Thesis Shower Thoughts

I’m starting to realize that, while I still have a good chunk of time in which to pick an advisor and a “tentative thesis title,” all of that is not just going to magically fall into my lap between now and the deadline. Though I feel I’m drowning in books, I’ve got to start making time to think about things that aren’t due tomorrow. Even if that time is in the shower.

So, I was reminiscing about undergrad — mostly about the copious amounts of free time I had — when I started to think about the office meeting with Dr. Starks, my then-advisor, in which I found out about the foundation of Eureka Springs. My first, most pressing question was, why on earth did these people believe drinking this “magical” water would cure them? I’d taken enough history classes to know that individuals in the past weren’t less intelligent or more easily fooled — there had to be some other reason, perhaps cultural, social, economic, etc. I was sure that if I answered that initial question, it would tell me a lot about medical knowledge and beliefs in late nineteenth century America, and when that knowledge made claims like the ones Eureka’s promoters were making sound a little too good to be true.

But where do you look for the answer to a question like that? I visited the historical museum and library in Eureka Springs hunting for sources — anything to look at from the nineteenth century at that point — and I found something. Above what doubled as the librarian’s desk and the checkout counter, there was this huge, beat up box crammed with promotional pamphlets the town had sent out to attract a customer base. The dates ranged from the late 1870s to modern-day. I was so excited! What better way to understand why people came than to look at what the entrepreneurs of the town thought would attract their clientele?

In the process of reading through the ads, I began to feel uneasy. This was good material, but it wasn’t answering my question satisfactorily. I was struggling to construct a medical understanding that would have been receptive to  what I was seeing in the ads. The thesis turned out okay — I was able to make some connections with contemporary medical trends, and the argument ran smoothly and was well supported. But I knew that I hadn’t really answered my original question.

I’ve taken some classes since beginning graduate school that have introduced me to the idea of popular science. It’s (in my very limited understanding) an approach that looks at how members of vernacular or unprofessional groups — everyday people — understand, have an impact on and are impacted by science. It is more inclusive in its idea of “science,” a necessary corollary when the object of study resides outside the professional realm. The sourcebase for the research is quite different from that of ordinary history of science; instead of intellectual manifestos, the approach encourages analyses that include literature, advertisements, workaday newspaper ads, images, and other popular publications.

I think that bringing this approach into my study would help me answer my initial and most important question, and I think the research could produce some interesting, and perhaps unexpected, outcomes. Hopefully more thought on the subject will further hone my questions, but I’m very glad (not to mention relieved) that I’ve had this little epiphany. Thank you, shower.

“Why do the miracles in the Bible not happen now? The answer is, if they were to happen all the time they would stop astonishing us. Let us look about us. See how day and night turn in their perpetual round, and how the sky and stars follow their changeless courses. See how the seasons change, and the leaves grow wither on the boughs. Look at the unquenchable vitality within seeds, and at the beauty of light, colors and sounds, of smells and of tastes, in all their variety. Now let us go and talk to someone who was seeing this for the first time. Could he talk to us? He would be struck dumb by all these miracles. Yet we think them ordinary. This is not because we understand them. Their causes remain a deep mystery. No, it is because they are never absent from our experience.”

— St. Augustine of Hippo, ~391 AD