Building a Fortress for My Thesis Defense

The Indiana Soldiers' and Sailors Monument in 1898. Photo Credit: Wikipedia
The Indiana Soldiers’ and Sailors Monument in 1898. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

I am feeling on top of the world at this very moment. This morning I submitted a draft of my master’s thesis to my committee in anticipation of my formal thesis defense on Tuesday, March 11. I still have a long way to go in the entire process, but I feel like a huge load of researching, writing, and editing has been lifted off my shoulders. The draft is longer than I anticipated–141 pages, which is almost double the minimum requirement for a history master’s thesis at IUPUI–but I honestly believe that every question I ask and every interpretation I provide has an important purpose within the study (of which I’ll have more information in future posts). I’ve been very fortunate to have a committee of professors who have taken an active interest in my topic and who have already read rough drafts of all my chapters multiple times. Having three different perspectives throughout the process has allowed for a wide range of questions and comments on revising my work, and their prompt attention to my research has given me ample time to craft what I hope will be an important addition to the study of Civil War memory in Indiana and the entire Grand Army of the Republic.

When I first started graduate school in August 2012 I hadn’t put much thought into my thesis topic. Indianapolis was a new city for me, and I didn’t know a whole lot about the history of the state, although I knew that I wanted to do something Civil War-related. Within days of moving to the city I visited the Indiana Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in downtown Indianapolis, and this visit prompted within me questions about the nature of Civil War memory in the Hoosier state. What really struck me about the monument at the time was its location. The very definition of Indianapolis’s cardinal directions has been shaped by the monument’s location in the geographical center of the city. Everything west of the monument is western Indianapolis, everything east is eastern Indianapolis, so on and so forth. City designer Alexander Ralston platted a circle in the middle of the city in 1821 with the intention of placing the Governor’s mansion in this circle (the mansion was built poorly, however, and no governor ever lived there, ironically enough). My interpretation of this design is that Ralston aimed to place Indiana’s chief executive in the center of the capitol city as a way of reinforcing notions of good governance, “progress,” westward expansion, and American patriotism in the Hoosier state.

With the end of the Civil War, however, calls were made to turn the circle into a commemorative monument to Indiana’s Civil War dead, and in 1887 the Grand Army of the Republic finally persuaded the Indiana General Assembly to appropriate $200,000 to build the monument. By placing the monument in the geographic center of the capitol city, Indiana now defined itself as a state whose very foundations were built on its collective remembrance of the past. Future legislation banning the construction of any buildings within the circle that were taller than the monument reinforced this idea by ensuring that future commercial developments would never overshadow the state’s memories of its past and its war dead.

Even though my thesis did not have enough space to address the construction of the Indiana Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, this August visit to the monument sparked my interest in looking at the Indiana veterans who were so adamant about constructing a monument that reflected their memories of war.

Following this visit, I outlined my plan for researching, writing, and editing:

September 2012 – April 2013: In September I decided that the Indiana GAR was going to be my topic. For the next seven months I dedicated myself to doing research and developing research questions for the thesis. I also presented a few rough drafts of ideas I had at conferences at Ohio University and the University of Indianapolis, which gave me the opportunity to get some feedback from professors outside of IUPUI. Finally, I started blogging a bit about my research here at Exploring the Past (which is under the “Grand Army of the Republic” category to the right).

May 2013 – December 2013: Early in the process I made a vow to have all three chapters written by the end of 2013. In May I had a formal prospectus defense in which I outlined my ideas for each chapter and compiled a list of primary and secondary sources I intended to use throughout the study. This prospectus defense was successful, and I began writing shortly thereafter. Over the summer I wrote two chapters and continued to conduct research for my third chapter, which will be looking at the relationship between the Indiana GAR’s desire for “patriotic instruction” for young children and the rise of public education in the state during the 1890s and 1900s. I wrote the third chapter in my free time during the Fall semester and completed it in December.

January 2014 – Present: Since the turn of the new year I have focused on writing an introduction and conclusion while also making extensive edits to the entire document. Now that I’ve turned in a draft of the whole product, I will now focus on making edits, tying up loose ends, and preparing for my thesis defense. I am also presenting a paper about the Indiana GAR at the Indiana Association of Historians conference at Anderson University on March 8th. At some point in March or April I will have the thesis reviewed by an editor at the IUPUI graduate office, followed by the eventual publication of the study into book form. Thanks to IUPUI’s commitment to open access policies, my master’s thesis will also be available online to the whole world through the university library’s ScholarWorks Repository. Hopefully others will read it besides my family 🙂

What do you think about the process of writing a master’s thesis? Any recommendations for those looking to get a head start on their own studies? Be sure to leave a comment if you have ideas.