Semester Project #1: Modern US

My last day of classes was on April 26th, and I turned in the last of my projects on May 8th, so I’ve officially wrapped up my first year at William and Mary. Even though I’ve turned everything in, I’d like to tell you what I worked on, beginning with today’s post for Modern US.

In addition to completing all of the class readings, for our final project we had to pick a topic pertaining to Modern US history, read several books addressing it, and write a historiographic essay analyzing the works we read and how they related to one another. Since the objective of this course wasn’t just to read about historical topics, but to analyze how historians construct their arguments, this assignment is an exercise in seeing how history is practiced as an academic discipline. After all, history is never simply a review of facts, but an argument about the past and how it influences us today.

For my essay, I decided to focus on the development of highways and related roads. Since I’m interested in travel infrastructures more broadly, I thought this would be a good opportunity to get some more background information on this subject, as well as learn about some of the key social and economic questions associated with it.

The books that I read approached roads from a variety of angles. Some texts, such as Mark Rose’s Interstate, explore the federal government’s role in developing the federal highway system, one of the largest public works projects ever completed. Other books such as Eric Avila’s Folklore of the Freeway consider the ethnic communities impacted by highway infrastructure, and how they have used artwork and other forms of creative expression to reassert a sense of agency over their community structures. Still other works such as Christopher Wells’ Car Country approach highways from an environmental perspective and examine how interstates have shaped human ecology in the twentieth century. A related work, Paul S. Sutter’s Driven Wild, looks at the idea of roadlessness and its significance in defining the modern wilderness. All of these texts are interested in examining how interstates have shaped American society, but they approach the question from different perspectives, resulting in a rich variety of answers to the same basic inquiry.

One question or topic can go in many directions, it’s a matter of deciding where you’d like to go.

What all of these books taught me is that there is no singular history of the interstate system, and that the interests and concerns of the historians who wrote these texts resulted in significantly different works. I know it sounds obvious, but it was good to read about the same topic from these different vantage points because it underscored for me the different ways I can approach my own research. Regardless of how my final dissertation turns out, it will not be the definitive, final work on community art centers. Rather, the angle I’ll take will simply provide opportunities for other scholars to approach them from different perspectives and further enrich their scholarship.

Compared to the other two essays I’ve been working on, this one is least concerned with my own research, but it’s still been a very valuable project for me. From a purely informational standpoint, it’s been a great opportunity to learn about an infrastructure system I didn’t know very much about. More importantly, perhaps, it’s encouraged me to think about different angles for my own work. While this project may not have addressed my interest in art centers directly, it has been a valuable exercise in exploring research questions from different vantage points.

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