Thesis Thursday

Pictured: Definitely not any books I’m reading.

Hope everyone’s had a good Thursday so far! I’m tired, but have had a really productive day, even though my schedule was PACKED. As predicted on Sunday, things have come up and torpedoed my grand plans for efficiency this week, but today I did actually getting things done, hooray!

One of those things is writing this post. I wanted to introduce our readers to my thesis, and the concept of a Masters thesis in general. First, the basics. Obviously, everything here is quite particular to my experience and the way my program runs. You’ll find different schedules, requirements, and procedures at different schools, and drastically different concepts of a MA thesis from North America to Europe/UK.

I truly wish I was joking, but our mascot at UMass Boston is actually a lighthouse. Like, seriously. We’re called the Umass Boston Beacons.

I’m currently in the home-stretch of thesis writing, and I am attempting to earn a Master of Arts in Historical Archaeology from the University of Massachusetts Boston. This semester (late January-early May) is my [*knocks on wood*] final semester at UMass, after completing  three semesters of course work and a field season. The courses I took were as follows:

  1. Graduate Seminar in Archaeology
  2. Archaeological Methods & Analysis
  3. Culture, Contact & Colonialism in the Americas
  4. The African Diaspora Past
  5. Topics in Environmental Archaeology
  6. Graduate Seminar in Historical Archaeology
  7. Independent Study in Historical Archaeology: Osteological and X-ray Fluorescence Analysis
  8. Public Archaeology

I really enjoyed the variety of courses I got to take here at UMass — my professors are incredibly knowledgeable, and I’ve come out of classwork knowing a lot more about CRM work, paleoethnobotany, African Diaspora archaeology, archaeologies of colonialism, and Indigenous sovereignty than I did before. Unfortunately, I also know a lot more about historical ceramics than I did before, and I’m not thrilled about that. But I’ve been told knowing the difference between flow blue and hand-painted polychrome pearlware is a good thing. Jury’s still out on that one.

Throughout this process I proposed (and re-proposed) my thesis topic, which I developed in a bit of a roundabout way. My final thesis working title is:

  • “The diet has been altered, as agreed upon & is now very satisfactory”: Socioeconomic Status and Dietary Reform at the Dorchester Industrial School for Girls
1896 Bromley Atlas of Dorchester
showing the Industrial School for Girls on Centre Street

This thesis evolved out of a preliminary faunal analysis I did for the City of Boston Archaeology Program (which is run by my friend, and a major supporter/encourager/instigator of my stupid ideas, City Archaeologist Joe Bagley). The faunal analysis was on the Dorchester Industrial School for Girls site, excavated by the City program in 2015. I presented the results of that at the 2018 SHA conference in New Orleans, then realized that it would make my life infinitely easier if I just reworked and expanded the project as my MA thesis. I first proposed my thesis topic in the spring of 2018, was essentially told to chill out with the theory by the grad committee (they were right, I recently read that first thesis proposal over and hoo boy was it a mess). Then I contributed to the site report for the Dorchester ISFG site with an expanded faunal appendix, co-wrote a book chapter on the dietary analysis of the site, proposed my thesis again in the fall of 2019 (accepted this time, yay!), finished my last semester of classes, and now I’m here with approximately 57 million tabs open, actually attempting to write the thing.

So what is a Masters thesis? And what does it mean that I’m writing one?

If you ask my grandmother, every paper I write is my thesis. She’s asked me “Does that mean you’re done?” at least four times now, and I’ve had to explain that nope, that really long paper wasn’t actually the IMPORTANT really long paper.

At UMass our thesis’ are generally expected to be between 80-100 pages (inclusive of figures), plus additional appendices and citations. There’s obviously considerable variation between papers, especially depending on what your focus or subspeciality is. I’m a zooarchaeologist, so my final thesis will necessarily include a very long appendix that just lists out the bone identifications I’ve made (mine is actually quite a bit lower than other peoples– think only a couple hundred individual entries rather than several thousand).

A truly HUGE turkey humerus recovered from the Dorchester ISFG site.

My thesis is also a little bit different because I came to the program already having a background in zooarchaeological analysis (shoutout to Danii Desmerais and Max Friesen at the University of Toronto for giving me an incredible foundation in faunal analysis to build upon). I had also already done much of the actual analysis work for the site report/conference paper. So instead of researching the site and learning the methodology, my thesis was going to have to have a different goal. Which is where the incredibly extensive archival records come in. 200+ pages of monthly meeting minutes from 40+ years of the school’s operation have been preserved, and my thesis is a combination of documentary and zooarchaeological analysis, and research on social reform movements in the Boston area. I’m interested in how the social reform movements of the time (dietary and domestic reform are two of the big ones) impacted the diet being provided at the school, and how, if at all, this is reflected in the bones that were recovered at the site.

So with that said, I’ve finished 2/7 chapters, with more work to be done this for one day this weekend, and another dedicated Thesis Weekend coming up from the 16th-18th. I’m plugging along on schedule at the moment, and I’m hoping to keep it that way. But sometimes setbacks happen, and I’m trying to be flexible. Especially since I have a lot of responsibilities relating to work, school, and family obligations.

I think I’ll use next Thursday’s post to go into the details of how I set up my thesis database, how I record zooarchaeological data, and what the bulk of my bone-related work consists of. For now I’m going to drive home, do some lecture prep, and then get to bed early.


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