The Storm of Ideas: From Brainstorming to Having a Research Topic

December 2, 2020

By Sophia Abrams (she/her), Student Historian in Residence

Hello, I am Sophia Abrams (she/her), and I am one of the Student Historians for the University Archives for this academic year. Upon receiving this role, I was excited to have the opportunity to utilize the University Archives to discover and share important underrepresented and under-researched narratives of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Given the momentum of 2020’s resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and COVID-19’s exceptional ability to showcase the world’s inequities, this opportunity felt relevant and essential for me on a personal level. 

But where do I start? Before this opportunity, my experience with research was writing research papers that followed my professors’ criteria. Now I had the opportunity to select a topic that I felt passionate about, and the infinite number of possibilities for my research topic was overwhelming in the best sense possible.  

I started the brainstorming process by thinking about what topics fascinate me. My mind created a map of ideas. In a notebook, I jotted down politics, Blackness, Greek life, women, the arts, and marginalized experiences. I utilized the library system to do preliminary research on these topics. I googled “Greek life history” and “Madison” to gain insight into the depth of current knowledge and scholarly work about Greek life. I thought about 2020’s summer protests and how the 1969 Black Student Strikes connected to it. However, while the Black strikes are interesting and pertinent to understanding our current landscape, they’ve been well-researched, and I wanted to choose an under-researched topic, so I crossed it off my list.

Learning more about Greek life and its history of discrimination, I also decided to cross it off my list. While the history of Greek life is significant to inform our understanding of it today, its history is hard to sit with, and I did not want to spend a year researching such a grave topic for my first-ever research project. Notably, after my initial research on Greek life, I realized that I wanted to pick a topic that was enriching and positive for marginalized people.

Luckily, during September and the beginning of October, I was trained by Cat Phan on archives and archival research and Troy Reeves on oral history. By having these meetings, I was able to visualize the project’s scope, and the feasibility of conducting a research project seemed manageable because I understood the importance of patience and preparation with research. From that, I had to be patient with the process, and eventually, I would find a topic that would resonate with me. Additionally, by continuing to meet with Cat and Troy, I can ask questions, gain insight for my research project, and feel prepared to complete my project. 

At the beginning of October, I narrowed my topics down to three general topics: Blackness, the arts, and literature. During the beginning of my research process, I discovered Professor Nellie Y. McKay. I was fascinated by her important work in establishing Black women’s studies and Black literature’s importance in academia. Nevertheless, while I found her story at the University of Wisconsin-Madison extremely rewarding, I wasn’t quite sure how to give her work justice in a one-year research project, so I crossed her off my list, but hope that someone will continue to honor her legacy with their own research project. On an exciting note about McKay’s legacy, Professor Shanna Greene Benjamin’s book, Half in Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Nellie Y. McKay, is coming out this spring.  

Fortunately, after brainstorming meetings with Cat and Kacie Lucchini Butcher, director of the Public History Project, Kacie suggested that I could conduct an oral history project about Black artists’ experience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This was perfect, and I knew that this had to be my research project. I could fuse together the intersection of Blackness and art. I could tie in the State Street murals and add them to the discourse on the intersection between art and Blackness at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. More profoundly, I now have the opportunity to work on a project that tells a positive story of resilience.

And with that, I secured my project’s topic, and I’m excited to share more about my research project’s progress in the future!