Students as Authors of the Past

Earlier this month, I had one of those moments. A noted scholar asked for a copy of my undergraduate honors thesis to use in fleshing out a book chapter. While I’ve received a few similar requests over the years, and was delighted to learn that something I’d written so many years ago would be of value to someone today, I must confess I was also a little surprised. I share this not to toot my own horn, but to note, that it is all too easy to forget that students are quite capable of writing history that withstands the test of time.

As Kathryn Tomasek et al recently noted in Discipline-Specific Learning and Collaboration in the Wheaton College Digital History Project, “Since the 1990s, the American Historical Association … has recommended that students at both the K-12 and undergraduate levels be taught to “do history.” Despite the opportunities that digital turn offers for doing this, a 2010 survey done by Robert Townsend for the American Historical Association revealed that while students may have “experience blogging or creating presentations using PowerPoint, few have interacted with original primary sources to any significant degree.”

Beyond digitally fulfilling pedagogical goals, Tomasek et al point out that “the notion that undergraduates can do meaningful research using digital tools has a strong presence in the broader literature in digital humanities.” Recent conferences here in Philadelphia have provided ample evidence of such research. The scope of these projects, from a single student working over one semester to a multi-institution collaboration that unfolded over years, highlights how students can contribute to our understanding of the past.

Black at Bryn Mawr poster by Grace Pusey.

Black at Bryn Mawr poster by Grace Pusey.

Black at Bryn Mawr: Past as Legacy is a collaborative project conducted by Bryn Mawr undergraduate students Emma Kioko and Grace Pusey under the supervision of Monica Mercado, Director, The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education and Sharon Ullman, Chair, Department of History. Using Bryn Mawr College Special Collections as well as external archives, Kioko and Pusey explored the history of African Americans at Bryn Mawr from the servants who worked there to the students who attended, and then created and conducted a walking tour that highlights the complex history of race at the College, including a stop at the cemetery of a Quaker slaveholding family that once owned the land on which the College now stands. Pusey presented this research at two recent conferences, Telling Untold Stories: An Unconference for Public Historians and at Women’s History in the Digital World. She has also developed a digital version of the walking tour.

Staring Out to Sea Oral History project

Staring Out to Sea Oral History project

Heather N. Lucas, a master’s candidate in history at Villanova University, completed The Child Welfare Exposition: Taking Care Of The Future, an online exhibit and archive built in Omeka, in just one semester working under my supervision. Lucas selected images from the scrapbook of American Alma A. Clarke digitized by Bryn Mawr College from their collection. Lucas presented her research on Clarke’s work with the youngest victims of the Great War, orphaned and displaced French and Flemish children, at the Greater Philadelphia Women’s Studies Consortium conference. While Lucas’ exhibit stands alone, she built on work done previously by Christina Virok, another Villanova graduate student in history, who translated the French documents in the collection, as well as a project by undergraduate students at Rosemont College who focused on Clarke’s time as a nurse with the American Red Cross in France. Future collaborations are planned with the Villanova University graduate seminar in digital history.

The Child Welfare Exposition project web page.

The Child Welfare Exposition project web page.

The most elaborate illustration of such a model is the Staring Out to Sea Oral History Project Stories of Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey which began in the Spring of 2013 under the direction of Dr. Abigail Perkiss of Kean University, expanded to include the Tuckerton Seaport Museum as a partner site, and during the Fall of 2014 incorporated Dr. Dan Royles and ten students at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey Students have so far participated in creating the framework for the project, developing oral history questions, conducting 50 interviews, transcribing and indexing the oral histories, and creating annotations and metadata for the interviews. This work has created the foundation for many student-built projects such as a museum exhibit at the Tuckerton Seaport Museum, a website, and will soon include an online exhibit and a place-based digital tour.  A range of students, from undergraduates enrolled in a course to independent study students and graduate candidates, have contributed to the project and presented the results at several conferences, most recently the Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic meeting. Staring Out To Sea recently won a grant from the New Jersey Humanities council and the New Jersey Historical Commission, which will fund follow-up interviews.

While faculty supervised all these students, each student participated in meaningful ways in formulating the overall project and created a lasting piece of history.  As Perkiss notes, participation in the project allowed  students “to see themselves as scholars.”  And unlike my undergraduate honors thesis, the writing of these students won’t sit for decades until it is discovered by a historian.  Working digitally means that their projects are immediately available for use by other scholars.  Perkiss plans a book based on her student interviews, while I have already submitted an article on Clarke that would not have been possible without the work of students.

Associate Professor of History, Rosemont College

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