For many students, their senior theses have paved their career paths, from future doctors researching genetics in a lab to activists-in-the-making studying a particular policy issue. But for Charlotte Lellman ’15, it wasn’t the thesis itself, but rather the process of researching it that pointed her in the direction of her future field.
The French major spent two weeks in Paris researching her thesis, which focused on how prostitution was policed in that city in the 18th century, at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal. It wasn’t the first time she’d undertaken archival research—that was the previous summer when she worked as a research assistant to Frank A. Kafker Professor of History Lisa Jane Graham, excavating French texts related to law, morality, women, and debauchery in the 18th century—nor would it be the last.
Lellman is back in the City of Light this summer, doing further research for Graham, reading and organizing royal orders that imprisoned suspects called lettres de cachet. Though, starting in the fall, she will take a break from studying the past to help prepare children for the future as a Match Corps tutor for a cohort of students at a charter school in Boston, she eventually hopes to return to school to pursue a career in archival studies or library science.
What inspired your thesis topic?
My thesis work was inspired by two courses I took during the second semester of my junior year: “Libertinage et subversion” with Professor Le Menthéour at Bryn Mawr, a French literature class that focused on 18th century libertine literature, [and] a history class “The French Revolution” with Professor Graham. After that, I worked as Professor Graham’s research assistant… I wanted to draw on this background in my thesis, and I was interested in combining something related to libertinage with something related to politics. … For my thesis, I initially thought about doing something literary, but I ended up doing archival research and taking a social [and] historical perspective. I studied 18th century definitions of “police,” police reports on prostitutes, and a 1770 treatise on prostitution reform.
What did you learn from working on your thesis?
I am really lucky to have had the opportunity to work with archives. I traveled to Paris, with the support of the CPGC and the Louis Green Fund, and I spent two weeks reading 18th century police reports. I read files on femmes entretenues, a type of high-class prostitute. I learned about different historical approaches, and the significance of archives to the study of history. For example, I read Arlette Farge’s Le goût de l’archive, which helped me to think critically about archives. What was included or excluded? Why did the collection exist? The very existence of the long, detailed reports told me a lot about the police surveillance. It supported a lot of my research, particularly the idea that the police had this Enlightenment-inspired need to collect information as a form of control.
Art: “The Parisian Life” by Juan Luna, Courtesy of the National Museum of the Philippines
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.