Using the Online Archive to Make Historicists Out of Undergrads

by Christopher Hanlon   

[Originally delivered at the Illinois Philological Association, Millikin University, March, 2003.]

ast Fall, I taught one of the courses I specifically trained for as a graduate student, a course entitled “American Realism,” which covers literature written in the United States from about 1865 to about 1910. Like many other literature courses I teach, this one culminated with a final essay assignment: students were asked to “develop an argument, a specific and persuasive claim concerning one of the texts we have read this semester, and to incorporate that argument into the professional discussion comprised in several works of contemporary scholarship dealing with the text at hand.” At the time, I considered this a pretty straightforward proposition: write a paper about a text, and deal with some secondary sources in the process.

Colleagues, would you believe my students didn’t find it so straightforward? Toward the end of the semester, my students asked me in class what they usually ask me one by one, during my office hours: “Dr. Hanlon, we’re trying to get a sense of what it is you want for this paper.”

Now I have to admit—I think we should all admit—this is a completely reasonable question. A good portion of final grades rest on my students’ performance in their final essays, and so it wouldn’t feel right to pretend I don’t have a definite set of desires when I approach a stack of such essays. I want all kinds of things from my students’ final papers, but before getting into that, I’d like to turn to what it is I think my students want from me as they ask that question. And what they want, I’m pretty sure, is for me to provide them with a sheet of paper on which I have composed three or four questions-in-the-form-of-a-paragraph. You know the species I’m talking about—here’s an example from a course in American Romanticism I taught years ago at the University of Massachusetts:

Was Emily Dickinson a Civil War poet? When we consider that Dickinson’s most productive year—1862, when she composed 366 poems—was also a year of mind-expanding, bloody violence on the battlefield, the worst to date, can or should we read Dickinson’s poems through the lens of Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, or the Emancipation Proclamation? Contrary to the popular image of the “Belle of Amherst,” cloistered away within her father’s house over on Main Street and insulated from the public sphere, was Dickinson in fact closely engaged with the paramount political event of the 1860s?

I’m sure most of us can quote from our own versions of such “prompts.” What are their virtues? I might say right now that I enjoy writing them. They give me a chance to work through some of the ideas that have occurred to me over the semester, to try out some possibilities before a definitely captive audience. And often, incidentally, my instincts are pretty good ones—I’ve been studying antebellum literature for some time, after all—surely I’m capable of sending my students in interesting and productive directions. But the problem I have with such “prompts” is that what they prompt my students to do is to work out problems I have clearly already worked out, in at least a preliminary way, for myself. Or in other words, the “problems” they tend to articulate aren’t really “problems” at all—they’re quasi-problems, virtual problems that will inevitably produce virtual essays. Such prompts tend to beg the question, to hard-pedal whatever conceptual contraptions I’m interested in that week, and the proof of this is in the not-so-assorted field of possible “answers” any student might devise in response to a question such as the above. Let’s face it: “responding” to questions like these means agreeing with them—if the writer is lucky, he or she will pick ways of agreeing that basically jibe with the ideas held by the professor who would bother to ask such a question.

So if I don't want my students to merely parrot my ways of thinking about literature, what is the answer to that question, "Professor, what are you looking for on this paper?" I've come to narrow my wish-list down to three items, three basic qualities I want to find in every student essay written for one of my literature classes:

1. I want my students’ essays to identify a real problem—not some made-up non-issue like “Does Hawthorne use symbolism in his story ‘Young Goodman Brown?’” or “What does the color blue signify in Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’?” or “When Frederick Douglass writes that his spirit triumphed over slavery, is he right?” I want the writer to deal with something that is of interest to a real reader, not some imaginary person who likes to spend their weekends begging the question. This has everything to do with my second criterion, which is that

I want the essay to interest me. I want to be compelled to read on, not dragged through the essay like Hector being dragged by Achilles around the city of Troy because like Hector, I waited too long to run in the other direction.

Lastly, I want to get the feeling, while I’m reading my students’ essays, that the writer is possessed of something like specialized knowledge. I’m not saying I expect the essay to sound like the latest monograph by Michael Bérubé (though—allow me a not-so-vogue confession, colleagues?—I think that would be wonderful), but I am saying I’d like to bear witness to my students as they expatiate on literature in ways that suggest this is after all a field of inquiry for which the special training we offer is worth something.

So I’ve clearly started off on a tear here already, and I’m sorry for that. But never mind—there are all kinds of reasons only a few of my students can write what I’m looking for, and I’ve come to believe that the principle three are these:

1. For one thing, my students don’t know enough. Neither do I, incidentally—pointing out that my students don’t know enough isn’t meant as a way of deriding them. It’s just a way of pointing out that if a student doesn’t know anything at all about, for instance, the period during which Twain wrote Huck Finn, or if they don’t know much about how to read psychoanalytically, or if they don’t know anything about feminism (have you asked your students lately how much they know about feminism? It ain’t pretty), or deconstruction, or Empire, or queer theory, etc., etc., etc.—if they don’t know anything about any of these specialized frames of reference or the others like it that constitute our field—then they’ve got basically two options before them. They can write a diaristic response to the text that narrates how it makes them feel, or they can rely on Cleanth Brooks-style close reading. Which brings me to my second reason why most literature undergrads can’t do what I (at this point dare I say “we”?) want them to:

2. Close reading only gets anyone so far. I wasn’t the kind of graduate student who thrilled in denouncing the New Critics as somehow guilty of cryptofascism as they advocated attention to things like structure, irony, and ambiguity within a space apart from history, ideology, and biography, but neither have I ever had much patience for those who pine for the good ole’ days “before” “theory.” Of course there are fabulous close readings waiting to be done, but I’ve come to believe that it’s the very, very rare talent who can sit down with a poem, short story, play, or novel without any conceptual critical framework and do something really worth showing anyone other than their mother or their literature professor. Or rather, I think that those who do do such things aren’t really doing it at all, that they’re in fact relying on all kinds of critical tools that lay outside the New Critical vacuum, all kinds of “theory.” Not acknowledging these conceptual tools—failing to render them thematic, in fact—mystifies the practices we want our students to adopt.

3. The last reason most students can’t write the kind of essay we’d like to see is that we often trick them into writing something else by providing them with a sheet of paper upon which are inscribed three or four questions-in-the-form-of-a-paragraph. But enough said on that.

So that’s a bit of a prelude to what I claim to offer here: How to use online archives to make historicists out of undergrads. But why do such a thing in the first place? I have to confess, I’m not an historicist, and indeed, my historicist friends can tell you I sometimes rant about the dominance I think historicism now exerts over professional literary scholarship, the consensus or orthodoxy according to which historicization provides the heuristic through which we may measure any theory’s validity. But that’s another issue. The problem I think historicism solves in the classroom is that it provides undergraduates an apparently sensible, clear answer to the question, “Professor, what are you looking for?” without resorting to the genre of the quasi-problem, the prompt. Of course, the problem with historicism as a pedagogical tool is that historicism requires its practitioners to know a lot more than most of our students do about history. So lately, instead of providing my American literature students with a list of my top five essay prompts, I tell them this: There are all sorts of ways to write a good essay about a piece of literature, but if they want my advice, I think they should make use of a remarkable tool only made available in the past few years, the text-searchable online historical archive.

Here’s how it works: students go to one of several web sites that host by proxy server access to an extensive database, a collection of historical documents that have been scanned with Optical Character Recognition technology, which recognizes and compiles scanned images of typeface as if it were text in a Word document. One of the most useful such archives for my field is hosted by Cornel University and the University of Michigan and is called the “Making of America” archive. But there are others. The Library of Congress offers online access to an extensive collection of documents they call “American Memory,” and if you’re really fortunate, your institutional library holds a subscription for the American Periodical Series, which offers access to a wide range of American journal articles written between 1760 and about 1930. The important thing about all of these sites, once again, is that the contents of the database are text-searchable: that is, the websites offer fields into which users can enter simple, bibliographic, Boolean, or proximity searches of special terms. In addition, users can limit their results by narrowing the years searched. “Morality,” “heredity,” “philoprogenitiveness,” “utopia,” “daguereotype”…these words have varying histories and are freighted in various ways in America during the 1840s, 50s, and 60s. One can learn a lot about what sort of place America was during these decades by reading widely through the articles text-searchable databases like the “Making of America” produces for such terms. So, for instance, if I’m reading a story by Edgar A. Poe entitled “Hop-Frog,” in which an enslaved dwarf sets fire to his captives after tricking them into costuming themselves as orangutans, I might learn a great deal about what might have been on Poe’s mind by visiting the American Periodical Series website, narrowing the search years from 1840 to 1850, the decade before the story was published, and searching for newspaper and magazine articles that contain words like “orangutan,” “dwarf,” “immolation,” or all three.

A student in that American Realism class I taught last year serves as a prime example of what I’m getting at here: after deciding to write on Stephen Crane’s “The Blue Hotel” (a story in which a character known only as “the Swede” inexplicably terrorizes his fellow patrons of a frontier hotel before finally dying in a barroom fight), my student got the idea of searching for documents containing the word “Swede.” As it turns out, the decade before Crane wrote his story was a time during which there existed a great deal of anxiety over—go figure—Swedish immigrants. The student located three articles in major American periodicals, all of which described Swedish immigrants as posing some kind of threat to the American body politic: Swedes, these writers maintained, were biologically less given to adaptation than other peoples, less able to assimilate to American norms than such immigrant groups, for instance, as the Irish. As far as I can see, no other Crane scholar has entertained the idea my student finally argued: that Crane’s “The Blue Hotel,” while obviously a naturalist story that hazards certain statements about the condition of humanity as a whole (environment and heredity always win out over individual prerogative, etc., etc.), also echoes a forgotten 1890s anxiety over the alleged inability of Swedish immigrants to weave themselves into the American social fabric. Thus, when Crane’s Swede shouts, in a paranoiac delirium, “Oh, I see—you’re all against me!” he is in a very historically specific sense right.

For me, the proof is in the pudding. I’m interested in papers like this, and I want more of them. I’m interested in essays like another I received that semester, detailing the way in which several American commentators in the last decade of the nineteenth century wrote essays suggesting that through increased social mobility, middle-class women would start to form more platonic friendships with men and possibly even discover that such relationships were preferable to marriage. Knowing a bit about this forgotten anxiety, my student explained brilliantly, places texts like Chopin’s The Awakening in a completely new light.

Papers like these have made me even less interested in papers like “How does Hawthorne use light imagery in The Blithedale Romance” than I once was, and they’ve taught me that most of our students can indeed do much more interesting work. That’s why I now tell my students that the onus is on them to learn enough to become interesting literary historians, and why I now take time to instruct them in the use of on-line historical archives in order to learn something about the culture that produced the texts they are writing about.

Lest I appear a bit too evangelical about the pedagogical uses of on-line historical archives, there’s some potential problems here I should acknowledge. The first is that the most remarkable and empowering thing about the text-searchable on-line archive is also its greatest danger. That is, the text-searchable on-line archive makes a certain kind of learning possible that simply was not before. Students can’t travel across the country to visit physical archives, and even if they could, they don’t have the time in a semester to learn what they can learn in just a few minutes using a key-word search. It takes seconds to learn how many articles in Harper’s Weekly used the word “cavalier” during the last half of the nineteenth century—how long would it take to learn that by reading the magazines themselves? Because it is possible to execute multiple searches quickly and with virtually perfect accuracy, text-searchable online archives allow undergrads to do something otherwise practically unthinkable: say something truly new, to make an original contribution to the field.

That’s not to say they necessarily will, believe me. Because the downside of text-searchable archives is also their promise: they provide history fast and cheap. Whereas many of my students couldn’t tell me who was president before Clinton at the beginning of the semester, by the end they’re teaching me three different ways tableaux vivant was believed to improve women’s health during the 1890s. Of course, they still don’t know who was president before Clinton. Nor, for that matter, can they contextualize, make reliable connections between, or generally make totally sound judgments about the historical texts they’ve found or even totally sound judgments about what these historical texts ought to tell us about the literary texts that are the subjects of their essays. They can’t do these things because they haven’t spent serious time getting to know the period—they’ve just typed in a few searches and spent a few days reading some portable document files. Obviously, this alone does not an historicist make. But what my students can do—and I think this is truly momentous—is to devise their own way into a text, and a way in about which I am utterly interested.

E-mail the author
top | contents page | past issues
agora home | English Dept Home | EIU Home