Celebrating Senior Theses: An Interview with Nadia Diamond ’17

In our spring series, Senior Theses: A Celebration, we take a moment in the interlude between thesis deadlines and graduation to appreciate the diverse, personal, and impactful work of seniors’ capstone research projects.

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For her senior thesis in History, Nadia Diamond wrote about the Magdalen laundries in the Republic of Ireland.

Established at Catholic convents in the 18th century, Magdalen laundries were “rehabilitative” asylums, where sex workers and “fallen women” were put to work cleaning clothes. With the establishment of the Republic in 1922, the laundries lost their rehabilitative nature, and transformed into a form of slave-like punishment for “sinful” women, most of whom were not sex workers, but instead unmarried mothers, sexual assault survivors, or sexually active single women who had been ostracized by their communities. The women worked long hours under supervision of the nuns to wash people’s laundry, without financial compensation, and without freedom to exit the institution. The last of these laundries finally closed in 1996. In her thesis, Nadia focuses on three different laundries — in Dublin, Limerick, and Galway. She explores themes of community disengagement and considers the power that art can play in grappling with this horrific history.

Former Magdalen laundry run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity on Sean McDermott Street in Dublin.

What did you want to learn from this project?

The question that sparked my research was: Why did it take so long for the laywomen who had once been incarcerated to start having their voices heard, and for there to actually be some heat put on the state, the church, and larger society for letting this happen for so long? To do that I decided to look at newspaper archives and trace public discussion in search for any reference of the laundries throughout the 20th century in order to provide historical background for the general societal silence in the 21st century. The laundries were mentioned a lot, but it was all pro-Church, with no voice given to the women inside.

What led you to this topic?

In the summer after my freshman year, I took a global seminar called Performing Irishness, taught by professors Jill Dolan and Stacy Wolf. We were looking at Irish theater as a form of commentary and a method for processing and developing Irish identity. One of the productions we learned about was called Laundry. It was performed in 2011 in the dilapidated laundry in Dublin. The director, who I interviewed this summer, said there were still pieces of furniture, high chairs and things in the building, because it was the last of the laundries to close in 1996. She said it was “as if they just got up and left.” And the artists used these found objects in addition to oral histories to develop performance pieces. Learning about this, I was blown away.

Then Junior Spring an Irish journalist, Fintan O’Toole, taught a seminar called The Arts, Literature, and Cinema of Coercive Confinement in Modern Island, in which we talked about the laundries and other institutions, like mental asylums and industrial schools where kids were sent. We discussed how arts and literature could wrestle with the experiences of an individual and of the greater community.

Did you complete any previous projects about this topic?

I wrote my spring semester JP on a documentary called States of Fear, about the industrial schools where children were forced into labor, which featured survivor testimony and gave me good background. For my thesis I realized I wanted to focus back on the women. Because this documentary came out about the industrial schools and the government put out a 2500 page report specifically about state involvement in the industrial school system that were run by the Catholic religious orders, they collected testimonials, and started a system of reparations for people who had suffered abuse. But that didn’t happen with the Magdalen laundries. There was a report that came out that didn’t address any survivor testimonies, that said that none of the religious orders made any profit, which archivists and historians and activists who have investigated records say is not true.

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When Work is Playtime: Reflections on the Creative Process

In between classes, extracurriculars, and my Spanish and Portuguese thesis, I’ve spent the last year developing a new musical that runs Thursday May 11 through Sunday May 14 — Beautiful Girls: A Musical Playdate. Developed with two other theater certificate students, the play uses music by Stephen Sondheim to explore themes of friendship, queerness, and identity, and how all of these can and cannot be distilled in the clothes we wear. Looking back on this yearlong project, I realize it has helped me reconnect with what makes both research and creative work so fulfilling: the freedom to explore, improvise, and think beyond what has already been made.

The show runs only 45 minutes. Tickets are free, and may be reserved at: https://tickets.princeton.edu/Online/default.asp

When we started the project, we knew just a couple things about the show: 1) There would be only three actors: the three thesis students. 2) We would use songs by the versatile composer Stephen Sondheim. 3) We would queer this material by performing songs from a number of Sondheim’s shows, regardless of each character’s gender, personality, or “type.”

At our first production meeting, Vince, the music director, suggested it could be wildly fun to put our own mark on each song: adding voice parts to solos, layering different songs on top of each other, or even changing musical styles. This would require weekly sessions for musical improvisation. Rather than calling these “music rehearsals,” which implied some sort of set music to learn, we decided to call them “musical playdates.”

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Structuring Senior Year: Choosing Courses

The registrar will soon be releasing fall course offerings. Even as spring semester continues full speed ahead, many juniors are beginning to think about the coming year. Especially for A.B. seniors, who take only six classes, the questions of which to take, how many to take, and how to balance them with a thesis and post-graduation plans, all loom. Remembering how I, as a second semester junior, relied on advice from outgoing seniors, I decided to compile some of my own reflections on approaching coursework in senior year.

Three-three or four-two? For most A.B. students, senior year is the only time we take six courses, rather than eight or nine, to make more time for independent research. We may divide these courses in two ways: three each semester; or four in the first, two in the second. This decision may come down to a number of factors, including: your ability to plan ahead and pace your work, your spring extracurricular conflicts, and your research requirements (for some, scheduling lab work is an important consideration). Personally, I am so grateful for my decision to take four and then two. Especially since I have two theses — one for the Spanish and Portuguese concentration, and a thesis play for the theater certificate — I appreciate the lighter course load.

Final requirements? As you select final courses, narrowing down the choices can seem impossible. Before you make any decisions, first consult your departmental, certificate, and distribution requirements. Many departments have advising tools and calendars to help keep you on track. If you have any prerequisites left, check if these courses are only offered one semester. Senior fall, for instance, was my last opportunity to take ANT 300, a requirement for the Ethnography certificate. Having this in my schedule helped me limit my other choices.

One tool that might help with course selection is recal.io, which allows you to develop a potential class schedule. Here is the schedule I developed last year at this time for my senior fall.

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Looking Back on Undergraduate Research: Dumpster Diving with Alex V. Barnard ’09

This semester, each PCUR will interview a Princeton alumnus from their home department about his/her experience writing a senior thesis. In Looking Back on Undergraduate Research: Alumni Perspectives, the alumni reveal how conducting independent research at Princeton influenced them academically, professionally and personally. Here, Taylor shares her interview.

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Alex V. Barnard, Class of 2009

Alex V. Barnard ‘09 was a Sociology Major during his time at Princeton. Now a graduate student in Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, he studies the comparative politics of mental health in Europe and the U.S. In addition to attending graduate school, Alex continued to work on his thesis after completing his undergraduate education. He recently published all of his hard work in his new book, Freegans: Diving into the Wealth of Food Waste in America.What is a “freegan,” you may ask? Luckily, I had the opportunity to speak with the author himself. Here’s what Alex had to say in his interview with PCUR about how his thesis impacted his life: 

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