia, and rural idealism. County fairs have become a romanticized realm that epitomizes an American’s America. For my Senior Seminar Project, I plan to create an exhibition that explores the nature and implications of this role that county fairs play in American Culture. The exhibition will begin with an introductory look at the history and development of fairs in America, documenting their development through the use of primary sources (flyers, newspapers, photographs, maps etc.). The majority of the exhibition, however, would focus on the depictions of county fairs in mass media and popular culture over the last 75 years, exploring its use as a tool to depict a simpler time where the love was innocent and the food was greasy. I will employ the use of mass media and entertainment forms such as film, television, art, comics, music, theater, poetry, novels, etc. to demonstrate this sentimentality, exploring the possibility of a link between how these media portray fairs and the feelings that we have about them. . The fair will be portrayed as a nostalgic storytelling tool, and I will ask what this says about American society more generally. Paired with the first-hand accounts of Americans describing what makes fairs special to them, I will ask to what the effect that our portrayals of fairs have had on the fairs themselves. Does our media portray fairs in a way that will satisfy our nostalgia for them? Or does our media’s portrayal make us collectively yearn for those good old fair days? I will conclude by asking why we still attend fairs in the mass numbers that we do today, despite what is perceived by many as their lack of relevancy in contemporary agricultural business. How has the fair's purpose changed for us and what about its current purpose inspires us to continue to attend?

Andrew LaSane
Martin:  A Cultural Analysis of a Black Sitcom from the 1990s

   I will be writing my seminar paper on 1990s television, more specifically comedic sitcoms of that era with predominantly Black casts and their effects on American television and American urban culture. 
   Often criticized as racist and fosterers of stereotypes, Black sitcoms (post-Cosby) are rarely given credit for their contributions to television programming. “Martin,” the series created by comedian Martin Lawrence, will be my primary source for analysis. The series aired from 1992-1997 on FOX and has recently been released in its entirety on DVD.
   The paper will include analysis of multiple episodes taken from the available media and will concentrate on the dichotomies of race, gender, and class and how they were central to the success of not only “Martin”, but other Black sitcoms of the decade. My seminar paper will look beyond the comedic nature of this sitcom to see how its producers used Martin’s comedic talents as well as his personal life to create and sustain a controversial as well as revered series.

Elena Milius
For Her There Were No Boundaries:  Discovering Latina Identity Through Her Own Words

   On paper, Latina identifies the group of women who are descendents of those who occupy the Spanish-speaking nations South of the Rio Grande. Politically, Latina represents the group of women who wrote the articles of El Grito del Norte and stood alongside the Brown Berets. Socially, Latinas use their voices from the borderlands. The borderlands where race meets ethnicity, English meets Spanish, mother meets activist. Together they create the embodiment of the Latina identity, which is a woman who knows how to negotiate two cultures: Latin American and North American. I’d like to center this paper on Latina identity and what it means to Latinas. In particular, I will concentrate on Latina literature to help understand how different aspects of identity are created through creative nonfiction, newspaper articles, and analytical essays. I intend to use the Chicano Movement (1960-1973) as a pivotal moment in Latino history and investigate its implications on Latina identity in the past and its continued impact on the present.

Kathleen Mullins
"Oh, I'll just Facebook it to you!"  Facebook and Its Revolution of Human Communication

   I am interested in writing a seminar paper on the evolution of the internet as a social device, exploring how it has and will affect our communication with each other as well as how our history will be recorded. I want to examine its effects on social culture, as well as on the marketing and sharing information. I would begin with a brief history of the internet and an overview of why it was originally invented and a few of its more major historical developments that have greatly affected us. In this section, I would like to talk about how the internet has evolved into a global phenomenon and what that means for us as its consumers. I would begin with email and instant messaging (originally instituted by American Online). Next I want to talk about the revolution of social networking websites such as Facebook. My prime examples will be Facebook and Twitter, but I am considering using other examples such as MySpace, or (a musical social networking site), depending on the amount of information I can find for the first two. I want to discuss how these have revolutionized the way we share information with one another and how we communicate (both online and real life) and the influence these things have had on our culture. I also want to take a look at how companies can use these tools to their marketing advantage.

Emma Newcombe (12/14)
"Meeting the News Halfway":  The New York Herald and Nineteenth-Century Newsgathering

My seminar paper focuses on 19th-century journalism, and how the increased speed of news-gathering around the middle of the century impacted American journalism.  I look particularly at theNew York Herald's news-gathering techniques from 1835 through to the Civil War, as this paper was known specifically for its pioneering methods of communication.  I study how these news-gathering methods affected both what and how journalists wrote, and how readers in turn processed this news.  I conclude by looking at the impact of the Internet on journalism today, and analyze the relationship between readers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  I hope that my paper offers some insight into the development of American journalism, in particular the delicate relationship between the editor and the American public.

Claire Solomon (12/14)
The Presence of Song:  Constructing Musical Memoirs

"You are the music while the music lasts."
--T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets

Music provides us with a unique way to construct individual and collective narrative histories and to think about the personal and historical construction of memory.  Community is created when many voices become one song -- when people begin to sing together, to listen together, and to play together.

Every Friday for the last twelve weeks, I visited Prestwick Chase, a senior living community in Saratoga Springs, New York.  I met with residents from the Enclave, Prestwick Chases's Adult Home for residents who cannot live independently.  Each week we gathered as a group and embarked on a musical journey through the past and the present.  I encouraged residents to construct "musical memoirs" -- stories from their pasts that they described first musically, and then anecdotally.  I asked one primary question:  Why is music such a powerful tool for memory?  I explored answers to that question in various forms, primarily in reference to the ways in which people tell their stories through music, as individuals, group members, and as Americans.  I thought about how we use music to create and to cross cultural boundaries, and to further understand one creative means through which we become and express ourselves.  The songs we sang and listened to were not only about the specific individual's past, they also helped me to understand episodes of history through music.  Each week with my group was a gift, for me and for them.  We sang together, we shared together, and we remembered together. 

Gemma Striker
Immaculate Misconceptions:  Activists' Inability to Reconceive Sexuality in America

My senior seminar paper explores how and why America's construction of sexuality is extremely immovable.  I will investigate the feminist and LGBT movements of the 1980s whose initial goal was to create new inclusive constructions of sexuality but instead pursed a very limited view of sexuality that marginalized some of their community members.  Through an exploration of various archival materials, newsletters, other press publications, I will demonstrate that a powerful majority within these movements suppressed by their fellow community members by limiting their intellectual and physical space.  More specifically, I focus on the feminists embroiled in the "Sex Wars" of the 1980s and the gay AIDS activists of a similar period who inadvertently supported America's sexual values by reconstructing homosexuality in a heterosexual manner.  This tactic negatively impacted many minority communities within the feminists and LGBT community because their queer sexual politics could fit into a heterosexual construction of homosexuality.  This construction has become continual fixture in LGBT politics because it helped the political majority within the LGBT community.  However, the heterosexual construction of the same-sex relations has stalled the LGBT movement fight for civil rights as the focus on marriage equality again ignores the same minorities that were marginalized in the 1980s.