In the past few years we’ve used the term “college experience” with increasing frequency, this to distinguish it from high school, work, on line, vacation or other “experience.” We value it. We promote it. Yet in reading casually I haven’t really nailed down its meaning. This leaves me to develop a definition that fits my own teaching practice. Specifically, I’ve been experimenting with setting stages for students to “do” history.
Here’s my most recent example. Late last term Victoria Davis, Humanities Media Project Program Coordinator, and Ben Wright, Assistant Director for Communications at the Briscoe Center for American History, brought to my attention a small set of tattered documents recently found in the Briscoe’s Natchez Trace Collection, an important archival trove of early 19th century papers from the Lower Mississippi Valley. The papers involved the court case of Phebe Martin. Martin, a free woman of color, born near the end of the American Revolution, was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Taken into the newly created Mississippi Territory, she managed to get her case before a court, where a jury issued a document setting her free.
Not incidentally, too, the students will have learned about the complexity of “doing history”—the importance of framing solid questions, thinking creatively about finding answers, and successfully communicating their findings. As important, they will have had the individual experience of doing historical research and the collaborative experience of working cooperatively toward creating new and exciting means of understanding and vivifying history.
Davis and Wright asked if I could use the Martin case in a new class I was teaching, History 317N Reading U.S. History Between the Lines, and if we could document how a class might engage in archival research. I thought they had a great idea and a fascinating story fragment, and so separated the course into two parts. Mondays would be devoted to a survey of history and method and Wednesdays to a workshop that explored the pathways through archives that are at the heart of historical research.
It’s working. The class (nearly 40 students who come from all corners of the university: Liberal Arts, Engineering, Natural Sciences, Business, Communications, Education, and Fine Arts) has been wonderfully willing to become apprentice historians on a research quest that has no fixed plan and no guaranteed rewards.
Crucially, staff members at the Briscoe have been wonderful partners. In addition to Wright and Davis, Margaret Schlankey, Head of Reference Services, and Brenda Gunn, Director of Research and Collections, are helping students develop research questions and ways to find answers to them. More to the point, the collegial dynamic of the class—in which all of us are engaged in the conversation of research and possibility—has moved this experiment in productive directions.
You can begin to get a sense of what the students have accomplished so far by going to Searching for Phebe, a website developed by the class to record the steps they are taking to discover what we can about Phebe and her world. We’re about to delve into census records, draw maps of the changing territorial and state boundaries of the deep South, and track down some descendants of the Mississippi Territory officials who may have family papers.
These “moves” are being built on the groundwork we’ve laid using some new tools. For example, after handling the actual documents, the class transcribed digital images of the handwritten court filings using a tool called From the Page. This past week, we took high-resolution files to the Vislab, the Texas Advanced Computing Center on campus, to see what Stallion—a super microscope of sorts– could show us. (One student found a fingerprint, preserved in ink spilled in 1801.) Future plans include a search for additional papers at the Briscoe that might shed light on the actors in Phebe’s court case, and creating a digital timeline—to name a few tasks.
We won’t be able to quantify this “college experience,” but by the end of the term, in addition to earning three required history credits, this class will have experience working in one of the largest archives of American history, producing digital content, exploring the applications of new technologies, and interacting with an array of professionals who model career opportunities for Liberal Arts majors. Not incidentally, too, the students will have learned about the complexity of “doing history”—the importance of framing solid questions, thinking creatively about finding answers, and successfully communicating their findings. As important, they will have had the individual experience of doing historical research and the collaborative experience of working cooperatively toward creating new and exciting means of understanding and vivifying history.
Senior Lecturer in the Department of History
Dr. Restad’s scholarship explores the formation of American cultural identities and behaviors, the history of consumer culture, and the scholarship of teaching and learning in higher education.
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