Student Spotlight: Julia Butz

SURG Picture Julia Butz

Julia Butz                                                                                     

 How did you decide on the topic of your research?

I first became interested in American slavery in high school English when we read works like Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Crèvecœur’s Letters from an American Farmer. My fascination with psychological aspects of American slavery, particularly how slave owners attempted to justify and reconcile human ownership, continued into college. During the spring of my sophomore year I took Professor Rothman’s North American Slavery course. For our final paper, we were asked to analyze interviews that were conducted with former slaves in the 1930s. I found that many of the subjects referenced having grown up in the ‘big house’ and was sincerely puzzled by this arrangement. I was motivated by the mystery I found here. 

How did you become involved in research?

After taking his course, I was a research assistant for Professor Rothman through the GUROP during my junior year. The primary sources I considered were relevant both to Professor Rothman’s research questions and to my own.

What was your favorite part about the research process?

One of the great cruelties of American slavery was that it limited people in individuality. Whether by the overarching denial of freedom, disregard for names and birthdates, lack of education, or otherwise, enslaved people were robbed of self-realization and often of expression. However insignificant in the grand scheme of justice, I enjoyed recognizing some of their individual voices through the interview archive, these 150 years later.

What was the most challenging part of the research process?

Perhaps the most challenging part of the research process was identifying where to look next. Given the volume of available information and the many angles from which to approach the subject, it was hard to determine a research path. The expertise of an advisor was particularly helpful in this regard.

What was the most unexpected part of the research process?

Thinking my topic was narrow and obscure, I was surprised to find that several scholars had already written on this subject. This was helpful, and at times frustrating, and taught me the value of pulling sources together in a new way to answer an existing question.

How was Georgetown able to support you during the research process?

Georgetown supported my research process through the American Studies Program, through GUROP, and through engaged teachers like Professor Rothman, Professor Seamon, and Professor Chatelain.

The Georgetown University Undergraduate Research Symposium, and the university as a whole, is committed to fostering interdisciplinary, intellectual dialogue. What is one experience that you have had at Georgetown that reflects this commitment?

One of the most remarkable experiences I have had in college was attending a workshop in which we considered the abolition of slavery as a moral innovation. The seminar was held by Georgetown’s Berkley Center as part of the Normative Orders Collaborative. Using Professor Rothman’s book Beyond Freedom’s Reach as a platform, academics from numerous disciplines sat around a conference table and discussed why and how abolition occurred. A humbled observer, I was amazed by the interdisciplinary discourse, and also by my ability to keep up with the conversation. The workshop made me feel inspired and empowered as a student and seemed to epitomize the purpose of academia.

Describe your research in one sentence.

My research attempts to explain why American slave owners sometimes assigned select slave children to live in the white household, rather than in the slave quarters, in the years leading up the Civil War.

What is your advice for other undergraduates who are interested in pursuing research at Georgetown?

It has been rewarding for me to have ownership of my own research questions, even as I have worked with Professor Rothman. If you find yourself with specific curiosity in class, I would encourage you to approach your professor about collaboration. Hopefully that professor will be able to guide you, but you will be driven by your own questioning.

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