Two roads diverged…and sorry I could not travel both.

Hello and happy spring semester everyone! After a long and MUCH needed break, I am excited to begin the New Year tackling the next challenging and rewarding stage with you all.

To begin,  I thought that this first post might provide an opportunity to flesh out both of the topics I am considering and even get some potential feedback. Though I am interested and invested in both projects, I hope to find the one that is the most feasible and also the one that will sustain me throughout the process. (Also, sorry in advance for the short novel I am about to type)

The topics I am considering are:

Disasters in United States History:

I recognize that this sounds about as vague as a topic could possibly be, however, I have yet to determine the specific disaster I would be assessing. I have been researching different disasters in Appalachia, but have not yet narrowed down my radius to this area, primarily because the area of disaster studies in history is slightly sparse compared to other areas of study. I actually discovered this while conducting research for my two historiographical essays last semester. One essay was on Hurricanes in the American South and the other on Floods in American History over, roughly, the past three centuries. What I discovered when poring through the written work on these topics was, many disasters have been covered very little, if at all. Additionally, there are few, if any, synthesized histories of disaster history in the United States, especially from a social standpoint. The lack of literature will certainly affect my research, and at this point I just have to decide if there will be enough literature on the disaster that I choose to cover.

However, so you all can get some sense of the actual project I am considering:

I am interested in looking at unnatural flood disasters and the ways in which communities have been affected. Ted Steinberg discussed “unnatural disasters” extensively in his book, Acts of God, and looks specifically at the ways in which the actions of man have exacerbated the effects of disasters or, in some cases, have even caused them. Steinberg also focuses on vulnerability in said disasters. I have been looking at a flood disaster that occurred in Saltville, Virginia in 1924, when a muck dam at the Mathieson Alkali Works broke. The houses of the workmen were destroyed, and the total death toll was 19. I am interested in the conditions surrounding this event—was the dam shoddily made? Was Mathieson Alkali Works held responsible? Why did this occur and how, in turn, did it affect the town? These are the types of questions I would ask of any disaster, however, the Saltville disaster is currently topping the list of disasters I am considering.

The Back-to-the-Land Movement and its lasting effect on Floyd County:

This topic is slightly more formulated than my last, only because I have actually written an article-length paper on the effect of the counterculture movement in Floyd. For a larger project however, I would look at the ways in which the back-to-the-land movement converged with the farming families that had inhabited Floyd since its establishment. More specifically, I am interested in the ways that the convergence of these two groups and their ideals has resulted in a uniqueness that has contributed to Floyd’s survival and growing success. This topic is significant because many Appalachian and Appalachian-bordering towns have suffered major economic hits, many even becoming ghost towns, for lack of a better description. I believe that the arrival of the back-to-the-land movement in Floyd County in the 1970s provided an opportunity for Floyd to not only survive but also prosper, and by looking at the ways in which the two cultures met, acclimated, and moved forward, I hope to prove this theory.

Because these two topics are completely different and I have yet to decide on one, I have discussed my ideas with many people, professors, and members of my cohort. I have gotten entirely different reactions, suggestions and opinions from everyone, and am hoping to add to the mix by getting the opinions of members of this class. The three professors I met with were:

Dr. David Cline: I chose to meet with Dr. Cline because we have worked closely on many projects over the past four years, and I also essentially “majored” in his classes as an undergraduate. He has experience in public history, and regardless of the project I choose, I will be working closely with the community of one area or another. Additionally, Dr. Cline was the professor for which I wrote my original paper on the back-to-the-land movement in Floyd. The meeting with Professor Cline was very helpful and gave me some different avenues of research to consider, regardless of which project I choose. He actually did some preliminary research years ago on a disaster that occurred in Massachusetts with similarities to the Johnstown Flood, and even threw that particular disaster out as a potential option. His suggestion was to do some more research to see if there was a particular flood disaster I am interested in, and if so, I should be able to gauge the feasibility of the project. However, he assured me that I should be swimming in primary resources for any disaster I choose (if I were to choose that route), but that I could not go wrong regardless of the direction I decide to go in.

Due to many positive experiences working with Dr. Cline and his helpfulness and resourcefulness during out meeting, I asked him to be my advisor. He has expressed interest in both topics I am considering, and even more significantly, I believe he will be invested in my success in this venture, regardless of the direction I choose to take.

Dr. Amy Nelson: I spoke to Dr. Nelson because she had been very helpful when working with me last semester on constructing a historiography on disasters and floods in American History. I believed she would be the first to tell me if a disaster project was outside the realm of feasibility for my thesis. She gave me similar advice to Dr. Cline—that I cannot go wrong, but should dedicate a day or two to researching each topic idea and then make a decision based on what I deem most satisfactory. Dr. Nelson also offered a unique perspective if I were to go with the Floyd paper—I could use a spatial perspective to assess why the counterculture came to Floyd in the first place, subsequently leading to Floyd’s survivability.

Dr. Marian Mollin: I met with Dr. Mollin because I had taken a class with her on the Long Sixties during my undergrad, and she is especially knowledgeable about the Counterculture Movement and its catalysts. Surprisingly, Dr. Mollin actually seemed more interested in the disaster project, and made a point that if I were to do a project on the counterculture in Floyd I would have to make a strong argument for why it is significant. I would need to consider why anyone (other than someone born in or living in or around Floyd, like myself) would consider this topic important. She recommended using Floyd as a case study and finding another similarly unique town to compare it to. She mentioned that choosing to go in the direction of disaster studies would place me within an up-and-coming subfield of study, however, with that would come a unique set of challenges I would need to be prepared to work with.

I am thankful to have spoken to professors who provided helpful feedback, but I realize the ultimate decision is mine to make, and hopefully by the end of this week (if I stick to my self-imposed timeline) I will have decided on the direction in which I will move forward.

2 thoughts on “Two roads diverged…and sorry I could not travel both.”

  1. Two fascinating topics! One thought…sometimes working on a project that once seemed “finished” -well, it can be hard to sustain momentum. Exploring a new area of history can be more exciting. And Dr. Mollin is right–disaster studies are have captured historical interest recently. A relatively unmined field let’s you help set the agenda for other researchers, even if you struggle with a sparse historiography. Will be interested to hear your response to “Salsa Dancing.”

  2. (Hit post too soon.) A question — why are you interested in disasters? What is it that makes a you want to know about a flood? Good projects are often those with which you have an emotional tie. So why would each of these projects mean something to you?

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