Inspiration Roundtable: The Origins of My Origins Story

This is the fourth post in our weeklong roundtable, “Inspiration in Research.” Previous contributors to the roundtable include Whitney Robles, Rachel Herrmann, and Lindsay O’Neill with Ken Owen’s final post of the roundtable coming tomorrow. 

I am very happy to be able to participate in this fascinating roundtable on the inspiration behind research projects and to share my what I suspect are fairly common experiences among our readership. My dissertation, completed back in May, is now a manuscript entitled, Past and Prologue: The Politics of Memory in the American Revolution, that is under contract to Yale University Press. Past and Prologue explores the role of “history culture” and changing historical memories of the colonial and British pasts in the coming of the American Revolution and early efforts to forge a shared national identity in the revolutionary era. It traces that role in shaping the transition from British subject to American citizen through three developments: the deconstruction of colonists’ relationship to the British past before independence; the creation of a newly shared colonial past for the first time during the imperial crisis and the revision of that colonial past after the war; and, the cultural construction of a “deep national past” or American antiquity in the decades following the war. Rather than having “liberated Americans from the past,” I argue, the Revolution actually made the past matter more than ever before. Continue reading

Inspiration Roundtable: Haunting Sources

Today, Lindsay O’Neill, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Southern California, joins our weeklong discussion about sources and inspiration. Her first book, The Opened Letter: Networking in the Early Modern British World, was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2015. Today she shares the sources that inspired (or haunted) her book-in-progress, titled “Barbarous Country: The Delogaon Princes and the British Empire, 1715-1725.”

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I do not remember precisely when the princes began to haunt me. It might have been when I called up the ominous sounding “Book of Strangers” at the Huntington Library. This turned out to simply be a list of dinner guests at the Duke of Chandos’ estate of Cannons, but what I found inside was rather extraordinary. Listed at the Duke’s table on 24 September 1721 were “Two African Princes.” Intriguing, I thought. However, this must not have been the first time I came across a reference to them, for I remember knowing who these men were. I had, or would, read about them in letters from the Duke of Chandos who hosted the dinner. I would encounter them again in the letters of Sir John Perceval. And then again in the letters of Sir Hans Sloane. I told you these two men were haunting me. Now, there was no reason for them to. At the time, I was not interested in African princes. I was interested in letters since I was working on what would become my first book: The Opened Letter: Networking in the Early Modern British World. But it turned out that the loosely linked letter writers whose correspondence I was working my way through were interested in African princes and soon so was I. Continue reading

Inspiration Roundtable: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Respect the Historiography

This is the second post in a roundtable about research inspirations. You can read the first essay, a guest post by Whitney Barlow Robles, here.

My dissertation on food and war, which became my first book project on war and hunger, originated at a crossroads between panic and personal interests. I was a sophomore, taking a class on the American Revolution, and the professor was walking us through the process of writing a final paper by requiring a paragraph-long research proposal, followed later in the semester by an annotated bibliography. We were at the point in the semester where research proposals were nearly due, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write about. I remember discussing my growing sense of panic at swim practice with a friend, and vacillating between this sense of anxiety, and pleasant anticipation of dinnertime. I swam for the team friendships, and the fact that even bad dining hall food tasted good after a hard workout. As I speculated about our dinner choices, my friend interrupted me, observed that I was obsessed with food, and suggested that I write about it for my history paper. Continue reading

Inspiration Roundtable: Guest Post by Whitney Barlow Robles, “Naturalist in Historian’s Clothing”

This week at the Junto we are stepping back to talk about what inspired our research projects. From dissertations to first and second book projects, we will bring together a range of scholars to discuss the method, source, book, or lecture that got them started. Today, we have a guest post from Whitney Barlow Robles. Whitney is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Harvard, and her work spans early American history, history of science, and material culture studies. Her most recent publications include an essay about a 1755 earthquake that shook Boston, published in The New England Quarterly, and a chapter about flattened scientific specimens in the book The Philosophy Chamber: Art and Science in Harvard’s Teaching Cabinet, 1766-1820. Her research has recently been supported by the American Historical Association, the American Antiquarian Society, and the Smithsonian Institution.

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I am a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Or rather, a nature writer dressed as a historian. My dissertation reexamines the history of natural history in eighteenth-century America and the British Atlantic world by putting animals and natural specimens at the narrative center. It asks: What might historical documents, written or dried or submerged in alcohol, tell us about the actions of historical creatures? Why did animals remain, at some level, inscrutable? How did they escape the net, crash the experiment, shapeshift, fly away, or even help naturalists preserve specimens? And what might their role in early modern science tell us about the larger social and political projects powered by natural history? Liable to change over time, animals influenced the human world through their behavior, biology, physical traits, and, in the case of beasts like raccoons, perhaps even their own desires. Without understanding how animals circumscribed the project that sought to study them and thus set the terms for what humans could learn about nature, our view remains obscured. We can look through the microscope, but only with a cloudy lens. Continue reading

Did Hamilton Write Too Much For His Own Good?

federalist10Hamilton wrote … the other FIFTY-ONE!

You probably know that line about the Federalist from the Act One finale of Hamilton, “Non-Stop,” in which Aaron Burr repeatedly asks Hamilton, “how do you write like you’re running out of time?” In the musical, his indefatigable pen is treated as a virtue (and yes, I have at times listened to the number on repeat to motivate my own writing). By contrast, scholars frequently point out that the eighty-five Federalist essays were not widely reprinted when they were first written in late 1787 and early 1788, even if they have since garnered attention as a clear statement of the views of (some of) the Founders on the meaning of the Constitution.[1]

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Q&A: Max Perry Mueller, Race and the Making of the Mormon People

Max Perry Mueller is assistant professor of religious studies in the Department of Classics & Religious Studies of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the author of the recently-released Race and the Making of the Mormon People (University of North Carolina Press, 2017). Be sure and read Ben Park’s review of that book, posted at The Junto yesterday. Continue reading

Guest Post: On Providing Undergraduate Research Opportunities

Today’s guest poster, Emily Yankowitz, recently received her B.A. in History from Yale University. She is currently pursuing an M.Phil in American History at the University of Cambridge. Her research interests include the intersection of politics, culture, and memory in early American republic. Here she writes about the impact of her experiences doing research as an undergraduate.

UntitledAs a recent graduate preparing to pursue a career as a historian, I have been spending a fair amount of time considering how I came to this decision. While I am sure I will continue to grapple with this question for a long time, particularly considering the uncertain job market, I can say that my experience conducting historical research as an undergraduate played a central role in informing this choice. In this post, therefore, I would like to use my own experience to reflect on the importance of providing opportunities for undergraduate research.

The summer before my junior year in high school, I got my first taste of intense primary source research as a research intern at St. Paul’s Church, National Historic Site, Mt. Vernon, NY. This experience catalyzed my interest in early America and gave me a different perspective on the past than I had previously encountered. Still in high school, I also volunteered as a research assistant for a professor who needed a student to gather articles from microfilm of my town’s newspapers.

As an undergraduate, my experience ballooned through coursework for history seminars, independent research for a senior essay, and work as a research assistant for five professors (three from the university I attended, two from other universities) and one independent scholar. I completed tasks ranging from spending a summer in an archive collecting material covering the 300-year history of an institution and city to analyzing newspaper coverage of slave rebellions in the United States and West Indies. The majority of these projects were not on topics in early American history, which gave me the chance to work with different types of sources and broaden my knowledge of the longer trajectory of American history. Through undergraduate research seminars and writing a senior essay requirement, I gained experience conducting research on topics in early American history.

In the process, I received guidance from professors with a variety of research styles, worked with a range of databases, archives, and libraries, and gained vital tools and necessary confidence to pursue my own projects. Along the way, I honed my paleography skills and became quite adept at using microfilm. But above all, these research experiences provided me with profound insight into the work historians do and attracted me to the profession.

I also saw the less glamorous side of “doing history.” I came to understand the amount of labor involved to acquire the information necessary to write a single sentence and that doing research is not always straightforward or enjoyable­—transcribing records isn’t the most intellectually stimulating task, documents burn in fires, and directions that appeared to be enlightening may be dead ends.

Yet, I quickly became captivated by the act of finding, combing through, and analyzing sources and the adrenaline rush that comes when you find patterns in material or locate just the right letter. The impact of these earlier research experiences became most apparent when I began to work on my senior essay. I knew how to locate the primary sources I needed, to operate the microfilm machine I would use to gather most of my source materials, and to organize the sources I gathered. While this process has the potential to be quite daunting, because of my prior experience, I felt well prepared for the task.

In general, the senior essay or honors thesis, coursework that includes research assignments, and departmental seminars tend to be the most common chance for undergraduate history majors to pursue history research. However, the number of opportunities to acquire such research experiences varies from university to university. Some offer structured programs with research elements, while others, for a variety of reasons, take a more hands-off approach. Particularly in the latter case, student organizations that function as research networks and the history department itself can also play an important role in involving undergraduates in research, including encouraging students to look into positions volunteering or working at places such as archives, libraries, museums, and historical sites.

While acknowledging the prohibitive role of cost in such programs, another avenue might be giving students the chance to present their research at undergraduate research symposiums. I personally benefited from the chance to present my senior essay research on a history department panel and a presentation series hosted by my residential college. Funding and whether a student can do research for credit are two other variables in this equation. While summer funding for research projects varies greatly, jobs working as a research assistant or at a university archive may be able to fulfill work-study requirements.

Regardless of what career undergraduates go on to pursue, they can benefit from the experience of conducting research. For one, it has a powerful role in challenging misconceptions that history is merely memorizing names, dates, and places in the kind of hands-on way that a lecture course or non-research seminar does not. Moreover, it enables students to learn that there are still many gaps in our knowledge, view events in the past from different perspectives, and engage in the work of historians.

I can only offer the perspective of an undergraduate at the university I attended, so I would be interested to hear more about this topic from individuals at a range of institutions. What kind of undergraduate research opportunities are available in your department and what are other potential methods of encouraging students to pursue undergraduate research?