I don’t know if Bernays actually said this, but either way it’s a pretty baller quote
Today is the day!!!! Our long collective thesis journey is finally over. Fear not, we’ll have more ThesisCrazy interviews for you after the champagne flows, but today we have Anna Nguyen ‘22 writing a thesis inspired by the WSA and Irene Westfall ’22 discussing the attention-whore who invented PR. Read on after the cut, and I’ll see you on the Olin steps at 4:00!
Interviews by missweazy and Soap
Anna Nguyen ‘22 (she/her). CSS Major, International Relations Certificate, Thesis in CSS, Carrel #413.
Working Title: “Butterfield’s Defeat: A History of Wesleyan University”
On her topic: “It’s on the history of Wesleyan and the different institutional identities that Wesleyan has had over the years.”
On how she thought of her topic: “I started to be on the WSA my sophomore year, which was when COVID started. So I’ve been working a lot with administrators and a lot of people on campus and a lot of the times I feel like everyone is complaining about how much Wesleyan sucks. I thought that I should learn more about how it has come to be the way that it is now in terms of the way that it operates. So I started a project on American higher education in general and then I focused it in on Wesleyan’s history. My thesis advisor kept saying in the beginning: ‘all of your criticism is valid, but I don’t think you have enough evidence to support it.’ So I said: ‘Okay, then I will just learn about the history of Wesleyan so that I can say what I say with confidence.’”
On her progress: “I’m done.”
On her current mental state: “I don’t know how to describe it. I’ve been done for two weeks now. It’s weird because I go around and all my thesis friends are so fazed by it, which I was two weeks ago. Today, before the thesis is due, I feel a bit confused that I spent nine months on something, and it’s ending really soon. But also happy that it’s done. It’s been too long.”
On her most upsetting thesis experience: “Learning about how good we used to be, and how much better we can do. Throughout the history of Wesleyan there are things that are really bad. We had coeducation in 1871. And then some of the trustees came in and said that we can’t have coed anymore, because the boys stopped coming here because of the women. So then we dropped it in 1910. Things like that are very frustrating. That was Stephen Henry Olin, by the way. I have worked at Olin for four years since my freshman year. There was a period of time when I came in and just look at him and his statue and I’m like, I’m so angry at him. There were moments where that was really frustrating, but there were also really good things that I’ve learned about it. So I’ve come to appreciate Wesleyan much more.”
On her favorite form of procrastination: “Come to Pi. Get an iced matcha latte and then I just sit out there and do nothing. I just people watch.”
On her plans for after it’s turned in: “I’m gonna start drinking at 10am. And then I’m gonna go out with one of my best friends and dress shop for my graduation. I don’t know why we’re doing it so early but we’re doing it. And then 4pm we’re gonna pop the champagne on the steps of Olin. I’m gonna be very drunk for 48 hours.”
Her advice for future thesis writers: “I think the thesis is an intellectual project, but it’s ultimately a very personal one. You should find something that you as a person are very interested in. Just know that it will make you feel defeated a lot of the times before you feel victorious about it. Find a good thesis advisor who believes in you more than you do in yourself.”
On her favorite part of his thesis: “I’ve learned about the meanings of the names. So I’m a Freeman scholar and I’ve never really known about this guy named Freeman before. Like, you’ve seen his name all around campus, right? I learned about the names of Butterfield and what that meant and what kind of person he was in Wesleyan history… Learning about my own history. I think Wesleyan history has become a part of my history. My favorite part about it is to get to know myself.”
If her thesis was a song/movie/tv show: “I listened to Hamilton a lot when I was doing this thesis. And I also listened to…This is so funny. The song is called ‘Fall on Me’ by A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera. I would say that would be the song. I would be like: ‘Can something just fall on me? This history, can I just know it now?’”
Her most used word or phrase: “Wesleyan, history, and Butterfields.”
Question she wished I had asked: “Is it okay to drop a thesis if you want to? Yeah, it is okay. It’s not the end of the world. I think the thesis is a great thing to do, but it’s not for everyone. I’ve seen friends who tried to keep dragging it on and it just does a really big disservice to them and their mental health. So as much as this series is used to celebrate the achievement of thesis writers, I also think it’s important to acknowledge that a thesis is not the thing that you should do during your senior year. If you’re not up for it, that’s fine. There are different ways to explore the things that a thesis teaches you to do without having to do a thesis.”
Irene Westfall ‘22 (she/her). History Major, Thesis in History, Carrel #335.
Working Title: “”Persuasion for Profit”: Public Relations and Corporate Power at Midcentury”
On her topic: “The topic is the history of public relations, specifically in the 1950s, when PR as a profession became a lot more central to corporate practice, which I argue in my thesis is an important thing to understand for the development of corporate power generally. In the postwar period PR became important in a way it hadn’t been before even though it had existed since the early 1900s. So I’m analyzing it as a form of corporate propaganda, essentially, and tracing its development from the post-WWI era and up until the late 40s and early 50s where I look at two case studies of PR in practice. I’m also looking at the theory of engineering consent, which was written by this very prominent PR person named Edward Bernays, who I study pretty extensively as an example of the philosophy and set of ethical guidelines supposedly underpinning PR in that period. And then I add the case studies to show like, ‘oh did that hold up in the real world.’”
On how she thought of her topic: “All history majors take this class called ‘Historiography’ typically in the fall of their junior year, and in that class you study different ways of writing and thinking about history, and the final project for that class is a research proposal where you basically plan out what you would do if you were to write a thesis. My topic was civil defense propaganda in the early cold war period, aimed specifically at children and trying to understand how children were socialized into the early atomic age in the midst of these unprecedented and existential threats on the survival of the planet. After that I was really interested in questions of propaganda, basically. I didn’t end up sticking with the topic that I chose for Historiography because I was kind of tired of it by the end of the class, but my thesis is totally informed by an interest in that period and that general topic. I also was listening to a lot of history podcasts, more just for fun, like I am a history major, and I happened to listen to two podcasts on the same day that both mentioned this guy Edward Bernays but in two wildly different contexts, and I was like ‘What the hell? Who is this guy?’ I started reading more about him and it turned out he was considered the father of PR, had a crazy long career that lasted from WWI up until he died in the 90s, and he was involved in things from working adjacent to Thomas Edison in the 20s and then for the government of India in the 50s and also for united fruit company in the coup in Guatemala. From there I knew I had found something that would spark my interest for an entire year and I kept going.”
On her progress: “It’s a long one, like a mental sport. I started messing around with my topic in junior spring and talked to a couple history professors and my advisor to get a sense of book recommendations and names. Eventually I asked Paul Erickson who’s a science historian to be my thesis advisor and he said yes, which was great because I’d never taken a class with him before. Over the summer I did some secondary source reading, and in August I took a week to go down to stay with a family friend and visit Bernays’ archives in the Library of Congress in D.C. He was the kind of guy who definitely saw himself as an important historical figure and he kept everything, because I think he wanted people to study him. So it was funny to do that and realize I was totally doing what he wanted me to do. I went into the archives initially just to see what would catch my interest, and I ended up really drawn to these two cases he had worked on in the 50s for United Fruit Company and Mac Trucks. It all just seemed like he was super important to so many different pieces of American post-war history and the expansion of corporate power and American hegemony. Over the course of the fall I started meeting with my advisor weekly, and did a ton of secondary source reading, and was really happy to find that there are a ton of primary sources and books by Bernays in Olin. By the end of the first semester I wrote my chapter two, and then went back to the archives over winter break and dove into the topics that I had narrowed down. This semester it’s really been a lot of just writing, and I only have a week and a half left!”
On her current mental state: “Honestly pretty decent. I have been thinking a lot about what I’ll do when it’s over, and I think that I’ll be kind of sad. It’s been such a dominant presence in my life for almost a year and it is a topic that I’m genuinely interested in and have had a lot of fun with, so when it’s all over I’ll be like ‘what do I do with myself now?’”
On her most upsetting thesis experience: “Good question. I feel like things haven’t been exactly smooth sailing but there haven’t been any catastrophes, which is good. I never broke my computer or anything. Going down to D.C. twice was a difficult process. Spending as much time in the archives as I could plus covid restrictions that prevented me from being there as much as I wanted to was hard. Last summer you could only book one research slot a day which was like three hours, and so I would book all morning slots and then call every morning to see if another one had magically opened up, and that only happened one time. Every morning at like 8:15 as I was walking from the subway to the Library of Congress I would call and be like “is there an open research spot?” and they would say “No there’s not, but I’ll see you in a minute.” So that was a little difficult. Also just going down there and keeping up the momentum and energy level doing research all day in an unfamiliar place was challenging. But it was an adventure too.
On her favorite form of procrastination: “Recently over the past week while I really should be finishing my first chapter I have been procrastinating by editing my other chapters, which is productive but not what I need to be doing. Other than that, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts and cooking in my kitchen. That’s my de-stressing time.”
Plans for April 14/after she hands it in: “All of my housemates are doing thesis so we’re all under the gun stressed right now, so we have a list on our bulletin board of post-thesis plans, like going out to eat and going to the beach etc. So we have stuff planned for the rest of the semester, but on the actual day of April 14th obviously we’ll go to Olin and pop champagne. I learned recently that we have to bring our own champagne which is a little disappointing like, after all this can’t they just buy us alcohol? But maybe that would pose liability problems. Whatever. Either way I’ll go up to the Olin steps and then maybe we’ll all go out to eat together, and then there’s bar night.”
Her advice for future thesis writers: “Definitely would recommend it, as a thing to do. It has been really fulfilling, and the longest paper I’d ever written before embarking on my thesis was like eighteen pages, so at first I was like ‘I don’t even know if it’s possible for me to write this much,’ and then I just figured out that it was. Especially if it’s something you’ve been reading deeply about for a really long time. So if you think you’ve found something that really grabs your interest, do it. Also forming a regular schedule that you stick to, ideally with another person who is also doing a thesis, is really important and helpful. Someone who just walked by is my friend Lily who is also doing a thesis in the religion department, and at the beginning of this year we started meeting at regular intervals in the library to work silently next to each other and keep each other accountable on our totally different topics. But yeah, having a regular schedule was really important because it’s so self-motivated and I only meet my advisor around once a week for an hour.”
If her thesis was a song/movie/tv show: “It would have to be something really over the top, not because my thesis is necessarily crazy but I feel like Bernays was kind of an attention seeker. The first thing that came to mind was Mad Men, but that’s really about advertising and not PR, and there’s a big distinction between the two.”
Most used word/phrase: “I say the word ‘persuasion’ a lot, for obvious reasons. I also say the word ‘practitioner’ because I was trying to think of a work that could fit like, a practitioner of persuasion, or propaganda, or PR, or advertising. So those two words, a lot. Also ‘the engineering of consent’ comes up as a phrase over and over again.”
Questions they wished we asked? “Hmm. I mean I think overall I’ve been happy with my experience writing a thesis, but I think it’s kind of a shame that once the theses are in, for the people who are writing theses, as opposed to music students or studio art students, that you just kind of hand it in and that’s in. There’s no chance to share your work, or any presentation or anything. So I think that’s a little disappointing, and it would be nice to have a place to exhibit or share what you’ve done.”
Theses Feces: “That is a funny question. Honestly fine. I feel like I’ve been generally keeping it cool, like my overall mental and physical state that corresponds to that, so yeah. No complaints.”