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The History department awards annually the Frank Ryan prize for the best Senior Honors thesis. This prize is named for Frank Winkler Ryan, an expert in American history and long-time instructor of the honors program since his appointment to the History department in 1957. Emeritus professor Ryan passed away in 2007.

The 2023 Frank Ryan Prize Winner

This thesis argues that the jazz scene in Prague from the 1950s until the transition in 1989 was concerned primarily with, not dissent, but survival. It tracks the bell-curve trajectory of the scene—from its earliest days as establishment, high culture music to its subversive turn and eventual illegality in the mid-1980s, resulting in a steep drop to kitschiness in post-Communist Prague.

A Music of Survival

The 2022 Frank Ryan Prize Winner

Name: Phillip Register Advisor: Fred Naiden Title: “Fresh Evidence: Reevaluating Alexander’s Battle at the Granicus”

In May 334 BCE, at a river valley in northwestern Anatolia called the Granicus, Alexander the Great defeated a Persian army for the first time. For more than two thousand years afterwards, the details of how, when, and why that battle unfolded have remained heavily debated by ancient and modern scholars alike, with profound consequences for how we understand Alexander and his Asiatic campaign. Utilizing fresh evidence and clarifying through the 3D recreation, Register’s thesis attempts to construct a new outlook. A few consequences are immediately evident. The battle at the Granicus was in fact far less complicated and far more logical than both ancient historians and modern scholars often believe, both in regards to the choice of the valley itself, the choice of the Persian defense, and the exact events of the battle.

Fresh Evidence

The 2021 Frank Ryan Prize Winner

Name: Kimathi Muiruri
Advisor: Lauren Jarvis
Title: “Their City, Our Terms: The Livelihood and Political Strategies of African Migrant Labourers in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal c. 1874-1906”

Muiruri’s thesis explores how African migrant labourers in Durban navigated the urban space, colonial-capitalist political economy, and indigenous African political economy to develop new livelihood strategies that allowed them to survive and prosper. In particular, this thesis is interested in understanding how dynamics of job seeking, urban housing, and urban labour action affected the self-conceptions and group identities of young migrant labouring men, and how these altered categories of identity fostered challenges toward the settler colonial state and generation-based patriarchal African power structures. Muiruri argues that migrant labourers reformed indigenous African ontologies, renegotiated ideas of maturation and masculinity, and developed labour-based political organizing strategies to confront the specific urban challenges of heightened intercourse with the colonial state and dislocation from old African lifeways. In doing so, migrant labourers in Durban both expressed new senses of individual agency and developed durable social identities with other labourers from disparate rural origins. Over time, these labourers constructed a political and social infrastructure which substantially shifted the power in African politics toward the young and the landless; and leveraged this power to pose a genuine challenge to colonial-capitalist domination by acting on their new senses of individual power and collective potential. By focusing on the site of the city, Muiruri highlights how urban challenges combined with rural-informed life practices to forge new capabilities for social organizing and expanded political imaginations which could not have found root anywhere else in the colony.

Their City, Our Terms

The 2020 Frank Ryan Prize Winner

Name: Linda Cheng
Adviser: Michael Tsin
Title: “Breach of Trust as Fuel for Protest: Tiananmen Demonstrations and the Erosion of State-Society” Relations in 1980s China

Cheng’s thesis explores the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrators’ motivations for choosing “Nothing to My Name” (Cui Jian, 1986) as their protest anthem, in tension with their relative socioeconomic privilege. Through analyzing topics of post-reform educational policy changes, the 1983 Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign, and dissemination of corruption as “crisis” within 1980s China, it argues that there was one major theme which contributed to and eventually drove Chinese students to the stark conclusion that they had “nothing:” The erosion of the relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese students which occurred throughout the course of the 1980s. At the larger level, this thesis highlights how the immense social changes which swept post-1978 reform China not only molded Chinese society as a whole, but shook the Chinese government to its very core. Utilizing originally conducted simple surveys, oral history accounts, and interdisciplinary sociological-historical analysis, this thesis contributes an alternative framework for understanding the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests, as a site through which students attempted to negotiate and grapple with their loss of trust in the Party, privileged political voice, and faith in society—the loss of “everything”—that they experienced throughout the 1980s. Ultimately, this thesis concludes that the Party played an unintentionally cataclysmic role in the 1989 Tiananmen Protests through its usage of often-oversimplifying messaging to address complex social problems—a trend which continues into today, with uncertain effects.

“Breach of Trust as Fuel for Protest: Tiananen Demonstrations and the Erosion of State-Society Relations in 1980s China”

The 2019 Frank Ryan Prize Winner

Name: Max Conley
Advisor: Morgan Pitelka
Title: “The World Whole: An Environmental History of Japanese Space Power”

Conley’s thesis explores the history of Japan’s interactions with outer space, largely in the 20th century. It argues for a conception of “Earth-space” wherein the porous boundary between the atmosphere and outer space is a site of rich interactions between society, nature, and technology. Using the topics of Tokyo’s urban heat island, satellite meteorology and remote sensing, and Japanese spaceflight in the 1990s, this thesis argues that history must become posthuman, as solar energy, concrete, physical maps, satellites, frogs, and robots play as important a role as humans in the development of the events and changes explored. Arguing from a deeply interdisciplinary perspective situated between history, philosophy, the applied physical sciences, cognitive science, critical theory, and sociology among others, this thesis finds itself primarily within environmental historiography. In imagining “the world whole,” this thesis seeks to synthesize and create a picture of the historical world that is appropriate to the climate regime and blurred metaphysical boundaries that characterize the 21st century.”

“The World Whole: An Environmental History of Japanese Space Power”

The 2018 Frank Ryan Prize Winner

Name: Katherine Frances Cayton
Adviser: Karen Auerbach
Title: “A ‘Third Possibility’ Revolution: The Success of Émigré Reporting Networks at Radio Free Europe During Poland’s 1956 Thaw”

Cayton’s thesis explores the essential role of Polish émigré journalists at Radio Free Europe to thestation’s mission and Polish broadcasts throughout the first part of the 1950s, culminating in the1956 thaw. Exploring how émigré journalists successfully translated Polish public opinion into station broadcast policy, this thesis argues that these two constituencies drew on a collective national consciousness to advocate for gradual communist reform. Using the June Poznań riots and the October thaw as case studies, this thesis examines the process by which American administrators at Radio Free Europe ceded authority to Polish journalists. Ultimately, this thesis concludes that 1956 proved essential to solidifying Radio Free Europe as a news source for Poles, by Poles.

“A ‘Third Possibility’ Revolution: The Success of Émigré Reporting Networks at Radio Free Europe During Poland’s 1956 Thaw”

The 2017 Frank Ryan Prize Winner

Name: Meredith Miller
Adviser: Chad Bryant
Title: “When Paris Met Bohemia: Discovering the Czech Nation through its Art, 1900-1938”

Miller’s thesis explores how a small group of French artists and intellectuals based in Paris ‘discovered’ the Czech nation through its modern art and history in the years leading to World War I through the interwar period. It argues that these Frenchmen at first praised the ‘Frenchness’ of Czech modernism and history to celebrate their own civilization and liberal values. Soon after World War I had begun, these Frenchmen advocated for an independent state not only because the Czechs’ refined art and history demonstrated its own European value, but also to ensure that a representative of Western European values was firmly situated in the heart of East-Central Europe.

“When Paris Met Bohemia: Discovering the Czech Nation through its Art, 1900-1938”

Click here for a list of previous Frank Ryan prize winners.