Emerging Experts

American Athena reached two important milestones today. First, at 1:30pm, Christian Flores ’18, finished digitizing the final artifact from the JFA collection for Shared Shelf. After months of setbacks and technical issues, we’ve digitized 72 original documents, consisting of more than 1,600 pages as part of our project with the Council of Independent Colleges’ Consortium on Digital Resources for Teaching and Research.

Then, around 3pm came an e-mail with the subject line: “Consummatum est,” or “It is finished.” It was summer intern Naomi Niemann ’19 writing to say that she had completed the transcription of Edward Beecher’s  650(ish)-page, unpublished novel, Cornelia (a tale of love and faith in the time of Marcus Aurelius). There is still much to be done, but even in my seventh summer overseeing student work, I am in awe of the their enthusiasm and dedication. Working with students changes the nature and speed of my research. It means slowing down a bit and taking time to teach new skills. But it is so worth it. There is real joy in witnessing the emergence of expertise.

Christian and Naomi have dedicated Summer 2016 to the Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives and American Athena. Christian is back to continue his work on the ever-growing but nearly complete database of JFA students. Naomi is conducting important research on Cornelia. Two more students, seasoned veterans of the archives, are working in the community: Emily Pacini ’17 is processing collections of the Jacksonville Public Schools Foundation, while Esther Johnson ’17 is creating a digital inventory and collecting oral histories for the Governor Joseph Duncan Mansion.

 

Most of our student workers show up having taken one or two history courses. They know very little about archives, museums, or historical research. And that’s okay. They’re there to learn. Over the past seven years, I’ve maintained a fairly relaxed system that allows students to explore a variety of tasks and discover their personal strengths. Once they do, I encourage them to become experts so that they do their very best work and teach others (including myself) about a particular collection or process.

Archival work and historical research is tedious, so encouraging students’ curiosity is key. Naomi has fully embraced this concept and has made several significant discoveries this summer. Whereas many students might stall when they encounter a Latin phrase or unfamiliar place name, Naomi does some research and writes an annotation. She asks questions. Using documents from the Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives and digital images of Beecher family correspondence (through the Schlesinger Library), she confirmed that the majority of the manuscript was written in the hand of Edward’s younger brother, Charles Beecher. She was also able to date the manuscript to about 1888. This means the manuscript was likely written when Edward was quite old, recovering from a railroad accident in which he lost a leg. We wonder now if he dictated the novel, and if perhaps it was a way to pass time during his recovery. Already, only  few weeks into the summer, we have learned so much about this perplexing mysterious manuscript.

Similarly, Christian spends a lot of time at the scanner – sometimes scanning, sometimes dealing with technical issues (which earned the scanner the nickname Sisyphis) – but we spend a lot of time talking about the significance of the work so that he can communicate that to others. Just last week a researcher (from afar) visited the Khalaf Al Habtoor archives in search of her ancestors who attended the Jacksonville Female Academy. As I was unable to be there, Christian stepped right in, sharing his extensive knowledge of the JFA records and the digital files. He combined his historical and archival expertise with an ability to listen and respond to the needs of the researcher. The researcher did not simply want to find names in a catalog, she also wanted to know more about daily life and curriculum at the JFA, so Christian located and even digitized a variety of documents for her. In an e-mail exchange, the researcher described the hospitality she received as “superb.” I am so proud of him.

At least at IC, few faculty in the humanities and social sciences employ student workers. Generous donors have made it possible for faculty to tap into funds for wages and housing, but in the humanities and the social sciences, it requires some rethinking of our traditional research methods. But again, it is so worth it. Students provide new insights and ideas that I never would have developed on my own. And once they become experts, it becomes possible to explore new avenues: like creating digital collections and databases. All of this, I hope, helps our students understand how to navigate historical problems and master professional skills that they can easily apply in diverse professional settings.

For those interested in the JFA collection: right now, users can only access Shared Shelf on campus, through the Schewe Library website. We hope to expand access in the coming months. We also hope to create a Beecher collection in Shared Shelf that features Cornelia. You too can learn whether Cornelia is martyred in Lyon for her Christian beliefs or reunited with her loving husband. No spoilers here!

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