Honors in the Major Project: "The Origins of Florida Man," Logan Buffa and Dr. Katherine Mooney

Thu, 04/07/22
Logan Buffa and Katherine Mooney

Logan Buffa is a senior studying History and Political Science at Florida State. Logan transferred to FSU as a junior in 2020. Upon graduation, he plans to go to graduate school in History. Right now, he is hoping to continue working on his Honors in the Major project for his MA. He hopes to become a professor in American history.

Why did you decide to do an Honors in the Major (HITM) project?

I wanted to go to graduate school. So, I reached out to Dr. Mooney to discuss it and the application process. When we talked about suitable writing samples, she mentioned that one of the better ways of producing one is to write an Honors thesis. Not knowing much about the HITM program, I thought it was a great way to start the process of research, the process of grad school.

How easy was it for you to you find a topic for your thesis?

I started off not knowing what kind of history I wanted to focus on. Dr. Mooney and I agreed to work on the HITM project together, and after some initial brainstorming, I went to her with a list of about 15 potential topic ideas. All focused on American history, mostly on Southern history, as that is what Dr. Mooney specializes in.

We narrowed the topics down to five, and then discussed each one, reviewing where each project might go. Dr. Mooney helped me see which ideas were feasible and which weren’t. I decided to work on the one that we were both most excited about: Where did Florida Man come from historically? In other words, I am looking at Floridian history through the lens of environmental, economic, and racial history.

What is your HITM project about?

I am looking at the development of Florida Man from the colonial period to 1977. I knew I wanted to work on the Seminole Wars, as you can’t really talk about the racial history of Florida without talking about the Seminole Wars. I also wanted to examine how Florida got repackaged as something calmer than it used to be. A difference that is in degrees but not in kind. I argue that the template of Florida gets formed in the 1840s and that we are still living according to that template.

The idea and reality of Florida is constructed through two related struggles. The first is the struggle to tame the land. The second is to discipline its inhabitants. This struggle has taken many forms over the centuries, from creating plantations, and resettling Indigenous people, to the creation of suburbs. This twin struggle can be perceived as being at the heart of all crucial episodes in Florida history. It is the red thread that runs through it all. The ultimate manifestation of this tension is Disneyland, an ideal land, a utopia of tightly regulated and disciplined exoticness, created out of the swamps of central Florida.

The process of spatial and human domestication is not unique to Florida. What is unique is that Florida’s wilderness was seen as extreme and exotic. Florida was the U.S.’ only tropical possession before Hawaii, marking it out as hot, mysterious, and dangerous. The Crackers and homesteaders who came in after the Armed Occupation Act of 1842, removed the original ‘untamed’ Florida Man and became the new Florida Man. Today, Florida Man, who is now white, is the extremely stubborn and outrageously undomesticated male, who has somehow resisted the civilizing process.

What sources did you use for your project?

I used a range of sources, most of which were available online. I looked at Florida Memory, the Founders’ Archive, Florida State Archive and Library. I used correspondence between politicians, military records, state papers mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Every good historian lets the sources tell the story. I came in with a certain idea and found sources that helped me tell that story. There were many sources that I read through completely that had nothing to do with my topic idea at all. It was still interesting and gave me context, but as I read more, I began to skim the sources more and not read from cover to cover. The more I read, the more my argument shaped itself. I had clay that molded into its own story.

How did you actually tackle the project?

In the beginning, I would write whenever an idea came to me. But I discovered quickly that this did not help me with writing consistently. Then I decided to write a minimum of one page each day. Some days when I was very motivated, I wrote four to five pages. Sometimes, when it had been a rough day for research, I just wrote the one.

I always did both research and writing. I would start each work session by re-reading my previous paragraphs and figuring out what my train of thought had been. Then I would ask myself, “What sources do I need next? Where am I trying to go?” I would work on the necessary sources, and then write my next paragraph.

What was the hardest thing in pursuing the HITM project?

Initially, I thought writing it would be the hardest thing. But now I think that the hardest part was sometimes envisioning where the project was going and dealing with the uneven density of sources. I looked at these major events in 19th-century Florida history, the Seminole wars, and I had a hard time filling in the in-between times. Not many people lived in Florida then, so we do not have many primary sources, compared with other parts of the U.S. at the same time.

Dr. Mooney advised me: “Go back to your argument. See what you have. Reflect what you need to make your argument work. Figure out where to get material elsewhere. Otherwise, consider how you as a writer can make the story arch work.”

How did you interact with your mentor?

Dr. Mooney and I would meet every time I had completed a section of my project. I had divided it into three separate units: the colonial period, the time when the Americans encroached on Florida, and after Florida had become a part of the U.S. We met when I had completed each section. We would discuss the 15 to 25 pages that I had written and would talk about where to go next.

Dr. Mooney: “As a mentor, I am pretty hands-off. If someone comes to me and says, I need help, then I step in. But otherwise, I let the student try and figure things out on their own. So, Logan came to me a few times, but on the whole he tackled his problems himself.”

How did you grow as a historian?

The HITM project changed both the way I undertook research and the way I wrote.

I became more experienced in evaluating primary sources. Initially, I did a lot of ‘wrong’ research. I would read documents from start to finish, even if it took hours and the word ‘Florida’ was only mentioned once in them. Now, I will skim-read the part of the document that mentions Florida to see what it is about. I look at the context in which Florida is mentioned, and I can see quickly whether the context and hence the document is relevant for my argument.

I became more successful at interrogating my sources too. In the beginning, I was facilitating a discussion in my head between the different sources I was working on. It was a trial-and-error method, where error was not a negative. It just meant that I learned increasingly better ways of analyzing my sources.

And lastly, I grew as a writer. I changed my writing style. Writing as much as I did, I became aware that I was using certain phrases all the time, and I stopped that. I also stopped rephrasing primary sources that I cited. The source can speak for itself.

What advice would you give to others who might be thinking about embarking on a HITM project?

My advice would be: “Don’t be afraid to ask for help.” I often felt that I was a nuisance asking Dr. Mooney, and that I was getting in her way. But that was not the case. I am a very self-directed person, so I felt I wanted to present my mentor with sizeable chunks of my work each time we met. Now I know that I could have asked more often, that that is what the student-mentor relationship is all about.

Find a project you like, find people you can work with, stay on top of deadlines, reach out for help.

And what advice would you give to students, Dr. Mooney?

I have two related pieces of advice. First, when you decide on a HITM project, think about what you will need from your advisor. Reflect on how you work, and how your advisor can support your work. That also means being realistic about whether the person you want to work with can give you what you need.

And second, be transparent with your advisor about what you need. If you need regular or weekly check-ins to help you keep on track, then tell that to your advisor. If you want to meet only when you have completed a part of your project, let them know that. No one way of working is better than another. Your advisor will not find you troublesome or immature. This is a project that introduces students to independent scholarly work. That’s a big jump from regular course work, and you are entitled to a safety net and assistance. Even professional historians who do this for a living, have safety nets and get assistance.

Be honest and gentle with yourself and transparent with your advisor.