by Amanda Damon
Hi Comm Majors!
This is a short blog series on student experiences in the COMM 395 class, Communication and the Presidency, of Spring 2017. For the class, students are given a grant to visit a Presidential Library or National Archive site–anywhere in the country (and sometimes beyond!)–to do primary source research. For the site visits, student researchers must conduct independent study of original documents on a theme of their choosing, which culminates in a 30-page term paper.
These little interviews will hopefully be informative and a resource for future COMM 395 students, and interesting for those who’ve already taken the class. Enjoy!
COMM 395: Communication and the Presidency
Instructor: David Eisenhower, J.D.
What library or archive site did you go to, and was your project about?
I went to the Lyndon B. Johnson library in Austin, TX. My project specifically looked at, to me, the most interesting juxtaposition during LBJ’s presidency: the passage of monumental civil rights legislation with the simultaneous failure of the Vietnam War. Though, my project definitely had more of an emphasis on the civil rights legislation – Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – and examining the differences between these two pieces of legislation, in tone, approach, and purpose. These two pieces of legislation were both so profound, and probably could not have been passed in the way that they were if it wasn’t for LBJ, yet he does not receive the recognition for them that he deserves.
What did you enjoy most about this project?
It is hard to pick one thing, but I really enjoyed the independence that this project granted me! Independence first and foremost in my ability to choose whomever or whatever I wanted to research. Then having the chance to travel alone to Austin, TX, to do research and meet with archivists was such an exciting experience. But, what I really loved, was seeing the evolution of my project. between the documents that I discovered at the library and my amazing conversations with Professor Eisenhower, I loved that I was myself surprised with my own work. What I thought my paper was going to be about turned out quite different in actuality, and that surprise is what I loved most.
What was most challenging about this project?
Hmm, I think the answer to this is two fold. First, getting past that initial threshold of pages, and overcoming the seemingly daunting task of a 30+ page paper was a challenge. I was nervous to see how my one idea would blossom into such an in-depth piece of work. But then, in actuality, the biggest challenge throughout my research and writing process ended up being the opposite. I came across so many exciting, unique, and meaningful documents while at the library. In fact, I came back with 600+ pictures of documents, so for me, choosing which documents to highlight and choosing a specific direction to guide my paper down was difficult. I had so much I wanted to discuss and so many different things I found interesting and worth sharing, but it is important to remember the need for cohesion throughout this project. Reeling in my aspirations and reality was something I kept in mind throughout this writing process – and who knows, I might come back to it and expand on it further later in college!
What is your favorite document or artifact you came across when you visited the presidential library/archive site?
One of my favorite documents that I came across during my research at the library was notes for a meeting with Martin Luther King Jr. months before the legislation was passed. The reasons I loved this document was first, because it was a hidden gem! These early meetings with MLK are rarely documented – no meeting notes, no audio recordings, not much to refer to, so I felt that this really shed a lot of light on something I was interested in. Also, I loved it because it wasn’t as formal of a document. I felt like it was most helpful to me in forming my perception of LBJ and what he personally stood for in terms of civil rights, despite the negative backlash he received. He was taking strides to make progress before it was even forced upon him, and I think that often goes unnoticed, just like this document did.
Any tips or tricks for travelling to and working at your specific site?
I would say my advice for travelling to your library or site would be to be smart about the time in which you choose to go. Definitely go into your visit with a clear idea of what you are looking for; in fact, I wrote an extremely detailed outline of what I hoped and needed to accomplish/find while there, which definitely helped me keep on track among the breadth of documents you can easily get lost it. I went in the middle of the semester, which was helpful for me. Also, my advice would be to reach out to the archivist at your library before you go. I shared my outline with him before I went, and arranged a meeting with him before I began my individual research. I really felt this helped ground me in terms of learning abut the library resources, gaining new perspective, and having a clear course of action I was going to follow strategically during my limited time there. I feel like you should make sure to leave yourself at least 2 full days at the library to research!
Any advice for future COMM 395 students? Or any other closing thoughts about this project?
My biggest piece of advice for future COMM 395 students would be to take advantage of Professor Eisenhower. Some of the best moments of my semester and project research process were the conversations I had with Eisenhower. His perspective, advice, and input really helped guide me in the direction that my paper turned out, and without his thoughts and push, Id on’t know if my paper would’ve turned out the way that it did. Right from the start, meet with him, talk with him, and just try to learn from his as much as you can, because you don’t want to miss out on all that this class has to offer right on Penn’s campus, let alone the travel elsewhere required for your work! Also, pick a topic and/or person you are truly interested in. You need to fully immerse yourself in this topic to really excel at this project, and so I would suggest a comprehensive brainstorming process before you jump in. Of course, you can always change your mind, but for me it helped to think through it clearly beforehand so that when I started the topic, I was ready, excited, and sure it was what I wanted to be studying. Lastly, immerse yourself in the topic too – read books on it, watch movies/shows, etc. It is not just your research at the library that can shape your paper; everything can!