#Seniorseminar: Quentin Powell II & “An Intellectual Paradigm shift in Renaissance Florence and its Intended Consequences”

Thu, 10/19/23
Quentin Powell

Tell us a bit about yourself!

I applied to four colleges and got into three. Florida State University was the furthest away from my home but still in-state. My parents and I agreed that I should go to college far enough away so that I could not just pop back home for the weekend. I am from Tampa, and the drive is just long enough for me to think about whether I want to do it.

I have always been interested in history, and I excelled at it in school. As a student, I have enjoyed the transition from learning about history to actually writing history myself. I am a history and political science double major, with a minor in Arabic.

After graduation, I want to work for the State Department. That might require some type of grad school before I take the foreign service exam. I would also love to spend some time in the Middle East to hone my Arabic language skills.

What made you choose the senior seminar class on “Renaissance Florence?”

I have always been interested in intellectual history, the history of ideas. I find it fascinating to learn how ideas have changed. I had taken a few of Dr. Palmer’s classes including one on Florence during the Renaissance. So, I was familiar with his teaching style, I knew that he would challenge me and offer good feedback.

What is your project about?

I worked on the paradigm shift in Renaissance Florence in the late 14th/ early 15th century. My basic question is: how did the paradigm shift allow the state and people of Florence to do things differently from before? Previously, Florence had been buttressed by the ‘paradigm of justice,’ based on the ordinances of justice. Then we see a shift to the ‘paradigm of liberty.’ In analyzing that shift, I found that the Florentines were allowed to do three new things in three areas: 1) war making – how to go to war, how to end the war, how to conduct a war, how that changed; 2) government – what the government could do before and what it could afterward; 3) family structure – how the Florentine family changed and what that meant for society.

In a nutshell, the shift to a paradigm of liberty allowed the Florentine state and people to act in ways that they could not have considered doing before. Increasingly that meant the intervention of the state into new areas, especially the family.

How did you find your topic?

Since I was familiar with the content of the course, I had ideas of what to work on when I started the class. One of the people I was very interested in was Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406), a chancellor of the Republic of Florence. He was the propagandist-in-chief of the Florentine state. His rhetoric was extraordinary, and it was used to justify Florence’ wars, and shifting government aims. One day in class, we were talking about him and the impact of his rhetoric, and at that moment I decided that I wanted to look at him in my paper. I wanted to find out how he caused the intellectual foundation of Florence to change.

What sources did you use?

I used the writing of Salutati. I also used a lot of chronicles and histories of Florence. There are quite a few Florentine historians: Nicollo Machiavelli, Leonardo Bruni, Dino Compagni and others. Most of the sources I found online, but I also took out some books from the library. I already owned a few books myself from previous classes with Dr. Palmer. I consulted all my sources in translation – I don’t read Italian.

Was it difficult to get started on a project this big?

Researching was not so hard. I like reading generally and exploring the secondary sources was fun. The bigger hump for me is synthesizing all my notes into a coherent argument and then writing the paper. I will eventually sit myself down and tell myself to get something done. And once I have written a section, I can edit and refine it.

I usually start with a very rough outline that gives me a sense of what to do. Then I start writing, often stream of consciousness, after which I will review what I wrote and note what I liked and what needs changing. I think about the evidence I have found, how it relates to what I wrote, and whether I forgot an important piece.

Dr. Palmer asked us to identify a topic we wanted to work on early in the semester. I was lucky that I knew quite a bit about the broader topic already from my previous classes with him.

What was the biggest surprise in your research?

Even though the justice-based intellectual paradigm was no longer the major underpinning of politics and society, the tools of legitimation were the same. It took the Florentine elites some time to transition completely from one way of ordering society to the next. That was one area of the topic that intrigued me and that I could have spent more time on.

Was it easy to stay on top of things re. time management?

No. Generally, I am a procrastinator. I am also learning Arabic at the moment, which is a big time commitment. This is the first year I have had a job besides college. I have had to divide my time between the senior seminar paper, Arabic, my other classes and work. I usually have periods when I am very productive, when I lock myself away and write. Because my life is quite busy on an everyday basis, I had to set aside blocks of time to work on the paper.

I was able to succeed in writing the senior seminar paper because Dr. Palmer required us to submit parts of the project throughout the semester. It was those milestones that kept me honest. Otherwise, I might not have started the paper until three weeks before it was due.

What did you think about the presentation?

I love presenting and public speaking, so that was not a hurdle. I love discussion, and I enjoyed talking about my project – and its contemporary application – in class - and with all my friends.

Was writing such a big paper more stressful – or fun?

Both. For me, sitting down and starting the writing process is usually very stressful, but once I have started writing, it is enjoyable. And it is inspirational to write my thoughts down, and then reflect on my writing and discover how to move my argument forward. Procrastination can certainly lead to a lot of stress. When I am stressed, I try to turn my brain off, read a book or watch a film, do something that takes me out of what is stressing me. Work actually helped me to de-stress. I alternated work and school days, so that every other day, I did not have to think about my work on intellectual shifts in Renaissance Florence.

What advice would you give students about to start their senior seminar class?

If possible, take the senior seminar with a professor that you are comfortable with – and that you know. Also – try and take it on a topic that you are familiar with. That can be a big advantage. You don’t want to go into the senior seminar blind. If you don’t know the topic at all, then do some basic historiographic research before the first class, so you know what the seminar will deal with.

Be very intentional in your choice. Even if you don’t know the topic, make sure it is something that you are passionate about, so that you are happy to do some research on your own before the first class meeting. That way you will be able to identify some topic ideas that you might like to work on. Be prepared to hit the ground running.

What advice would you give yourself – if you could go back in time?

I think I would have cut work back from four to three days. That would have given me one extra day to work on the senior seminar paper. In a perfect world, I would not be learning Arabic at the same time as writing my senior seminar – but we don’t live in a perfect world.

Final thoughts?

The senior seminar is a very helpful experience. I had taken a grad class before I did the senior seminar, and I wish I had done it the other way around. That would have allowed me to be more successful in the grad class. The senior seminar made me reflect on whether I want to do history as an amateur or as a professional. Whether it is only ‘reading as a hobby’ or something that I can write myself. Working with primary and secondary sources, understanding their voices and arguments, finding your own argument, writing the paper, editing, and reviewing it – on a scale larger than what you have done so far, that is a very illuminating experience. When you do the senior seminar think that this is the beginning of the way that actual historians do history. And the skills you will take away will help you in your future career.