Dream course

Despite the stress, one of the perks of being on the market is that I get to spend entire days sitting around and thinking about dream classes – not dream students, or dream institutions – but the classes I’d teach if I had all the leeway and resources in the world.  It’s tremendous fun, and means that I occasionally stumble across brilliant and compelling work I’d not previously had a chance to explore.  Today, that was Jill Lepore’s piece in the JAH on biography and microhistory.  If you have institutional access, read it.  It’s great.

I came to this by way of thinking about how to design a class that centered the historical challenges of reconstructing historical actors’ experiences – and particularly those of people who aren’t likely to have left a strong mark on the historical record. (An aside: at the Against Recovery conference hosted by NYU a few weeks ago, a number of people called for scholars of race, slavery and the enslaved to move beyond the language of “recovery” for accessing the historical experiences of the enslaved, the freed, and free people of color – it was a fascinating conference all around, but I especially loved how we were pushed to think about how the very words we use to describe historical practice privilege some narratives over others)  My ideal version of this class combines Kathleen Conzen’s course at the U(C) on American immigration history, for which the final project asked us to use census records to track an immigrant family living in Chicago at some point in the past;  Martha Hodes’s class at NYU on “Reconstructing Lives” which focuses on the craft of writing a history centered on one particular person – and the craft of historical writing more broadly. (Her “Four Episodes in Re-Creating a Life” beautifully illustrates the challenges inherent in this), and Nicholas Wolfe ‘s, also at NYU, which uses the 1860 census as a common data set and teaches old-school social history statistical analysis.  I’m also captivated by the work that the folks at Zooniverse are doing in citizen science, though the New York Public did something similar in the humanities with its menu transcription project.

In an ideal world, I’d love to construct a class around a data set (say, for example, the Charleston donors I mapped yesterday) and ask each student to write a microhistory of one of them.  Some are easier than others, though the ones that are most prominent might have a larger collection of extent personal papers, which is great for research, but perhaps stressful for already taxed undergraduates.  We’d begin with tracking their donors through various censuses – probably using something like Ancestry.com – before branching out into other kinds of archival material.  Once the students had built up biographical sketches of their donors, we’d move on to the social/cultural work that microhistory can do so well – using these people to tell us more about the world of antebellum South Carolina? Reading cultures in the antebellum South? Relationships between social status and philanthropic giving?  I’d love to end the class – maybe the last third of the term – with a collaborative project, in which students come back together to write a history of their cohort, focusing on whatever has popped out for them as the important historical question that their donors’ lives help illuminate.  I imagine that several iterations of a class like this would produce an archive of its own – a series of biographies, micrhohistories and essays that describe the data more completely than I’d ever hope to do on my own, and which students would be able to cite as examples of their public work as they move on from my class.  In the most perfect of worlds, I’d be able to find a data set that is populated by people local to wherever I’m teaching, which would (hopefully) encourage students to get themselves to local archives, maybe speak to descendents, or even explore the lived environments of the people they’re researching.

As much as this would be a blast to teach (it’s archival!  it’s historical methodology! it’s local history!) I also worry about deploying students in service of what, ultimately, are research goals that could help me out quite a bit.  I like the idea of finding a population of people who share some attribute, beyond their physical location (though if the geographical confines were small enough, it might be interesting to also make this a class about community history) and I have this massive, 6,000+ data set of famine donors that I’m itching to work on, but I’m concerned about exploiting student labor in service of my own project.  On the other hand, some of the papers that have come out of the citizen science work cite everyone who helped out with the project online, and science labs do this kind of thing all the time, and give students first or second authorship on the papers that come out of the research.

Off to write a dream syllabus.