Three Case Studies

The GLCA Boston Summer Seminar gives its participants wide latitude in designing their projects and determining how they work together as a research team. While students and faculty will have somewhat independent research agendas under the umbrella proposal, many models exist for collaboration as a group. We invited our faculty team leaders from summer 2016 to write a few paragraphs describing how they organized their teams both at the application stage and in practice once they arrived in Boston.  We hope prospective research teams find these case studies helpful as they draft their proposals for summer 2017.  

Dr. Marcy Sacks

Albion College

Team Project:  “Northern Black Lives Matter”

My goal for participating in the GLCA Boston Summer Seminar 2016 was to provide an opportunity for students who traditionally do not advance in the humanities to experience archival work. Consequently, I chose two students who were relatively early in their academic careers rather than those with prior research experience, and this shaped both the proposal and the outcomes.

Because the two students were new to independent research, they had no real grounding for developing their own research plan. Instead, I invited them to engage in an aspect of a project that I had already developed, but my intention was for that to simply offer an entrée into the archives. I did not expect them to contribute substantively to my project; instead, I used my project as a framework within which to begin their own explorations.

The work on the ground in Boston became two-fold: initially (and then throughout, as they discovered the challenge of finding the information they sought), I helped them think about creative ways to find material not directly or even obviously relevant to the study of black American experiences, particularly of those in the North.  Few resources speak specifically to that question, meaning that a search is often indirect.  My students worked with a range of materials – newspapers, manuscripts, published speeches, books from the period of inquiry, photographs, and so forth. Once underway, each directed his attention to specific issues that intrigued him (which happened to dovetail nicely with each other): one explored white attitudes about black people and the other stayed focused on black people themselves.

Ultimately, both experienced the joys and frustrations of this type of work. They struggled to find material to illuminate the questions they had, and they both discovered how much they don’t know. They have begun to learn that a successful project requires a great deal of groundwork, particularly in the review of secondary literature. But they both came away fairly awestruck by what they had managed to uncover and learn, and both are eager to find ways to translate their excitement into future intellectual endeavors of some kind. As such, the Boston Summer Seminar was wildly successful.

Dr. Danielle Skeehan

Oberlin College

Team Project:  “Haunted Subjects”

My team and I worked closely together on all stages of the project. We met in November to brainstorm topics and assign tasks that we would need to complete to get the application together and submitted on time. Once we decided that “the occult” would serve as the umbrella topic for our research, we each investigated possible sources at each library and shared them with each other in late December. Around this time, I drafted the overall proposal and shared it with the students who did some editorial work on the document. Each student then consulted our list of Boston archival sources as they drafted individual proposals that reflected their own interests within the wider research topic. I think it was useful for them to be involved in all stages of the fellowship application process as they are both considering applying to graduate schools. The process helped them to learn how to conceive, research, and propose a project that is larger than a seminar paper.

Once in Boston, we worked closely together, sharing transcriptions of sources we were reading and forwarding sources to each other that might suit our individual research projects. In this way, they learned how to collaborate on a project even if our individual research interests began to take us in different directions, as happens with archival research.  In that sense, they also learned that primary source research necessitates flexibility with your project–they learned to follow the sources and let them tell the story. While we were at the same archives the majority of the time, we also went to lunch together a couple times to discuss the kinds of stories that were emerging from our respective archives. This was useful because these discussions required that they move from the treasure hunt aspect of archival research to thinking about how to incorporate their sources into a larger history—to move from “finding things” in the archive to making arguments about those sources as they put them into conversation with each other and the historical, cultural, political, and economic conditions that produced those items. In terms of my own research, having two students looking at overlapping material (and photographing/transcribing it to a common google doc) meant that (post research trip) I now have access to far more sources than I myself could have read in three weeks. In terms of the students’ research, both will incorporate some of their research into the senior capstone projects they are working on this semester, thereby learning how primary source research can bring depth to literary studies.  Overall, it was a fabulous opportunity for all three of us.

Dr. Trey Proctor

Denison University

Team Project:  “Atlantic World Trade”

I applied to the BSS primarily for pedagogical reasons, wanting to make this opportunity available to Denison students.  Even so, I worried about “fit” within the seminar, because I am a colonial Latin Americanist. Applying required accepting that I would not further my own research projects on African slavery in Spanish America. I decided instead to pursue something in a field of teaching interest – Atlantic World History – with a focus on the rum/molasses trade into and out of colonial New England.

When I began approaching students to participate I (accidentally perhaps) gave them an option of working on rum/molasses with me; or, developing projects of their own.  Both Maggie and Rachael immediately identified projects that they were particularly excited about. Shockingly, it wasn’t rum! Rachael wanted to explore the experiences of women moving throughout the Atlantic World; Maggie wanted to focus on the history of pharmacy and medicines. Rather than forcing them to give up topics that they found compelling; we decided to forge ahead, pitching our project as Atlantic World History, seeking to break colonial and early national Boston and greater New England out of nationalist histories focused on the United States.  To whit, I encouraged my students to think about how they might insert their studies into broader patterns and connections by treating the region as immersed patterns of exchange of ideas, commodities, and peoples around the Atlantic Ocean.  This, again by accident, required that we work in three different archives.

While I jealously watched the close student-faculty collaboration from the other two teams, the research went seamlessly. The support of the BSS team (Anna and Natalie) and the archivists at the Schlesinger and the Countway Library of Medicine, who seemed overjoyed to have undergraduate students working with their holdings, helped make our research experiences fantastic.