Today I attended Session Six at 1:00 PM of the History 485 Symposium Presentations. There, I listened to three speeches about the husbands of three key late 19th century female activists, the role played by gender in institutionalization in Virginia between the 1850s and 1890s, and the role of the well-known musical Hamilton as a modern American icon.
The first presentation, which focussed on the role of matrimony in the lives of three early female women’s rights activists and couples presented each relationship as a unique example of early progressive couples, rather than as indicative of greater phenomenons. While the visual that went alongside this presentation, a PowerPoint, could have been created in an easier-to-follow manner, this presentation proved to be well-researched and provided an interesting perspective.
I did not detect an overarching thesis that was guiding this presentation, and it seemed as though this research project was mostly out of the general interest of the presenter. The presenter handled questions very well, staying within the scope of her presentation without avoiding answers.
I found the second presentation to have the most interesting topic, as well as the most in-depth research. This presentation focussed on a few women’s experiences in the Western State Lunatic Asylum in western Virginia from the 1850s to 1890s. The thesis of this presentation was very clear, arguing that 19th-century gender roles were defining factors in whether or not an indivudal would be institutionalized. While I agree that this was a concern of the time period, I would not go as far as to say that it was a major factor, as the understanding of mental health in the public sphere was far less defined in 19th-century Virginia as it is now.
The presenter showcased a few samples of the medical records of females institutionalized at Western State, pointing out aspects of the records that may have been indicative of gender bias, such as women being suggested for institutionalization due to “too much reading” or “refusal to do chores.” This argument fell short however, as it seems to insinuate that all of the patients at Western State were merely admitted for frivolous or sexist reasons, as one of the further examples in the medical records detailed a woman who “refused to wear clothes,” which may have been an actual sign of mental illness.
Despite these small discrepancies, I found this presentation to be quite fascinating, well-researched, and well-presented. The audience even learned that Western State is currently undergoing renovations to become a luxury hotel!
I found the most questionable presentation to be the final presentation, which focussed on the musical Hamilton and its role as a progressive American icon. A clear thesis did not seem to be present, and the PowerPoint visual aid included extremely distracting and immature cartoon graphics on each slide, one of which was a gif.
At the beginning of this presentation, the presenter read lines from Hamilton verbatim off of a notes sheet, and a lack of in-depth scholarship seemed to be evident throughout the presentation. During the Q&A portion of the presentation, the presenter seemed to be at a loss for many answers, choosing to draw on poorly constructed and overly generalized tropes on race, which I found to be off-putting.
Comparing these HIST 297 485 presentations to our literature review presentations in HIST 297, there were many parallels, including the order and manner of delivery, amount of context given, and the use of a visual aid. With that said, I found that the 485 presentations relied less on the use of a PowerPoint to convey ideas, and more so on the knowledge of the presenter. I find that limiting the use of visuals to only what is completely necessary will best add to the presentation, rather than distract.
Additionally, I found that an equally important element to the presentation was not the presentation of facts themselves, but also, the way in which the Q&A session was handled. The most successful presenters were able to “tie back” seemingly confusing questions to their own understanding and research, rather than simply making up facts or saying that they did not have an answer. Further, the manner in which questions were asked and answered was very diplomatic.
Overall, I quite enjoyed the second presentation on the Western State Asylum, as well as many elements from the first presentation on 19th-century female activists and their husbands, and I am personally looking forward to my own HISt 485 experience in a few years!