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

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?

Where Historians Work: Q&A with Dr. Stephanie Gamble, Johns Hopkins University

“In addition to finding the things I wanted to do or didn’t want to do [for a career], there were parts of being an academic that I was unwilling to give up, and those were just as important.” ~ Dr. Stephanie Gamble, Librarian for History & Anthropology, Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

_NWK9202Today, Katy talks to Dr. Stephanie Gamble, Librarian for History and Anthropology in the Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins University. Steph explains the wide range of responsibilities she undertakes as a librarian supporting the studies and efforts of both students and faculty. She also offers some tips for turning your CV into a resume . . . or, what she likes to call a “CV-ume.” Continue reading

IOTAR50: Intellectual History from the Undistinguished

We continue “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution at 50,” our joint roundtable with the S-USIH blog. Today’s post is by Jonathan Wilson, an adjunct faculty member at the University of Scranton and Marywood University. He studies ways that intellectuals—elite and otherwise—articulated American national identity in eastern cities during the early nineteenth century.

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Upon first reading The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, I found it liberating. (That places me alongside Michael and Sara more than Ken this week.) True, Bernard Bailyn’s book was yet another attempt to credit elite white men for an idealistic national founding. From my perspective at the time, however, it modeled a way to study the ideas of relatively ordinary people. Bailyn depicted revolutionary thoughts as the work of communities, not individuals. He showed me that the life of the mind can encompass the inarticulate, the half-said, even the irrational, in ways that historians can analyze. This was powerful.

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Making Students Lead Discussion: Three Methods

I wrote lots of recommendation letters for students this summer, probably because last year was the first year that I taught students in their final undergraduate year, and many of them are looking for or have recently found jobs. I always die a little inside when I read or hear the word “employability,” because I think it’s a jargony term that seems to reiterate the point that a university sells a degree to its customers, the students. I do not think that education should be viewed as such a service, but neither do I think that it’s responsible to entirely eschew discussions of marketable skills that students can mention in their pre- and post-graduate job searches. Not all of them will become professional historians, and given the state of the academic job market, that’s okay! I spend time at the start of each term, in class and in my syllabi, explaining why I think it’s important for students to participate in class discussion. One of my key points is that a student’s class contributions are something that I can and do mention in my recommendation letters. Having spent the summer writing letters for recent graduates I know that I’ve mentioned their contributions in every single letter I’ve written. Lately, my feelings have gone beyond believing that students should participate: I think students should lead discussion. Continue reading

The Revolution Will Be Live-Tweeted

KillingStampAs many of our readers already know, this fall has marked the 250th anniversary since the protests against the Stamp Act, one of the earliest major actions of the imperial crisis that resulted in the American Revolution. Over the course of a year—from the first arrival of the Act in May 1765 until news of its repeal arrived in May 1766—colonists in the “thirteen original” colonies (as well as the “other thirteen”) passed resolutions, argued in essays, marched in the streets, forced resignations, and otherwise made clear their displeasure with paying a tax on their printed goods.

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Guest Post: Revisiting Women of the Republic with Linda Kerber at the American Antiquarian Society

Carl Robert Keyes is an Associate Professor of History at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. He recently launched the #Adverts250 Project, featuring advertisements published 250 years ago in colonial American newspapers accompanied by brief commentary, via his Twitter profile (@TradeCardCarl).

CarolChanningMy Revolutionary America class recently visited the American Antiquarian Society for a behind-the-scenes tour followed by a document workshop in the Council Room. As we passed through the closed stacks I remarked to one of the curators, “This still blows me away, yet nothing can compare to the first time I came back here. Taking this all in for the first time is an experience that cannot be re-created.”

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