Labor and Landscapes: The Birth and Development of Jamaica’s Banana Industry
Matthew Plishka, History, 2015
Thesis Advisor: Professor Benjamin Cohen
Q: How and when did you select your advisor and the thesis committee members?
A: My advisor was Professor Cohen with Professor Pite and Professor Zallen as readers. I chose Professor Cohen since I worked with him as an EXCEL Scholar in my sophomore and junior year. I wanted to use my research I did under him as a point to branch off from with my own work. I chose Professor Pite early in the process since I knew I wanted to work on a commodity in Latin America. I asked Professor Zallen to be my other reader following the fall semester thesis presentation after I learned how much he knew about the field.
Q: When did you start thinking about your thesis? How did you select your topic?
A: I knew registering as a History major that I would likely write a thesis. It wasn’t until Junior year working with Professor Cohen that I began thinking about my topic. Through researching cottonseed oil as part of my EXCEL project, I became interested in the study of commodities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and how they grew into globally consumed products. From that point, it became about figuring out what commodity I wanted to pick and how I would analyze it. It wasn’t until I did a semester of research that I narrowed the topic down to look at the labor involved in the banana trade.
Q: How did you start tackling your thesis project at the very beginning?
A: During the summer between junior and senior year, I tried to read as much as I could about Latin American commodities and the region in general. Since I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to write about, I felt that gaining a good understanding of some of the larger processes in the region would make framing my project easier once I narrowed it down. This involved reading general histories of Latin America and articles about various commodities. By the end of the summer, I started working on picking a specific commodity, trying to research various ones to see how many sources were available for them. It wasn’t until midway through the fall semester that I chose bananas.
Q: Did your advisor explain the structure of a thesis project to you?
A: Yes, Professor Cohen and I had several discussions about the overall form my thesis would take. We developed several stages throughout the year regarding how far along in the project I needed to be by certain dates.
Q: Did you have to do a literature review? Had you ever done one before?
A: The History Department requires all honor’s theses to have a literature review included. I had done one or two literature reviews in my upper level classes, but they were never longer than a page or two. Other students probably organized it differently, but my literature review was one of the last parts of my thesis written. I felt that I didn’t know how best to frame it unless I knew exactly what I was arguing.
Q: Do you remember receiving correspondence from the library about your honors thesis?
A: I remember receiving several emails from the library describing what additional benefits the library offered thesis students, such as the ability to check out books for the year and to have the library purchase books needed for my research. I also received emails from the library about using Refworks to keep track of my sources and to schedule a meeting with a research librarian.
Q: What did you find most challenging about your thesis project?
A: I think the most challenging aspect was forcing myself to follow self-imposed deadlines. With most assignments prior to this, the due date was within several weeks of the paper or project being assigned, forcing you to work in a constructive manner through that time. With a thesis, apart from an end of the semester presentation in December, the only fixed due date was for the end of the project. Figuring out how to break up the work and to decide when certain portions needed to be completed by was difficult. I would recommend to anyone writing a thesis to divide the work as much as you can so that you can have some tangible progress every week.
Q: What did you find most rewarding about your thesis project?
A: For me, the most rewarding aspect was receiving positive feedback from my committee members. Going into the thesis, I had never done a project of nearly the same scope. Especially during the fall semester, it is difficult to tell how the project will turn out because most of the time is devoted to research. Hearing that my project was well done was extremely validating and made the struggles and time spent on the thesis more than worth it.
Q: What assistance did your advisor/department offer you throughout the course of the year?
A: The history department organized a presentation at the end of the fall semester for all students writing a thesis to talk about their project. This benefitted us, as it forced us to have a presentable project by that point and allowed us to see how much progress others had made. I met with my advisor either once a week or every other week to talk about the progress I was making. My advisor also read all of my drafts and provided detailed feedback on all of them and suggestions for improvement.
Q: Did you meet with librarians in the course of conducting your research? How many times and at what stages of your research?
A: I met with Lijuan a few times throughout the fall and spring semesters to talk about finding sources. Looking back, I wish I had worked with Lijuan and other librarians more both to find sources and to have another person to talk through my project with.
Q: What other kind of support did you rely on throughout the year to accomplish your thesis (IT, parents, friends, etc.)?
A: Several friends of mine also wrote theses. I believe that this helped all of us, as it gave us reference points for how much progress we needed to be making. Having someone besides your committee members to talk about your thesis with, even if it isn’t a very detailed discussion, is tremendously helpful, as it can provide another perspective on your work and gives you the chance to talk through any issues you may be having.
Q: Were you able to get access to all of the research materials you wanted for your project?
A: Through Lafayette, I was able to access as much material as was feasibly possible to obtain as an undergraduate. I found that the most helpful site for my work was HathiTrust. It has a tremendous amount of digitized content and you can search for specific words within texts. I found nearly all of my primary sources through this site, especially travelogues and government records, both British and Jamaican. If I expand on this project in graduate school, I will likely need to visit Jamaica and London to find documents that weren’t digitized.
Q: Would you do anything differently if you went through the process again?
A: If I were to do the project over, I would have moved my timeline forward a little bit. Not narrowing down to Jamaican bananas until midway through fall semester caused me to have to condense a large amount of research into the second half of the semester. While I don’t think you need to have the project extremely narrowed down by this point, I think it would have been helpful to have had the general topic by the start of fall semester.
Q: What advice would you offer other honors thesis students, especially in your department?
A: I think that the best advice I can offer to a student writing a history or other humanities thesis is to make sure that you keep an open mind throughout the project, especially about your topic. I think that too many people pick a topic very early in the project before doing much research and try to build their research around it. This may pigeonhole people into a project that the research may not necessarily support to enough of an extent to write a thesis about. By researching before picking a specific topic, it allows you to see what the available materials are and what they argue first. This allows you to build around them rather than forcing them into your topic. It wasn’t until March that I knew how to specifically frame my thesis. I think my thesis greatly benefited from the constant evolution of the topic