Each year, a select number of History of Art undergraduate students apply to the honors program in order to pursue an art history topic in greater rigor and depth. We talked to current honors student Megan Flattley about her experience in the program.
What is the topic of your honors thesis, and how did you decide on this topic?
The topic of my honors thesis is Soviet Socialist Realism. I was first exposed to this topic in Professor Alex Pott’s (my current thesis advisor) survey of modern art that I took my freshmen year. I was mostly struck by how different it was from everything that I associated with the idea of “art.” I was also attracted to it because it is very much understudied and undervalued due to attitudes of the Cold War and, I think, the tendency in art history to value “art for art’s sake” over art that is viewed as didactic or utilitarian. I have always been particularly interested in art that had real social and political consequences.
Is there anything particularly interesting you have learned thus far, either about the research process or about the topic of your thesis?
I have learned so much since beginning this process. It seems like every time I think I have an original thought about my topic I read something and discover someone has already said it. But that has also been the best part of this process: to feel like I really know an era of art and all that has been written on it. Being able to focus on one topic for an entire semester has been amazing and has really shown me what I am capable of as an academic.
How did you find the experience of publicly presenting for the honors symposium, conference style with manuscript & PowerPoint? Did you feel adequately prepared?
The prospect was initially terrifying. I think everyone has anxiety about public speaking and thinking about giving a talk in front of all the professors that I have ever worked with or learned from was incredibly intimidating. The week of the symposium, though, I was remarkably calm because I was at a place where I knew that there was nothing more that I could have done to prepare. I was happy with my talk and I felt ready and excited to answer questions about my research.
How would you describe the experience of being part of a faculty-organized writer's workshop, with weekly meetings with Professor Howard Lay and other honors students?
The weekly meetings with Professor Lay and my classmates, I think, will end up being the most valuable part of this experience for me. To have my writing so thoroughly edited and critiqued every week has made me an exponentially better writer already. I write long papers for courses all the time but the feedback from professors usually focuses on my arguments and the content of the paper so that I’ve never really done much work on my writing style. Also, Professor Lay makes me second guess every single word I use and I have consequently banned a few from my vocabulary.
What is it like to meet regulary with an advisor to talk about your research and writing?
My weekly meetings with Professor Potts are invaluable because he keeps me very focused and grounded. In between meetings when I am doing research on my own I can get excited or distracted by new things I’m reading. Or sometimes I just get lost in all the research that I’ve done and I’m not sure which way to go with it and that’s when Professor Potts reminds me what my focus is and helps me filter out the research I don’t need and keep only what strengthens my paper.
What advice would you give a student considering applying for the honors program?
Find something that you are passionate about and that you haven’t had the opportunity to study in a class and write about it. I looked forward to writing an honors thesis for 3 years because I wanted to thoroughly work on Socialist Realism and I didn’t really have another way to do so. If you have a topic that you’re genuinely interested in and you have stakes in then the presentation, the weekly meetings, and all the writing don’t seem that difficult.
You will be graduating "with honors" from the University of Michigan. What else--skills, lessons, information, experience-- have you gained by participating in the honors program?
The honors program has shown me how to see a single project through to the end, it has shown me how to finish something even if it kills me. Another important skill that I’ve developed is how not to be a perfectionist. Turning in five pages of writing every week means that a lot of times I have to turn in things I don’t necessarily like or that I know are not my best but I have to turn off my inner critic and just write. Professor Lay has taught me to value my own opinions and to stand to my convictions. He’s told me that even though something has been published in a book it doesn’t make it true or right and that has been very valuable to me, especially within my thesis topic.