Department of History

A Common Thread: History Graduate Student Success in 2014

A Common Thread: History Graduate Student Success in 2014

Upon first observation, any connection between southern labor, alcohol and body odor may not seem obvious. However, for Auburn’s history department, these topics are linked in that they are the subjects of projects by history graduate students that have recently won them recognition in the larger academic community for outstanding contributions to the field.

John MohrSecond year graduate student John Mohr recently published an article for the interdisciplinary journal NeoAmericanist in which he analyzed certain stereotypes of southern workers that have come to permeate the literature on southern labor history. In his article, “Spinning their Wheels,” Mohr argued that too often scholars have depicted the southern labor force through a handful of biased and outdated interpretations that rest on over-generalizations about the southern population (i.e. southern workers were, by nature, anti-union). Mohr seeks to challenge the conventional narrative and pick apart recent interpretations of southern labor activism by looking at the southern auto industry. Mohr’s work builds on recent scholarship focusing on the history of organized labor that has recently begun to reformulate some of these oversimplifications. Mohr’s article grew out of a paper that he completed for Dr. Jennifer Brooks’ graduate seminar on Labor in the United States South. Students in the class were required to read secondary material focusing on historical interpretations of labor struggles in the South and formulate an original critique of the existing scholarship. Mohr says that he “wanted to do something useful with what [he] learned in that class,” and credits Dr. Brooks with helping him push his own boundaries, as well as with providing guidance on a subject about which he had little prior knowledge.

Matthew SparacioMatthew Sparacio, a fourth year graduate student, recently received Best Paper Awards at graduate student conferences held at Florida State and Virginia Tech Universities. Both of Sparacio’s papers examined the history of alcohol and viticulture (the science, production, and study of grapes for winemaking) in colonial Virginia. Sparacio argued that not only did wine production function as a major economic part of the Virginia colony’s fledgling economy, but the colony’s decision to produce tobacco, and eventually cotton, rather than grape vines held enormous implications for the colony’s future. Sparacio points out that “alcohol production and consumption are really interesting topics of study, because they remain in practice to this day, and therefore serve as a material bridge to the past.” Significantly, Sparacio’s papers address a topic that, to date, few other historical works have examined. His aim is to provide a socio-cultural analysis of early Virginia’s viticulture that may help better explain reactions to drunkenness in the past, and may also more fully contextualize the relationship between individuals and society in colonial Virginia. Sparacio offered some words of advice for those hoping for success at their next conference: practice really shows. He remarked that practicing helps one understand their timing and intonation and can greatly enhance the delivery of one’s paper. He also encouraged presenters to not take criticism too personally. “This can be hard to do,” Sparacio acknowledges, but keeping the right perspective “will allow you to engage comments and suggestions from your audience with an open mind.” Sparacio cited conversations with his adviser, Dr. Kathryn Braund, as well as the lessons learned in Dr. Morris Bian’s World History graduate seminar, as being the keys to his success.

Cari CasteelSensory history has increasingly become a promising avenue of scholarly inquiry. Works that detail how people have interacted with their environments through touch, taste, smell, sight and sound have only begun to garner attention by historical scholars, and one Auburn graduate student seeks to add to this scholarship with her work on deodorant. Fifth year graduate student Cari Casteel was recently awarded the Graduate Student Achievement Award granted annually by the Department of Women’s Studies. The award is a faculty-nominated prize given for “scholarly achievement in women's and gender studies while at Auburn University.” The paper for which Casteel won the award is titled, “That Smell: Deodorant and the Invention of Hypergendered Body Odor in the United States.” In her paper, Casteel uncovered the early history of how deodorant companies such as Mum’s and Old Spice developed and marketed scents to the public, and the impact that their marketing campaigns had on societal understandings of normative smells associated with gender (i.e this “smells manly,” that “smells feminine,” etc.). Casteel expressed gratitude to her advisor Dr. Alan Meyer for reading multiple drafts of her paper and for offering deft guidance on its construction. She also wanted to thank Drs. Tiffany Sippial and Kenneth Noe for their encouragement and suggestions. When asked for advice on how a student could be successful, Casteel responded with the simple wisdom of Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.” She explained that this meant, in practical terms, writing multiple drafts, having multiple reviewers read those drafts, and working long hours to produce the highest caliber paper one can produce. According to Casteel, going the extra distance and spending the extra time on a paper can mean the difference between a good paper and a great paper. The paper for which Casteel won her award will be a portion of the first chapter of her dissertation, which examines in greater depth the relationship between gender identity and smell throughout the twentieth century. Auburn is proud of its history graduate students and wishes them all the best in their future academic endeavors.  

Last Updated: December 01, 2015