Gwendolyn Franklin '18Gwendolyn Franklin '18

Alumni Feature: Gwendolyn Franklin ’18

Many CoSA projects tie into honors thesis work or are completed side-by-side with faculty experts. Franklin ’18 is a young alumna who carried forward the pursuits she began at Ursinus to graduate study. Watch her short video explaining her research, along with a Q&A to follow below.



“These skills [developed at Ursinus] did not just prepare me for Temple, but they have made me a better person.” -Gwendolyn Franklin ’18

Question and Answer with Gwendolyn Franklin ’18

General Questions:

How have your Ursinus mentors impacted your research throughout your undergraduate program?

Dr. Onaci was my academic advisor and mentor throughout my Ursinus career. I cannot speak highly enough of Dr. Onaci. Throughout my time at Ursinus he pushed me to challenge every idea I had, to open my mind to new perspectives and to work (and live) with intent. When I first began my Summer Fellows project with Dr. Onaci he put the book Hillbilly Nationalists in my hand. That book not only changed my perspective but changed the way I do history every day. I was so lucky to have Dr. Harris join my team when I started my independent research project that would go on to become the project I presented at CoSA (“The Death Rattle of West Virginia: The Interlocking Relationships between the Coal Industry, the Opioid Epidemic, and the Rise of Trump”). Dr. Harris and Dr. Onaci fundamentally changed my life that semester. The way both of these scholars model how to work with tenderness and purpose, but more importantly how to live with kindness and compassion, molded the person who I became and am always becoming. Dr. Onaci recently released his first book, Free the Land: The Republic of New Afrika and the Pursuit of a Black Nation-State. It is a fantastic, artful, well researched, book and I cannot recommend it enough. You can buy it here.

You shared you went on a research trip with Summer Fellows to West Virginia in 2017. How impactful was this experience to the trajectory of completing your research for CoSA and beyond?

That trip was wild. I spend three days collecting documents in the West Virginia Regional History Center archives in Morgantown and the rest travelling throughout the state. I was able to see the destruction wrought on the region by strip mines. No piece of writing could have replicated that experience. But more importantly, I saw a state full of stories and people who continued to thrive and push for recognition. While many of the more popular Appalachian history books are declension narratives, there are clearly stories of triumph and survival in the rubble that is the coal industry. It is important to tell those stories.

You have proven that research formed at UC can grow outside of undergraduate studies. What advice do you have for current UC Bears participating in CoSA?

Embrace it. Your work will never feel completely finished, or look perfectly polished, but you should be proud of presenting your work (especially in a pandemic!). You cannot know where you will end up in three years right now. Embrace life, and go with the flow.

Research Specific Questions:
Tell us about your research, what first sparked your interest, and why continuing your research was important in a post-graduate program?

When I was 14 my family and I went on a trip to West Virginia. After getting lost on a mountainside, a kind security guard let us go through a gated community which led to the main road. Once we got over the mountain, and out of the gated community, we entered a neighborhood that still used outhouses. The dichotomy of experience was striking. Then, in August 2016 Trump was in Charleston, West Virginia boasting about revitalizing the coal industry. I could not help but think about that dichotomy I had seen years ago and ask, why would poor white people, whose economy had been wrecked by the coal industry, vote for Trump? It made no sense to me. I was determined to figure it out. On the way there, I uncovered a brutal history of extraction and hundreds of answers to my original question. I chose to continue this work in graduate school because its important to talk about poor white people and why race trumped class in 2016. In order to fundamentally change our society, we have to have hard conversations about how history shapes modern day outcomes.

How did your Ursinus education prepare you for your continuing studies after graduation?

In 2015 I was a quiet, overwhelmed and intimated sophomore in a Dr. Doughty class. By the end of the semester, Doughty had managed to teach me how to forcefully participate. By the time I graduated I was a completely different person. Ursinus’s history department is full of Doughty’s legacy: professors who challenge your innate tendencies to make you a better person. These skills did not just prepare me for Temple, but they have made me a better student. The Ursinus History Department, Dr. Onaci, Dr. Daggar, Dr. Chao, Dr. Clark, and of course Dr. Doughty, instilled in me a desire to use academic research to jump start difficult conversations.

Your research project thesis is described as “the ways historians can utilize legends, like Mothman, to understand local cultural anxieties.” What inspired you to focus your attention on this subject matter?

So because of COVID-19, archival access for historians has been abysmal. When I started this class, I went through the documents I had collected all the way back during my Summer Fellows trip for some inspiration. In these documents, I found a list of archival materials at the West Virginia University. I quickly was interested in the multiple nods to West Virginia legends, and one in particular caught my eye: The Mothman. I knew that West Virginia had such a complicated history. For a monster to arrive on the scene in 1966? I knew there was no way it was a coincidence. Monsters, according to the theory, are reflections of the moment in which they arise. They dredge up fear and anxiety and physically manifest during times of crisis. Mothman is an interesting research project because historians tend to stay away from monsters…. But I like leaning into the unconventional. Is Mothman real? My opinion will always be, it’s not for me to decide. My job is simply to tell the story.

In a few words, can you detail for us your argument about how the legend of Mothman represents an increase of chatter about man-made intrusions on natural landscapes i.e., strip mining and other environmental hazards?

In the documents residents seem to mix Mothman’s “nest,” if you will, with environmental disaster zones like strip mines or an old contaminated TNT plant in Point Pleasant. There were a lot of Mothman sightings over new chemical plants along the Ohio River. The concentration of the sightings, combined with the late 1960s increase in strip mining activity, indicates a relationship between the monster that we can name, Mothman, and the monsters that seemingly escape persecution, environmental and economic destruction.

What is Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Seven Theses and how does it present itself in your research?

In undergrad, Dr. Chao taught a wonderful class Monsters in Chinese Society. She showed us Jefferey Jerome Cohen’s “Seven Theses” which outlines seven different approaches to monsters. I adored this essay in 2018, and I adore it now. The first thesis is the one most important to my work: “The monster’s body is a cultural body.” Cohen argues that the monster exists only to be read within the culture of which is emerges. This to me has justified my historical approach to Mothman. If the monster is meant to be read in the context of Point Pleasant, the only way to do that is historically situate the phenomenon.

Gwen Franklin is a highly intelligent and hardworking person. She thrives when challenged and always achieves more than is expected. Beyond her intellectual gifts, Gwen is gracious and personable person. In class, I was always proud of how she interacted with her peers and in how she helped them do more than what they thought they were capable of.

Gwen is the embodiment of what we hope liberal arts education produces in students. In her research, she was always willing to embrace discomfort and did not shy away from self-reflection. The combination of those attributes helped her better understand the responsibilities that come with producing knowledge. I am very proud of what she has achieved so far, and I look forward to what she takes on moving forward.

- Dr. Ed Onaci


Gwen’s drive to find answers to important questions about the social world around her propels her research. But it is Gwen’s ability to see the reach of empirical techniques and theoretical ideas, but also the limitations, that led to really interesting projects.

- Dr. Jasmine Harris