Reflections 2023-04-21

A significant milestone: reflections on our first master thesis defenses

By Elizabeth S-L Holstein

On 15 March 2023 at 10 AM, a group of people gathered in one of Angewandte’s meeting rooms. Most of them were seated as an audience in rows of chairs, facing two tables positioned opposite each other. Behind one table sat five examiners. Behind the other table sat one of the master students. She was about to be the first to complete a master thesis defence at the Vienna Master of Arts in Applied Human Rights. 

This first master thesis defence was a significant milestone not only for her and the other students who did their defenses, but also for the staff and teachers at the master program. It was a pleasure to hear the presentations and discussions of the master theses and how the students had worked with interdisciplinarity in different ways. The subjects varied broadly but were all related to applied human rights.

Since the beginning of the program, the students had been presented with the two possible formats of their master thesis. They could either have chosen to do a scientific master thesis or a final artistic project. The scientific master thesis is an academic paper of 100 to 120 pages written individually by the student on an applied human rights subject. The final artistic project is an artistic project/artwork with substantial documentation and a written theoretical analysis on the underlying human rights research with a length of 40 to 55 pages.

For example, the first student’s scientific master thesis was about ‘the role of social artistic movements and its impact on civic mobilisation in Argentina’ with an empirical analysis of selected art activism practices in the struggle for human rights advancements. Another student, Ruby Nyaoro, wrote her scientific master thesis about the conflicts regarding personalities that remain memorialised in public spaces. The title is ‘Addressing the Legacies of Statues Emblematic of Painful Histories: Dr. Karl Lueger, King Leopold II and the Politics of Memory’.

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Ruby explains that she developed the idea for her thesis from different parts of the master program, namely “the course Social Design and Architecture, during our walking tour of Vienna and through our discussions on ideas of urbanism and politics.” She was “fascinated by the ways in which political messages can be conveyed through urban landscapes and wanted to dive deeper into the subject.” She further explains that her choice of subject was based on the “series of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 which catalysed a global scrutiny of public statues and marked a turning point in assessing how the right to equality is realized through public statues.”

Ruby tells that the “most difficult part of the process was writing about a deeply contested issue since the questions on how to deal with problematic statues are interlinked to discussions related to identity, cultural heritage, pluralism and past violations of human rights. However, talking with my supervisor was helpful in shaping my thinking. Also, the master program offered tutorial workshops that were invaluable in helping me.”

Ruby felt the “defense itself was nerve-wrecking, but ultimately a rewarding experience. The main challenge was expressing my findings within a limited amount of time. It was great to have the opportunity to discuss my ideas with a panel of experts in the field and receive feedback on my work. Overall, completing the thesis was a challenging but fulfilling experience that taught me a lot about research, writing and critical thinking.”

One of the other student’s final artistic projects was a blues song reflecting on racism in Austria and white allyship in general. The student’s name is Gox, and he found the inspiration for his project from “a combination of certain experiences that a fellow student of colour had to go through and a reflection on certain social justice concepts covered in the master program”. He then “juxtaposed the fellow student’s experiences and discussions from the master program vis-á-vis the Blues genre and its history”. Gox explains that “condensing all of this was the biggest challenge, however I was lucky to receive support from the above-mentioned colleague, my supervisor as well as the master program’s artistic research advisor”.

Other theses were about youth violence in El Salvador, memorialization in the peace process of Colombia, energy justice and decolonial thinking in Brazil or about non-fungible tokens as emerging technologies in Africa. The different reception of refugees from Ukraine and Syria in Europe were compared through the lens of photojournalism in another thesis and a final artistic project investigated how many human rights violations are included in a common household screw.

All in all, the first master thesis defence was a significant milestone and a day to celebrate – which we will all did together at the graduation ceremony the 30th of March!

Congratulations to all the students!

Photo credits: Ruby Nyaoro, Elizabeth Holstein & Martin Gamper

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