One of the real joys of being a historian is the beginning of a project. The whole narrative, all of the discoveries stretch out before you, and it is one of pure potential. These past few busy weeks, I’ve had about an hour a week for the life of the mind, but really felt this exhiliration.
I have been poking around in the Virginia Tech Special Collections recently doing some scout work for my classes, especially a class I am focusing on Blacksburg in the 1930s. Recently I came across an extensive collection pertaining to a Roanoke architectural firm, Smithey & Boynton, and today I was looking at some from a Richmond firm, Carneal and Johnston — both of whom designed buildings in Blacksburg and on the VPI (VT) campus. In trying to learn a bit more about the firms I found some other collections as well as some digital materials.
No MA theses, though. The MA thesis is a product that seems to be in decline as programs focus either on seminar papers that could turn into articles or on pushing the dissertation and not worrying about the MA thesis along the way. Not quite the bite size of a seminar paper/article, and not quite big or original enough to create new scholarly frameworks, the MA thesis seems to be the red-headed stepchild of academic products.
It is a work of scholarship I have an increasing appreciation for. In that the intellectual ambitions are typically fairly modest, the scope of theses often really are manageable in size. In addition, since students are not trying to make their career based on it, they don’t often push the boundaries of theory or creativity. Instead, they are often solid exercises in demonstrating mastery over a broad topic and specific ability with a manageable set of sources. Just the kind of thing I’d like to see students do for a firm like Smithey & Boynton or Carneal & Johnston.
I’m in the early stages of a career and won’t have the opportunity to do much with these materials, much as I might like to get to know all about architecture in Virginia. But I got excited thinking about the possibilities of Virginia Tech students doing MA theses on firms like these — it really would be a great set of projects that could be valuable resources for scholars, researchers, and the public in years to come. Just reading the finding aids is not enough background on the firms, the principals, or their buildings. Digital catalogues don’t offer the appropriate context or analysis. Only an actual narrative piece of scholarship can both give the background information and make an argument about the trajectory of the firm over time. And an MA thesis would be just about right for one of these firms or another. So students: think about it.
Carneal & Johnston resources: Digital Library of Virginia (photos)
Carneal & Johnston papers
Smithey & Boynton papers
More Smithey & Boynton papers