In history Ph.D. programs, we spend months, and even years, preparing for comprehensive exams. It is the worst moment of all of our academic lives. Was the Civil War inevitable? And if it was not at what point did it become inevitable? How would you periodize the American Revolution? Was racism learned or innate in the colonial period? Literally dozens of these questions and none of them have a real right or wrong answer. You just have to prove your case using the historiography and evidence. Some questions you can predict, others–completely out of left field.
While all of our anxiety reaches it’s peak at comprehensive exams, we all kind of forget there is a second rite of passage shortly after. The dissertation prospectus is a 30+ page outline of what we want our dissertations to be about and how it fills a hole in the historiography. We have prove we actually know our history, where our sources are coming from, how long we think all of this is going to take, and how all of our chapters will come together. Before one can actually write a massive dissertation, every member of the dissertation committee has to sign off. Only then will we be left to our own devices and make a B-line for the archives.
I finished my prospectus this summer, but had the opportunity to present my prospectus to a room full of Ph.D. students, candidates, and professors. Only a handful of scholars in the room were Early Americanists, so it was fun opportunity to explain my topic and why I believe a study of loyalism in Virginia is important.
However–and of course–we had a complete technology melt down at my presentation and all of the beautiful images and videos I had prepared were never really seen. But, the way I really wanted to start my presentation was with one of my favorite movie clips of all time. In 1776 the Musical, one of the most famous songs is performed by Richard Henry Lee where he sings about the importance of Virginia and the FFV to the American Revolution. After all–God leans a little on the side of a Lee! Of course that’s where the Revolution would begin!
My prospectus begins–in the actual history–right after this scene. When Richard Henry Lee receives permission from the Virginia Convention to propose independence at the Second Continental Congress. Dozens of the most famous works on the American Revolution laud Virginia for being “the mother of independence” and any talk of loyalism in the colony is snuffed out–by historic figures and modern historians. In fact, loyalism is usually brushed off as “oh well they are all newly immigrated Scots merchants in Norfolk. No big deal. WRONG.
My prospectus explains why loyalism in Virginia is significant to the narrative of the American Revolution, how so many historians have managed to miss this large group of colonists, and why we need to fix that. Of course, the prospectus is just the outline. Things will change. I will prove myself right or wrong in my research and by the Summer of 2018, I may have a very different dissertation. However, this rite of passage is now over.
If you would actually like to read that 31-page monstrosity, I am including the link to my official prospectus here: seal-walters-prospectus