Danielle’s English thesis proposal:
This summer, I worked as a digital research assistant in the Barnard archives, searching for present stories in piles of old records. I fell down a rabbit hole sifting through the physical education archives. I became engrossed—and then obsessed. For over 40 years, Barnard had a three-year physical education requirement (which makes our one semester commitment seem like a scrawny offspring). Even more estranged, the heart of the past program was framed around good posture. The annual posture exam was a cornerstone of the first-year experience. Barnard students stripped down to their underwear, posed for a posture picture, and then they waited for an analysis appointment that would steer the course of their physical education. If their alignment was “good,” maybe they went on to walk clockwise and counterclockwise in the annual posture contest. But if their posture was “bad,” students were placed in the correctives class. Maybe their experience was okay, but maybe it wasn’t—maybe it was painful and full of shame.
The records reveal names of contest nominees and winners, curriculum syllabi, plumb line fees, annual reports, diagrams, floor plans, and even advertisements for posture Pete and limpy Lou models. But the records are full of gaps. Student voices have escaped their edges. I wonder, what was it like for your body to be a part of your education? What happened if your body did not fit the mold the college was promoting? And let’s be frank, every photo of a posture contest winner that’s been archived is of a commercially skinny, white woman.
The records are explicit about “helping” students regulate their body shape and size. Barnard was interested in a philosophy that weds strength of mind and body; thus a healthy, budding mind is positively correlated with physical upkeep. This line of thinking was not particular to Barnard. In fact, most east coast colleges and universities were interested in this idea. Many also held annual posture exams. But what makes Barnard unique is that the college channeled the philosophy into a full-course curriculum. Through posture contests and marketing their curriculum to a host of popular newspapers, Barnard created a sort of business around body exhibition.
Buried in these archives, I found a cultural conversation I was unaware of about embodiment, and how students were able (or limited) in the ways they could present themselves throughout their education. I believe how we are defining and understanding the bodies in our classrooms has been and continues to be an evergreen conversation.
As an English major, I’ve found that the literature most dear to me gets at life’s unresolved questions; it seeks to understand them, not solve them. For my senior thesis, I want to turn to authors seeking to understand what it means to have a body outside of the norm. What do they have to say about these bodies when they’re also publicly exhibited? And what kinds of questions do these authors raise of their own? I propose a year-long independent study that will explore the legacy of posture at Barnard through the lens of authors who explore “othered” bodies in educational and public spaces. This study will culminate in 30 to 35 pages of written criticism with an audio story supplement.
Records from the Barnard archives will supplement fiction and nonfiction that reveal the consequences of having a body outside the norm, with a close look at race, gender expression, and ability. For instance, I’ll read Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, looking at how Pecola, a dark-skinned black girl, becomes insane as a result of living in a community that idealizes “whiteness”; Adrienne Kennedy’s play Funnyhouse of a Negro, follows a mixed race black woman trying to reconcile her identity in an America that celebrates whiteness; Jean Stafford’s The Mountain Lion explores the challenges a physically weak girl faces as she comes of age in society with limiting ideas of what a woman’s body ought to look like. I will also read nonfiction works, such as Rachel Adams’s book Sideshow U.S.A., which traces the history of the freak show and body exhibition in the American cultural imagination, looking specifically at how the freak’s body in twentieth century literature became a stage for unraveling debates about race and anxieties over gender; Richard Meckel’s book Classrooms and Clinics focuses on the 1900s trend of public schools displaying a responsibility to protect and advance the physical and mental health of the students they were educating. In addition, I will return to some of the ancient philosophy I first explored in my critical writing seminar, like Plato’s Phaedo, to inform the way Barnard was conceptualizing a correlation between strength of body and strength of mind. Lastly, I’ll consult texts on digital storytelling as a narrative medium.
I intend on including an audio piece as a part of my thesis since I’m trying to resurrect voice and physicality from the archives. The sonic dimension of an audio story seems like a critical way to fulfill this mission viscerally. And given that I’m exploring the one-sidedness of the posture legacy (the institution and its archives speak about the woman’s body, but she has no response), the dialogue nature of audio storytelling is necessary. For this part of my thesis, I intend on interviewing Barnard alumnae, former and current staff, and experts on the subject, which I will weave into a fluid narrative story. I aim to produce a story that’s around 10 to 15 minutes.
We are currently in a moment where we’re talking about bodies in educational spaces. Title IX was just adapted to require all administrators and educators to use students’ preferred gender pronouns. I want to explore what the legacy of posture has to say about bodies outside the norm on the college campus, and I intend to uncover what authors have to say about “othered” bodies and their exhibition. All of these conversations are in dialogue and demand careful attention. I’d like to stress that this thesis allows me to research a critical crevice of Barnard’s past, uncover how authors engage with the themes edged in that history, and produce an audio story that swirls everything together, relying on my growing experience in radio as an outlet of storytelling–a project I have not yet had the opportunity to do in my scholarship.