Today’s post about transcribing primary sources in the National Archives Catalog comes from community manager Meredith Doviak. It’s cross-posted on our sister blog NARAtions.
Meredith recently spoke to Dr. Jaime Cantrell, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at The University of Mississippi. Dr. Cantrell has introduced undergraduate students to the importance of archival research and materials by encouraging them to become citizen transcribers for the National Archives as part of their coursework.
Tell us a little about yourself. What is your background and what courses do you teach?
I am a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at The University of Mississippi, where I teach courses in English, Women’s and Gender Studies, and Southern Studies, including “American Literature I”, “American Literature II”, “Literary Criticism”, “The South & Sexuality”, “Women in Literature”, and “Queer Theory”. Innovative pedagogy is crucial to my intellectual life as a scholar, and my research and teaching methods challenge institutional and individual biases. In short, I am familiar with teaching against the grain and through an intersectional perspective.
I co-edited Out of the Closet, Into the Archives: Researching Sexual Histories (SUNY Queer Politics and Cultures series, December 2015). With a foreword by Ann Cvetkovich, OCIA meditates on the ways queer archives spark precarious pleasures and compelling tensions for researchers—ultimately taking readers inside the experience of how it feels to do queer archival research and queer research in archives. OCIA is a Lambda Literary Award finalist for Best LGBT Anthology. I am presently at work on a book project titled Southern Sapphisms: Sexuality and Sociality in Literary Productions, 1969-1997.
How do you use the National Archives as a venue for primary sources? Why is this important in the classroom?
Two years ago, in my ENGL223: Survey of American Literature to the Civil War course, I lectured from a unit on our reading schedule titled “The Revolutionary Period”, which included, among other texts, selections from Benjamin Franklin’s The Autobiography Part I (1791) and Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). As I launched into discussions on shifting American identities, a refocusing of the Puritan worldview and the rise of the enlightened citizen (and why students should care that Benjamin Franklin is the most humorous literary voice we’d encountered in class since Thomas Morton!), my students’ eyes wandered away from their textbooks and out the window paneled wall of the large auditorium. Careful not to lose their attention entirely, I enthusiastically redirected their gaze to a library slip from the Free Library of Pennsylvania that once belonged to Franklin, and read across that ephemeral document to his Autobiography: “These Libraries have improv’d the general Conversation of the Americans…” Sadly, that library slip was little more than a stock-Norton power point slide image projected on the screen behind me.
How did you learn about the Citizen Archivist Program at the National Archives?
I hoped to enhance the “general conversation” in my ENGL223 courses by turning to the library—or more specifically, to archives. I applied and was accepted to a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute for College and University Teachers titled “Early American Women’s History: Teaching from the Archives” that took place in Providence, RI, in partnership with the Newell D. Goff Center for Education and Public Programs at the Rhode Island Historical Society. It was an incredible opportunity! Nearly two dozen community college and university professors collaborated for two weeks–intent on developing classroom methodologies to “access, recover, and contextualize the voices of marginalized women…” through archives. We heard lectures from leading scholars in multiple humanities fields; each described their own struggles and successes with archival research. We visited collections, and met with librarians and archivists at The Massachusetts Historical Society, The American Antiquarian Society, the John Hay Library (Brown University), and the RIHS Library. That NEH workshop heralded many productive shifts in my pedagogical practices for ENGL223; I refined strategies for facilitating student access to digitized primary sources. Upon returning to my home institution, I immediately reframed my course description to read (excerpted, in part):
“In 1855, Nathaniel Hawthorne lamented that ‘America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash-and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed…” Writers and critics have long tried to dismiss or ignore the achievements of early American women writers. In the last several decades, however, feminist literary critics have recovered the works of women writers and reshaped the early American literary canon to include works from Phillis Wheatley, Lydia Maria Child, Angelina E. Grimké, Fanny Fern, Sarah Orne Jewett, Hannah Webster Foster, Sarah Josepha Hale, and Rebecca Harding Davis, alongside more familiar contributions from Anne Bradstreet, Mary Rowlandson, Abigail Adams, Emily Dickinson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Harriet Jacobs. This course will highlight a number of women’s writings from the colonial period to the middle of the 19th century.…….Particular attention will be paid to questions of race and gender and the relationship between history, culture and writing (including both “literature” and other written or transcribed forms of expression). As archival collections are increasingly made available online, students will have the opportunity to digitally engage with exciting primary-source materials. In doing so, students become active critics and curators of those literary productions rather than mere explicators of them.”
To date, students in ENGL223 have sifted through the John and Abigail Adams Family Collection to access Abigail’s 1776 letter to John, exhorting him to “Remember the ladies…” (accessible through the Massachusetts Historical Society’s digital repository), they’ve discovered postcards and correspondence from the Charlotte Perkins Gilman Collection, available online from the Harry Ransom Center’s Project REVEAL (Read & View English and American Literature), and they’ve analyzed Emily Dickinson’s poem, “I Heard a fly buzz” in her own handwriting, available through the Dickinson Archive at Harvard’s Houghton Library. I believe the archive—and paradoxically, the past itself—is an innovative path for moving forward into a radical, digital learning future. With that in mind, I turned again to the archives when structuring course assignments, and exhorted students to whet their appetites for archival research by participating in Citizen Archivist Transcription Projects. As part of the assignment, students completed Written Document Analysis worksheets developed by the Education staff at the National Archives. Below is a partial screenshot of a “Getting Started Guide” I posted to our course Blackboard page:
Example of a document selected and transcribed for Dr. Cantrell’s ENGL223 course.
U.S. v. Sale of Negro Man, Woman, and Two Children. National Archives Identifier 12130607
Did you or your students experience any unexpected hurdles throughout the course of this assignment? How did you resolve them?
Yes, these things do happen. About forty or so of my 120 students experienced difficulty registering their personal and/or university emails with the catalog; Ms. Suzanne Isaacs, my [National Archives] point of contact, was especially generous and gracious in ensuring they were able to register successfully. My own hurdles encompassed fielding questions and concerns from students as they undertook the assignment; to that end, I developed a “Troubleshooting” Blackboard page (see below) to address common concerns as they arose:
For many of your students, this assignment was the first time they had interacted with archives and transcribed historical documents. What were some of their takeaways from the experience?
Michael Fortier, a Junior Psychology major at The University of Mississippi with a minor in Gender Studies, transcribed documents in the National Archives Catalog for the first time during this course. Michael said of his experience, “A lot can be learned just from the use of language, and a lot of history can be uncovered from just a simple document. It really gave me appreciation for bookkeeping in the modern era, and appreciate the importance of it as well. Some of the most interesting revelations I had were from just the few moments I would write out a sentence and then go ‘no, no, that can’t be the right word.’ Discovering what the words could be, and having the same word suddenly make sense to me throughout the entire document was quite fun. It was like a puzzle piece just falling into place.”
While transcribing documents related to legal situations surrounding slaves, Michael learned more about a topic that was previously unfamiliar to him: “It isn’t a topic I find most schools to delve deeply into, and so it was all new information to me. I would love to look over the same kind of documentation about women’s rights battles.”
Katherine Campbell, also a student at The University of Mississippi, describes the connection she felt with the documents as she transcribed: “What makes the process of transcribing documents so engaging is that it allows for a first hand experience of the way that people communicated with each other in the past. Before I participated in the National Citizen Archivist Project I thought that the art of transcription was confined only to important government documents and declarations. Upon visiting the website I found instead an abundance of personal letters and diary entries as well. I was able to view directly the diction people used to speak to each other, their styles of handwriting, and even the type of paper that was used. Transcribing a letter from the 19th Century was like reaching back into history and bringing a small piece of the past into the present.”
Do you have any advice for other educators or students who want to incorporate primary sources in the classroom/are considering contributing as Citizen Archivists?
For educators and students alike: Citizen Archivist transcription projects are both time consuming and rewarding; that pleasure and challenge is a privilege not to be missed.
Are you looking for ways to bring primary sources into the classroom? We can help get you started! Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. You can also explore documents, access teaching activities, and even create your own primary source-based activities on DocsTeach.