Research, Reflection, and the Road to Grad School — by Rhiannon Koehler

In my second year of college I enrolled in a research seminar that at once thrilled and terrified me (everyone else was going to be so learned and so old, seniors at least!). The title of the seminar was “Germany in the Age of Total War.” I expected to walk out of the class with knowledge of books that I otherwise would not have been exposed to and perhaps having been a part of some interesting conversations. Instead, after participating in the course and doing research for the final paper, I ended up seriously considering history as a career-path.

The texts that we read in class propelled me to do good research in that seminar. I found that you simply cannot be steeped in monographs like Eric Weitz’s Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy, Claudia Koonz’s The Nazi Conscience, or William Sheridan Allen’s The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single Germany Town, 1922-1945 without picking up a few things about how history ought to be done. Between the readings and our class discussions, which were expertly led to integrate historiography into our analysis of political, social, and cultural developments in Germany between 1914 and 1945, I found a research topic.

After reading Koonz and Allen, both of whom detail the change in German women’s lives brought about by Nazi ideology, I decided to write about women who deviated from the standard expectation of acting as wife and mother. But I wanted to do so without sticking to an examination of women in one profession. Rather, I wanted to look at the ways that women carved out space for themselves in a nation that left little room for women to diversify their professional status. I hoped to find out more about women who had joined the industrial sector, women who worked in close political proximity to Reich leadership, and women who had been deeply enmeshed with concentration camps.

I was not interested in looking at women who resisted, but rather at women who chose not to conform to ideological expectations even as they acted on behalf of or were complicit with the regime. I didn’t know who these women were at this point, but my professor pointed me in the direction of some comprehensive secondary sources that I might be able to glean for ideas of individuals to focus on. Texts such as Koonz’s Mothers in the Fatherland and Alison Owings’ German Women Recall the Third Reich were predictably helpful—but so too were Frank Buscher’s The US War Crimes Trial Program in Germany and David Crew’s Nazism and German Society, 1933-1945.

A close reading of these texts helped me choose the women I wanted to discuss and flesh out the framework for the paper. It became clear, though, that I would need voices from the era to support my arguments. It was at this stage that I actively began tracking down primary sources that would allow me to have an inside look at these women’s lives. I was lucky in that some of the women I chose to focus on, such as Traudl Junge, had left behind first-person narratives. I filled other gaps by examining primary sources such as the laws enacted in Nazi Germany that pertained to gender and records of public presentations about the cult of the domestic, such as those by Gertrud Scholtz-Klink. The most helpful resource, though, was an online archive of sorts, maintained by the German Historical Institute in Washington DC, German History in Documents and Images, which allowed me to access legal documents, letters, and photographs from the era without having to travel to a physical archive.

This particular online collection of primary sources was incredibly well organized and abundant, and provided me with much-needed evidence for my paper. The paper that I wrote took longer to write than any paper I’ve written since (I am now a second-year graduate student at UCLA). It was the first time that I had ever engaged with an archive of any sort, the first time that I was writing a paper with a true thesis, and the first time that I was closely reading multiple monographs for my research. It helped that I had fantastic support. I had a professor who was always available and always gave constructive feedback. I had excellent resources, and I had the time to invest. It paid off—researching for the paper gave me skills that I would carry with me into the future, and the paper itself even won an award.

My paper, which I titled “Beyond Womanhood: Complicity and Action in Nazi Germany,” paved the way for much of my future research. It also did what the best undergraduate research should do: it gave me the confidence I needed to continue in the direction of graduate school, and it provided me with the skills that I would need for the rest of college. I have siblings, now heading into college, and my main piece of advice is: don’t hold off until you are a senior to take a research seminar. Do it as early as you feel ready, because the skills you will develop in those courses will help you be successful for the rest of your academic career.

Rhiannon Koehler graduated from Loyola Marymount University in May 2012, with Honors, with a major in History and a minor in Theatre Arts. Her seminar paper, “Beyond Womanhood: Complicity and Action in Nazi Germany,” won the 2012 History Department Award for Best Research Paper by a History Major. She is currently a Ph.D. student in American history at UCLA.


On the Benefits of Attending College Next to An Archive — by Nolan Rivkin

As an undergraduate student studying modern German history at Loyola Marymount University, I had the unique experience of studying less than five miles away from the Wende Museum and Archive – easily the largest archive of East German cultural history in the Western United States (if not the entire U.S.) This proved to be an immensely useful resource. Over the course of four years of undergraduate study, I made use of the Wende during my sophomore, junior and senior years. During my sophomore year I participated in a binational (German and American) undergraduate research group and contributed to the Wende’s recently-launched online exhibition (see the previous entries from Elizabeth Drummond about the Wende Museum Project). As a junior I returned to the Wende to comb through their archives for my own research while writing a seminar paper; this seminar paper later formed the basis (and roughly the last third) of my senior-year thesis. While writing that thesis I made use of the Wende’s archives once again and also received hands-on experience of archive work from the “other side” as a research intern. It is safe to say that the proximity to this resource not only strengthened my own research but also guided my academic path, which has led to a doctoral program in history at the University of Tennessee.

If I had to narrow it down, I would say that my work with the Wende taught me two important lessons relevant to my studies in history:

1) How do make use of an archive. Archival research is one of the most basic tools of a historian, but undergraduate students of history rarely get the chance to do it. Admittedly, not every university is conveniently placed adjacent to an archive, but nevertheless, having the chance to conduct archival research prior to entering graduate school was a great opportunity. The Wende Museum’s archive is small by most standards, but it is still cavernous (and cold! The work stations within it were actually equipped with space heaters) enough to earn its nickname of “the Vault.” While working at the Wende, I learned important lessons about how to locate specific documents from within this vast, frigid space and how to handle them. In the case of the Wende, they have a well-organized digital database with all of the collection indexed to a series of tags and with searchable descriptions, thus providing for easy navigation within the archive.

2) How to interpret cultural artifacts. The main goal of the Wende Museum is to archive cultural artifacts and not simply retell the basic history of the German Democratic Republic; therefore, their archives are stocked not with Stasi documents or transcriptions of political meetings but with home magazines, books and consumer electronics (to name a few examples). Artifacts like these have a lot to teach us; they serve as windows into the everyday life (or Alltagsleben, if you will) of a society that, for the most part, no longer exists. Through cultural artifacts, one can determine and analyze a variety of attributes. To use an example from my own research, I used popular antifascist films to examine East Germans perceptions of their role in the Second World War and how the Socialist Unity Party fostered the antifascist foundational mythology of the GDR. I also had the opportunity to work with the East German lifestyle magazine Kultur im Heim. Researching this magazine afforded me the opportunity to look into East German everyday life and consumer culture to analyze issues such as private spaces, East German design philosophy, and how the state’s political agenda was realized through consumer goods. For example, the heavy use of plastic in new toys, tools and cookware was a direct result of the regime’s “pushing” of plastics to strengthen one of the GDR’s strongest domestic industries. Admittedly, not every historian studies cultural history. However, analyzing cultural artifacts is an important and at times overlooked skill, and I am thankful to have had the opportunity to develop it.

Every undergraduate student of history should pursue the opportunity to conduct first-hand primary-document research. Of course there is nothing wrong with the classic method of conducting research in the library, writing the paper, and turning it in all without leaving campus; but if the opportunity to go out and conduct history in a “real-world” setting exists, it shouldn’t be passed up. Without the academic foundation that I built up with the help of the Wende’s archives, I likely would not have done the academic work that resulted in my application and acceptance to a Ph.D. program at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, where I am continuing my work on 20th-century Central and Eastern Europe.

Nolan Rivkin graduated from Loyola Marymount University in May 2013 with a major in History and minors in both German and Jewish Studies. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville, working with Dr. Monica Black.

Institutional Program Models

Knox has two unique programs which provide robust institutional support for multi-term research projects.

One particularly unique program is our Ford Fellowship program. The program is designed to identify junior-year students interested in pursuing an academic career and prepare these students for graduate study. The program spans 9 months, during which students create and carry out an original research project, practice grant-writing and research budgeting, and participate in informational seminars on graduate school and academia as a profession. The award includes funding for summer between junior and senior year, when the lion’s share of research and/or writing is to take place; however, students are expected to begin work in January already. While they primarily work with a faculty advisor on the research project, they have our Director of Undergraduate Research as a sounding board for proposals and budgets. Additionally, four faculty members are assigned to an advisory committee to serve these students. As a member of this advisory committee representing the Humanities, I aided in selecting candidates (10-12 per year of roughly 30-40 applicants), commented on applications and participated in the seminar series focused on graduate school and life in academia. The result is a real, campus-wide academic support for these students. Such research projects take lots of time, focus, energy and faculty guidance; however, we are able to divide this much needed support across many individuals and offices on campus.

Our Honors program at Knox — a year-long independent research project — is designed more like an MA or PhD project. First, student projects are vetted by a central faculty committee. Those proposals which are accepted are guided by three faculty, and have built into them a series of check-ins and progress reports. Knox even allocates a budget to professors to have meetings over lunch with the student to discuss progress at various stages. Students are provided additional library support, including study carrels and more generous lending periods. The Dean’s office sets aside funding for copying and printing costs for Honors students, ensuring economic boundaries are eliminated. Last, but not least, our Director of Undergraduate Research tracks each student and serves as an additional guide. Regular check-in emails and progress reports are forwarded to this Director as well. The Director may also suggest additional funding resources for research or travel for students. Students are also encouraged to use the writing resources offered by our Center for Teaching and Learning to aid in forming their ideas and improving their academic prose. For the two honors projects I have been involved in so far, students actively use all committee members. They receive input and coaching on their proposals, outlines and chapters, leading up to a final project which typically tops 60-80 pages (though one just defended weighed in at over 200 pages). There is also a formal defense, which includes a budget for an outside reviewer to be present for the thesis defense, providing the student with more feedback they must incorporate before turning in a final, revised version in order to be awarded Honors.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, funding and infrastructure is already present for undergraduate research, but this is often targeted at students in the sciences. Encouraging students in the Humanities to engage with research projects, and providing them with this manner of support, is still lacking. Such structured opportunities take this kind of undergraduate research project from an idealistic proposal to reality.

Could you foresee your institution creating such committees and programs? How could the intensive workload of mentoring such projects across multiple faculty and offices be carried out at your institution?

Out of the Classroom, Into the Museum: Undergraduate Research at the Wende Museum (Conclusion)

Part 5: Conclusion

This type of undergraduate research requires good community partners and strong institutional support, but the benefit for students is well worth the investment of time, space, and monies. There are two main lessons that I would take away from this experience. The first lesson is that it is essential that the various partners involved – the students, the faculty, the universities, and the community partners – clarify their expectations early in the process and come to a collective understanding about them. Community-based learning is most valuable when it is neither mere charity (students doing volunteer work) nor an off-campus site for learning (where students merely use the museum, for example, as another resource), but where both parties benefit from a collaborative undertaking – where students learn from community actors and where their learning contributes back to that community. The community partner must thus be involved from the start, in designing the experience, to ensure that the student research is of a kind that will be useful for the community organization. Once students understand the community partner’s expectations, they will be better prepared to make the most of their research. The second lesson is that this specific type of community-based learning is difficult to do in the space of a month. It would work better as a full semester-long course, with the historical content (the classroom part) front-loaded into the course, as a foundation for students for when they go out of the classroom, into the community, to do hands-on work in the museum. More time and more structure might also help the students to work more efficiently towards the final project. Expanding the workshop into a proper course might also address – even if not completely – the imbalances that often exist between students from different institutions, whether domestic or international. Had we made this a semester-long course, the LMU students could have had some of the same preparation that the German students had, so that the workshop part of the course, when students came together as a group to work in the museum, could have been more truly collaborative. While this type of research should never supplant the traditional research paper, it can supplement it.

For an update about the exhibit…

Out of the Classroom, Into the Museum: Undergraduate Research at the Wende Museum (Part 4)

Part 4: The Challenges

As with any new experiment, there were a number of challenges that presented themselves before and during the workshop. With any sort of project that involves collaboration with the local community as well as international actors, one of the challenges is finding resources to support the endeavor. Participating in the workshop meant that LMU would have to invest in the workshop (with monies and space). That meant convincing the Dean that this was a project worthy of financial investment. Fortunately, the workshop dovetailed nicely with a lot of the initiatives that my college is undertaking – a focus on interdisciplinarity (history and museum studies), an effort towards internationalization (collaboration with German students), and a push for community-based learning (a partnership with the Wende Museum). Tying undergraduate research to university and college strategic planning and curricular initiatives is essential if we wish to get our universities to support it. In this case, the Dean’s Office, the Office of the VP (now Associate Provost) for Undergraduate Research, the History Department, and the European Studies Program all offered monies in support of the project; the History Department also offered space, and both our administrative assistant and I offered our time and labor. In addition, the Wende Museum allowed the students full access to the Museum’s holdings, even as it was in the midst of a thorough inventory. Cristina Cuevas-Wolf also gave generously of her own time, mentoring the students through the process of working in a museum and developing an exhibit. She also arranged for the students to have library privileges at the Getty Research Institute and to meet with local museum professionals. The German students also applied for a series of grants to support their travel to the United States.

Another challenge had to do with a certain imbalance between the German and the American students, which manifested itself in a variety of ways. The German students had already taken a course in museum studies, were well-schooled in the history of East Germany, and had German. The American students were coming to the workshop more or less as blank slates. While some of the students had taken courses in modern European history or other aspects of German history, none had taken a course in East German history specifically or in public history or museum studies, though one was an intern at the Wende Museum at the time. One of the Americans was a German heritage speaker, and a second was taking German (doing a German minor), but the other three had no German. Two additional things exacerbated the imbalance. First, the workshop took place during the regular LMU semester. Whereas the German students could devote all their time to the project, the American students were doing it in addition to their other courses and activities. They were required to devote Tuesday and Thursday afternoons to the workshop but were really unable to do more. The second was that we had the German students do a series of presentations about certain aspects of East German history and museum work. These presentations were designed to help the American students “catch up,” but it also created a certain hierarchy – with the Germans as teachers and the Americans as students. We would have been better served by skipping the presentations and just discussing some of the assigned readings, with the hope that those discussions would get the American students up to speed. Unfortunately, all of this created a situation in which the student pairs were often not really partnerships. A couple of the groups worked really well together, with both students contributing a lot of ideas, but there was a certain friction in others because of this imbalance.

Yet another challenge had to do with expectations. The German students tended to see the virtual exhibit as their project from start to finish, with no limitations on it. But this is not the way that community-based learning works. The workshop was going to produce an exhibit that would be of use for the Wende Museum, so it had to conform to the museum’s expectations as well as its technological capabilities (the original ideas for what the exhibit might look like were quite elaborate). My students were very clear on that. They understood that they would be working in the Wende Museum to produce an exhibit for the Museum – that this was a community partnership. But they also had prior experience with service-learning and community-based learning, which is more widespread in the U.S. than in Germany, so they had a better and more realistic sense of what to expect. This disconnect between expectations and reality sometimes led to frustrations for the German students, who felt constrained by the Museum’s expectations, the structure of the workshop (that they couldn’t constantly be at the museum), the role of the LMU students, and so on. These frustrations spoke to the importance of explaining to students (and this is our responsibility as instructors) that partnerships like this, where different individuals and institutions are contributing resources, mean that those institutions have their own expectations from the project – that the students cannot just do whatever they want, that they have to work with the community partner, that community-based learning means that students have some responsibility to the community.

Next: Conclusion

Out of the Classroom, Into the Museum: Undergraduate Research at the Wende Museum (Part 3)

Part 3: The Benefits

The workshop was a great experience for the students. The American students learned a good deal about East Germany in that month, and based on the papers that they wrote for the Independent Studies course, the workshop challenged some of their stereotypes about socialist societies. Two of them have done subsequent research projects on related issues. All of the students, both American and German, learned a lot about public history – how to create historical narratives for broad consumption by a lay audience, how to stage artifacts, how to create a coherent narrative, how to deal with issues of representation, audience, and so on. They also gained valuable hands-on experience in what is both an archives and a museum. Meetings with people at the Getty and LACMA gave them more valuable insight into museum work – issues of display, programming around exhibits, issues unique to online exhibits. One of the American students subsequently went back to the Wende Museum to do research for a seminar paper about DEFA films, which he expanding into a senior thesis; he is also currently interning at the Museum and has been accepted into a doctoral program in German history, where he intends to focus on GDR history, a program he will begin after spending a year in Germany on a Fulbright. Another student, who was interning at the museum during the semester of the workshop, continued to work there as a paid staffer for some time after she graduated from LMU. Yet another is seriously considering museum work as a future career. Finally, they also learned how to work collaboratively with others and with community institutions. This sort of collaboration is an important part of the educational experience for our students, as Loyola Marymount University has a strong commitment to fostering interdisciplinarity, community-based learning, and internationalization. Partnering with the Wende Museum gave LMU students the chance to go out into the community, to do hands-on work in a museum, in the process exposing them to the interdisciplinary field of museum studies, and to work collaboratively both with students from Germany and with Wende Museum staff.

Next: The Challenges

Out of the Classroom, Into the Museum: Undergraduate Research at the Wende Museum (Part 2)

Part 2: The Exhibit Prototype

The culmination of the workshop was the collaborative production of a prototype for an online exhibition for the Wende Museum’s new website. The exhibit “Living in a Socialist City in the GDR” took as its starting point the idea that socialist urban planning, consumer culture, and the daily experiences of East German citizens could reveal a great deal about the nature of the East German state, both its ideology and its reality. The exhibit had five parts, and a pair of students, one German and one American, worked on each of the five themes. The first theme, “Marketing a Socialist City,” used official marketing, such as travel brochures, to examine the ways in which the SED promoted a specific vision of the East German city. The second theme, “Public Spaces & the Socialist City,” continued this focus on the ways in which cities – their public spaces – became sites where the SED regime promoted specific socialist ideals, whether through monumental architecture, public art works, or parades and festivals. With the third theme, the students began to shift their focus to the everyday experiences of urban inhabitants. In the section “Private Spaces,” the exhibit highlighted East German dwellings, especially the Plattenbau apartment buildings, and interior design. The fourth theme, “The Marketplace & Consumer Culture,” explored East German consumer goods and patterns of consumption, with a focus on household goods, toys, food, and music. The final section, “Social Experiences,” focused on examining how different East Germans experienced the urban world around them, by looking at, for example, questions of gender and generation. The students chose the artifacts to be highlighted, wrote the texts – in both German and English – for the exhibit, designed the visual layout, and framed how visitors would engage with the exhibit, including opportunities for visitors to share their own experiences in East Germany. At the end of the month the students presented their exhibit prototype to Wende Museum staff as well as visitors from other local museums and universities. The workshop participants continued to work on the project even after the workshop in Los Angeles came to a close, using email and Dropbox to finalize the exhibition texts.

Click here to see the PowerPoint Show that the LMU students did for their presentation at the LMU Undergraduate Research Symposium.

Next: The Benefits