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Emily Curtis Walters: Storyteller and PhD Candidate in History

Modified: May 16, 2016
Emily Curtis Walters

Emily Curtis Walters was not always passionate about history. She did, however, love hearing stories from the past. As a child, she spent many hours at her grandmother’s house that was filled with memorabilia. “I loved going through all of her stuff and fishing out the things that interested me,” Emily remembers. “My grandmother would tell me the story of each item, who it belonged to, and how it pertained to her life. I didn’t understand how that was history at the time.”

Emily grew up in Sligo, a small town in Pennsylvania just north of Pittsburgh. She went to college at the University of Pittsburgh and received her MA in History from Slippery Rock University. During this time, she came across a play from 1928 Britain called “Journey’s End.”

“It was considered a really realistic war play, written and performed by veterans, that caused a lot of excitement and controversy,” Emily explains. “I wrote my Master’s thesis on that play, which in a way led me to my current work.”

A fourth year PhD candidate in History, Emily is currently working on her dissertation, which she describes as “a cultural history of the reception of stories about the First World War, the afterlives of war stories.”

Emily developed the idea for her dissertation from a military recruitment poster that was produced during the First World War in 1915. It shows a young girl sitting in her father’s lap looking at a history book. The caption reads, “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” A young boy is playing with toy soldiers at their feet. She was curious about what happens if we take this scenario seriously. 

“The idea was to compel men to look into the future and think about how they would answer this question from their children,” Emily says. “It’s an accident of history that there is one generation that goes to fight in what is known as the ‘war to end all wars,’ but then they have to watch their children go off to participate in another global war. I wondered about how that played out in the texture of individual lives and relationships.” 

Emily’s dissertation is separated into three parts: public knowledge of World War I transmitted to children, private knowledge of World War I transmitted within families, and popular culture during this time. To do this, she studied records of military pageants in Britain, diaries and family correspondence, and theatre and film during this time. She gathered her research abroad, mainly in and around London, especially at the Imperial War Museum. While she initially was concerned about how to find the evidence she needed, she is now confident she has plenty of information. 

“When I started this project, people always asked me how I would find this information,” Emily laughs. “My advisor told me to just go look and I’d find something. Luckily, I did! I have too much stuff now, so it’s time to write!”

Some of her favorite stories come from the conscientious objection tribunal records from the Second World War. “Many people cite their mother’s and father’s experiences in the First World War as a reason for objecting to military service,” she says. “I’m really interested in how women participated in this process. It is interesting to think about women’s changing political position in Britain and their citizenship in a new way. You can see this playing out in these really intimate ways in these tribunal records and family relationships.”

Emily is one of the inaugural Franke Fellows for the 2016-2017 academic year, a fellowship funded by Richard and Barbara Franke and awarded to the most promising students in fields across the humanities. It gives her the ability to devote two quarters to dissertation writing, receive interdisciplinary mentoring, and shape and teach a course in the History department.  

“I’m one of four Northwestern students selected for the fellowship,” she says. “I’m really interested in interdisciplinary research, so I like the idea of participating in a collective. You get to talk about your work with people from other fields.”

Interdisciplinary work and the people in the history department were two of the most compelling aspects that brought her to Northwestern. “It is one of the few schools that actually has a structure to train you in interdisciplinary work,” she says. “The people on my committee are also amazing. It’s still exciting when I get feedback on my writing from people whose work I read before I came here.”