Thesiscrazy!!!: Mariel Middlebrook

Next up, the marvelous Mariel Middlebrook ‘20! For her thesis, Mariel spent time on the ground in Chile, interviewing student activists and conducting an extensive ethnography of Chilean politics and culture. Read after the jump to learn more about Mariel’s SUPER impressive work  !!


Mariel Middlebrook ’20 uses she/her pronouns and is a double major in Spanish and Anthropology. Her thesis, in the anthropology department (but influenced by her Spanish studies), focuses on the passing down of history in Chilean cultures, specifically as it pertains to its active political environment. 


Working title:

“Educación Bajo Sombras: The Role of Chilean Student Protests in the Transmission of Memory, Teaching of History and Political Spacialization”


On her topic:

So in anthropology we do something called ethnography, which is basically going to a place and trying to tell a certain story or experience. I mean, there’s a whole debate about what it means to practice anthropology and what it means to study people. But what I was really trying to do through this thesis is to describe what the study of history has become.

So I have three main chapters. The first one is an overview of student activism and educational changes, especially in regards to History education through the years leading up to the dictatorship in the coup d’etat, and then through the dictatorship and the 90s as a period of relative established democracy, and then the 2000s and into the [20]20s as a period of real political turmoil.

So in the second chapter, I focus on the idea of memory as something that is inherited through family members, whether that is through storytelling or through family genealogy, and I interviewed teachers who actually had grown up during the dictatorship and whose parents, some parents had been executed. Some people had really, really horrific stories to tell.  But their testimonies, how that influences the way that they teach classes and how that influences the future that they envision in their grandchildren. And also in the second chapter, I spoke to some young activists — I spoke to some young kids with their parents present just because of IRB regulations, and was sort of focusing on how these kids related to the idea of memory, and how they relate to the idea of the memory, the dictatorship and what their political consciousness is. And that’s something that I’ve seen with my own little cousins and younger kids and my family and myself growing up: sort of this awareness of what’s going on in the country where your parents are from, especially one that’s very defined by violence. 

And the third chapter considers the role of political spaces. The first is history, the second is memory, and the third is the differences between public and private spaces and how the teaching of history, how the role of memory, and really how a protest is enacted. So looking at some examples where people protest in domestic spaces, there was a woman that I met that she was tasked with sort of babysitting international students when her host parents were away there. There are a lot of very interesting and strict restrictions on foreign students. And she was actually a Venezuelan refugee, and she compared experiences during the Venezuela turmoil of a couple years ago that continues today. And she would sort of, I guess, call people out on their privilege, especially the American students within this kitchen because she is not an employee of the of the city abroad organization, but she is also an expat or she’s also a refugee living in Chile and she challenges the university or the Study Abroad regulations by interacting with students in a different way that’s not technically allowed. So that form of Domestic protests versus a lot of students on the street, how that relates to police surveillance, especially within Chile  in a wider context.


On how she thought of her topic:

Since freshman year, I wanted to go abroad, and my mom’s family is originally from Mexico. So I initially wanted to go back and visit family, but because of the political instability and the violence there, my family recommended against it. So I went to Chile, which is sort of deemed as a safer Latin American country. Then I applied for funding and I knew that I wanted to study the role of student protests, because Chile has a very long history of being a hotspot for student activism, especially within Central and South American countries. And when I arrived there, I joined a study abroad program and I was there for about three months in total. And the first thing that I realized was that the government had recently passed a new legislation that would make history an optional subject for the last two years of high school. And this obviously has different benefits, has different drawbacks — but I was really interested in studying a series of protests that began from students and teachers alike. So there was a one year dictatorship in Judah ended in 1990, so I was really interested in studying how the relationship of the idea of history as this very tangible and real thing, but also something that is taught through books in the classroom, and how political legislation nowadays is still influenced by the end of the dictatorship, and what it means to remove history from a mandatory subject to an optional one. And it’s still mandatory to take something called Citizenship Studies, which is basically Government and sort of some civic education. But without the historical context. 


On her writing process:

This project has been my baby. So I started working — I started writing back in December, January. The anthropology department likes their students to have their chapters drafted like a month before submission. So I had a full draft. And I’ve been doing final edits for like the last week and a half. And I’m just waiting on my advisor to give me the comments on my abstract and then I’ll be ready to submit as soon as the portal. I mean, ironically, the one thing that COVID has helped with is actually getting more time to do this because I’m not on campus. I’m not working, I’m not taking classes — I wouldn’t have been in the same position if I hadn’t been socially isolating.


On advice to future thesis writers:

Expect the unexpected, and sometimes it can end up being what you initially hoped or expected. Because now, this COVID thing has changed every so much. I mean, my partner and I moved from Connecticut to Illinois a week and a half ago, like two months earlier than expected. Setting up an apartment and soing everything. So it’s a lot a lot at once. But um, I guess, get used to writing in weird situations? Probably something that a lot of thesis writers would say is to find something passionate about, I mean, my boyfriend, he’s doing a biology thesis, but he’s been working on it for two years. And he’s discovered the new bacterial species and done these incredible things. And it worked. It’s really, really cool to see the project sort of come to fruition.


On her favorite part of the thesis:

Probably my favorite part of the thesis was the fieldwork. So I was given funding from the Anthropology Department to study abroad in Chile for three months. And that let me A) live in a country where I could speak my mother tongue, which is Spanish, probably for the first time in a long time. And also meet these incredible young people. Some activists are fifteen, sixteen, and others are 75. And just the most incredible range of people who are really passionate about education. And I’m actually going into a master’s program to become a teacher and study the process of education and how it’s shaped in a very different context for us.


On choosing to write her thesis in English rather than Spanish:

“All of my interviews were conducted in Spanish and then I translated all of them. And I relied heavily on spell-check for accents. Because I’m a Spanish major, I’ve been lucky enough to learn how to write academic spin, but it would not have worked in the same way. And my writing [in English] is much better anyway. There are quite a few direct quotes in Spanish and then I’ve done my best to translate them into English. So for if they’re any Spanish speakers or people who can read Spanish and sort of get that understanding, that’s a cool addition. Given that I’m trying to teach Spanish as well, I should really become better at that. But I think if I had to write it all in Spanish it would have been a grammatical mess. 


On repeated words/phrases:

‘Protest,’ ‘history,’ ‘memory.’ Also probably ‘furthermore’; I have a bit of a fetish.


On other things she wanted to mention:

It’s weird to think that I’m about to graduate, or ‘not’ graduate, I think everything just changed for everyone with COVID. And the thesis is probably a solid representation of my senior spring and even if I didn’t get graduation, I love that. There’s like one physical thing I can have.


On theses feces:

Given that we went on a road trip from Connecticut to Illinois, not great during that week, and we finally just got our toilet working. We’ve been in this apartment for like a week, so much improved in the last few days.


Final thoughts:

A shout out to Wesleying’s sdz who was my housemate up until a month ago! She’s awesome.


Mariel’s Thesiscrazy interview would of course never be complete without mention of these lil guys.

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