Attempting a Focus Statement

Constructing a focus statement may be one of the most difficult parts of a research project. As any researcher knows focus statements change and morph throughout the duration of a project. Here’s my first official attempt at constructing a focus statement for my project:

My research will focus on answering why and how World War I impacted and changed Virginia Polytechnic Institute between 1914 and 1924. I want to pay particular attention to how those changes affected Virginia Tech students, a group that is consistently overlooked in similar studies about the war’s impact on colleges and universities. This study will find student perspectives and add them alongside those of administration and faculty members by utilizing the Virginia Tech student newspaper, university records, correspondence from faculty and administration members,  yearbooks, and student scrapbooks.

By centering students at the heart of my study I’m also continuing a trend and entering a debate that historians of the WWI era have discussed for years. That debate largely centers around how to look at the history of the era, should we look at it from the top or from the bottom. Put differently, how much emphasis should historians put on notable figures (like Woodrow Wilson, Pershing, or Haig) or on more “everyday” people (like President Eggleston or Virginia Tech students)? As you can tell from my focus statement, I tend to fall on the latter end of the debate. I think this is particularly important for me moving forward and is a driving motivation for me to complete my research. So far every major study of American colleges and universities during WWI I have found has focused on a small handful of elite colleges (like Yale and Chicago), government policy, and a very small number of college administrators and professors. The lack of student voices is disconcerting, especially when one considers that the vast majority of those on college campuses were students. Even more when you consider that college students were young men and women, the very individuals who would be directly impacted by the war because they could end up being the ones fighting it.

Anyway, I will admit, re-imagining my focus statement over the past month has been a challenge. I have a clear idea of what I want to study, but sometimes it’s difficult to understand what direction I want to go and how to articulate it.

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8 thoughts on “Attempting a Focus Statement”

  1. In reading your source base I became curious: did Virginia Tech matriculate any notable alumni during this period? Anyone who went on to state or national prominence, who might have a memoir or papers which you could consult that are not at VT’s special collections?

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    1. That would be a question I would have to ask Special Collections. I know there are a couple graduates from VPI that have papers located in Special Collections, but I don’t know of any graduate during the time that left a memoir.

      Since I’m looking at nearly a decade I’m sure there’s some student that wrote down something after the fact.

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  2. Daniel, when you talk about VT students, are you also talking about the draftees that were brought to VT to train? I know you have talked about this group before, however I am wondering how you view this group. Are they lumped in with the larger school population?

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    1. I need to first figure out how many individuals came to Virginia Tech as draftees. This is particularly hard since they were counted as freshmen when they arrived. These men were only on campus for around 2-3 months before the SATC program was shut down and they were able to go home. So far I’ve found a number of letters in Eggleston’s records from parents of these students/soldiers asking for Eggleston to dismiss them from college and send their boys home. Obviously Eggleston could not do such a thing because the students were also in the Army.

      So that’s a long way of saying that I will treat them as part of the student population because they essentially were. But keeping in mind that many left once their obligation of service was up.

      Finding out numbers will be fun! That’s slightly sarcastic since even the records from September-October 1918 reveal that there was a large amount of confusion for university officials.

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  3. Daniel,

    Your project seems to be coming along nicely, and I really like how you are tapping into historiographical arguments! I am surprised to hear what previous studies look like, have you noticed anything about their approach that gives them access to things you wouldn’t be able to see through a bottom up approach?

    Kevin

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  4. If I remember correctly, your years in your focus statement are different than before. I am wondering if there is any particular reason for this. Is it just because it makes your study a solid decade? Or did something specific happen at Tech in 1924 that pertains to your research?

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    1. Oh yeah, Dr. Wallenstein suggested I carry it up to 1924. The reasoning he had was that in 1924 the Corps of Cadets (or the military component of education at VPI) became optional for upperclassmen (juniors and seniors could opt out of it).

      I agree with Wallenstein, this decision is tied up with World War I and the heavy concentration on military training during that time. I meant to write 1922 and then address it in a different blog post, but I jumped the gun.

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  5. Be sure not to overlook the effect that VPI being, for all intents and purposes, a military school, had on the impact of the war and the changes that were made because of it. This would definitely have had some bearing on how students perceived those changes. I guess how much emphasis historians should put on notable figures v. everyday people depends on who the war (or a certain aspect of it) affected most, or how much effect one group or another had on the war itself.

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