Finding a Thesis, Part 1: Advice from Jeff Brodsky

This blog post is the first in a three-part series by Laura Barnett. In the series, Laura shares lessons gleaned from OHMA alumni about finding a thesis topic.

On September 11th, 2014, Sam Robson (OHMA 2012) presented Oral History Meets Dementia: A Staged Reading of the play Timothy and Mary, at The Faculty House of Columbia University. Sam worked with Professor Gerald Albarelli to adapt interviews of people with dementia into a dramatic format.  In conversation with the current OHMA cohort, Sam discussed the evolution of his thesis topic, encouraging current students to take time to identify interests, pursue passions, and risk switching topics midstream.

His advice made me curious. Had previous OHMA grads started out with one thesis idea and ended up with something completely different? Below, three stories:

Jeff Brodsky joined OHMA’s inaugural 2008 class with a degree in political science from Washington University and a background in journalism.

About his thesis topic, Jeff says, “Where it started is totally different from where it ended up.” Tracking his interest in Politics and Media, Jeff obtained an interview with veteran ABC News Anchorman Sam Donaldson.  This sparked an idea to interview White House correspondents. Relying on his journalism training, Jeff was persistent in his efforts, obtaining difficult access to press rooms and briefings. After several trips to Washington, D.C., he realized that the idea wasn’t viable. “Simply put, White House correspondents didn’t have the time. They are at the peak of their careers and might have time for five minutes, but not for a long, reflective interview.”

Jeff   Brodsky   interviewing US Senator Ron Wyden about Wyden's first campaign for Congress in 1980 .

Jeff Brodsky interviewing US Senator Ron Wyden about Wyden's first campaign for Congress in 1980.

His next idea was to interview people behind the New York Sun, a recently folded newspaper. “The newspaper’s publisher had a problem with co-authorship, insisting the copyright stay with him, and he also wanted a confidentiality clause prior to starting the interviews. Mary Marshall advised that this wasn’t an optimal situation, so now, in second semester, I was 0 for 2 with thesis ideas.”

Jeff pursued two other thesis topics involving mainstream news outlets. He had significant interviews; yet, in his mind, they didn’t cohere into a thesis.

“I was doing an oral history interview with David Dinkins and asked him about his 1965 race for State Assembly. He briefly talked about it and then went on to discuss his win of the Manhattan Borough Presidency and New York mayoral race. When I asked about his early days, he just glossed over, skipping ahead, wanting to talk about the bigger races saying, ‘why do you want to know about that?’ It was obvious he didn’t want to talk about his first campaign. Then, I had an epiphany.”

Jeff decided to interview high-profile politicians about their first campaigns. “What was magical is that it didn’t rely on any one person, there were several hundred prospective interviews. It was also a topic that people who are interviewed all the time are not used to talking about.”

Jeff   Brodsky   interviewing former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about Rumsfeld's first campaign for Congress in 1962.

Jeff Brodsky interviewing former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about Rumsfeld's first campaign for Congress in 1962.

Jeff interviewed Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis about his run for a town seat in Brookline in the 1960s. Other interviewees included Governors George Pataki, Eliot Spitzer, and Chris Christie, Presidential candidate and civil rights advocate Jesse Jackson, Cory Booker, then Mayor of Newark, and Senator George McGovern.

In the end, Jeff conducted interviews with 70 political leaders. He shared, “Even though the oral history life history approach is difficult with politicians, keeping it focused while also listening actively to the silences, definitely helped.”

In addition to changing thesis topics, Jeff changed the format from a written thesis to a video documentary.  In July 2012, a version was published in The Washington Post Magazine.

Jeff was also interviewed by Michel Martin of NPR's Tell Me More.

Warner Brothers Pictures Tweeted: Real-life politicians recall their funny 1st experiences:

 Jeff’s advice: “Keep thinking of ideas that haven’t been researched before.”

Stay tuned for Laura's next post! And don't forget to join us for the 2015 Oral History workshop series, in which OHMA alumni and other professional oral historians discuss their current work.