Guest Post: Researching en Français: French Archives, and Why They’re Worth It for All Early Americanists

Hannah Bailey, a PhD candidate in History at the College of William & Mary, studies the interconnectivity between developing notions of race and the expansion of the African slave trade in the early modern French Atlantic. She graduated with honors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2010, with degrees in History and French, and a minor in Gender and Women’s Studies. Her master’s thesis focused on how women like Eliza Jaquelin Ambler Brent Carrington remembered, defined, and recorded their experiences during the American Revolution for her master’s thesis. Her dissertation uses histories of West Africa written by individuals like Jean-Baptiste Labat to help explain why, in early eighteenth-century accounts of the region, the fiction of African inferiority began to supersede the fact of African political and economic dominance on the West African coast.

ANOMI never learned the verb “rebobiner” in any of my nine years’ worth of French courses. I don’t blame my French teachers or professors for this. Neither they nor I had any idea that it would one day become an integral part of my vocabulary as I commenced my dissertation research in the Archives Nationales d’Outre-mer in Aix-en-Provence, France. As it happens, “rebobiner” means “to rewind the bobbin of microfilm that you spent twelve minutes learning how to load onto the microfilm reader, because microfilm is always complicated and is triply so when the directions are in a foreign language,” or…something like that. Despite my attempts to prepare myself for my time in the French archives, I experienced more “trials by fire” than I might care to admit. All of my listening to French radio, reading complex French secondary sources, and frantic scouring of French online archival inventories only got me so far. Despite the best efforts of the kindest and most helpful archival staff I’ve yet encountered, I often had to learn by doing, and that wasn’t always easy. It was, however, always worth it. Continue reading

The Language Question

LanguagesWhat is the current state of early American language training, what is its future, and why aren’t we more concerned?

A quick survey of more than a dozen graduate programs (all known for their strengths in colonial and early American history) reveals that three quarters of these departments require only one foreign language for early Americanists. To put this into context, the guidelines for European historians at all but one of these same institutions—guidelines often broken down by Early Modern, Western, and British subfields—require at least two foreign languages (yes, even in British history). Yet the issue is not simply the number of languages required of Americanists, but rather what constitutes proficiency. While language guidelines surely vary some from school to school, if the “proficiency” exams and reading courses across History programs even vaguely resemble ones that I’ve encountered, then even these lenient requirements themselves mean very little.

I suspect the numbers and realities of language training surprise very few. But even if we’re not surprised, maybe we should be a little worried. Continue reading