Becoming an Archival Expert

When I teach nineteenth century American literature, I always want students to delve into the archives, and so I demonstrate a few digital searches in class and make it a requirement to include at least one archival source in the final research paper. But I wanted more investment, and not just for their papers. I felt that despite my commitment to bringing archival elements into the classroom, students were not getting totally immersed in the time period in the way that I wanted—in a way that would help them understand how nineteenth century readers might’ve approached the works we were studying, rather than reading everything through a twenty-first century lens.

With a class on nineteenth century American poets coming up (a class I hadn’t taught for four years), I had a great opportunity to make a change in this direction. So I thought, well, what’s one way to get a feel for daily life in the nineteenth century? I hit upon the idea of having students read nineteenth century newspapers. (I’ve written elsewhere about using digital archives in teaching nineteenth century African American writers. The archival expert assignment grew out of things I was noticing about working with newspapers in that class.)

What does poetry have to do with news? For one thing, in the nineteenth century, most newspapers had a poetry section, unlike newspapers today. But that wasn’t even the initial reason I wanted students to try this assignment. I wanted them to see if they saw any connections between the issues making headlines in the newspapers and the issues that poets like Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Walt Whitman, and Paul Laurence Dunbar (among others) addressed in their poems. We read the news today to get a sense of what is going on in the world, what is deemed important; conversely, if something doesn’t make the news, we feel that it may not be as important, or we may feel frustrated because the media seems to dismiss something that feels important to us. (In our own era of “fake news,” of course, all of these issues feel very fraught, and I think students were aware of that as they did this assignment.)

What we did: the assignment sheet

What follows is the text of the assignment sheet I gave the students. If you like it, please feel free to use as-is or to adapt.

This term, you will be in charge of leading one class as the “archival expert.” Your assignment is simple: I want you to read the newspaper. Using three of the library’s electronic databases—America’s Historical Newspapers, African American Newspapers, and/or Accessible Archives—you will make use of digital archives to provide historical context for the day’s poetic selections.

Here’s what to do for prep work, step by step:

  1. On the date you’re signed up to be the archival expert, look at when the poet published his or her book of poems. (So, for example: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper published Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects in 1855.) If there’s no publication date, as for Schoolcraft and Dickinson, then try as best you can to determine a year when these poets would’ve been writing poems.
  2. Determine a location that is relevant to the poet, if possible. For Harper, this could be Baltimore (where she grew up), Philadelphia (where she lived and worked as an adult), or Boston (where she frequently lectured).
  3. Now choose a newspaper that is relevant to the date and the location of the poet. If you want to get even more specific, you can (for example, you could look at an abolitionist newspaper for Harper or a Civil War newspaper for Melville; you could even look at some of the newspapers for which Whittier served as editor). If you can find one, you can also choose a newspaper where the poet published.
  4. Select an issue of the newspaper and read the whole thing: news, editorials, poetry, even the advertisements. (Be forewarned, the print is tiny and there’s a lot of text.) As you read, make note of anything at all—newspaper poems, news items, even weather—that you feel gives interesting context to the poems the class will be discussing.

From here, you have the tools to give the class some interesting historical contexts. During class, be prepared to give us around 20 minutes of historical context, drawn from what you read. Feel free to read us excerpts from articles or poems. Don’t feel like you have to cover everything in the newspaper—two or three things will be enough. Make a Powerpoint, Prezi, or handout to share a few images with us. Give us your reading of both the culture that produced this poet (particularly how the poet fits, or doesn’t fit, into the historical context) and anything you notice about how historical context informs one of the poet’s poems, or a section of the poem. (Don’t feel like you have to force the poet to neatly fit into the contexts the newspapers provide. Even the absence of the poet’s concerns from the newspaper will tell you something about the poet and their poems.) To facilitate a good discussion on what you’ve found, be prepared to ask the class a few discussion questions to get the conversation going.

Written component

You don’t have to write anything formally for this assignment, but I would like a works cited page (in MLA style) and a copy of your notes / outline / Powerpoint / handouts. Emailing all of this to me is fine.

Archival expert assignments will be graded according to how well they:

  • Thoroughly they give us historical context to the poet and their poems (50 points)
  • Demonstrate archival research skills (30 points)
  • Engage the class in discussion (20 points)

How it worked: connections students made

I’ll use three examples from three different presentations to give you a sense of what students did with this assignment. (Other poets we covered in this ten-week class were Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.) Wherever possible, we read complete books, or book-length poems, by these poets, rather than reading selections from anthologies. Schoolcraft and Dickinson were the exceptions, since they did not publish collections in their lifetimes.

The Boston Evening Standard and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha (1855)

Overall, my students hated The Song of Hiawatha, as I figured they might; although they admitted they found the trochaic meter fun to read (and to imitate), they were angered by what they saw as Longfellow’s clueless paternalism with respect to the Ojibwe characters he creates (adapting them, of course, from tales from Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s Algic Researches [1839] that were themselves adapted from oral stories from Ojibwe poet Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Henry’s wife, and those of her mother). An archival expert presentation on Longfellow, then, was an opportunity to understand the context in which this poem was written.

The student who presented on Longfellow chose the November 10, 1855 edition of the Boston Evening Standard, since Hiawatha was published on that date and since Longfellow lived in Boston. There is a notice (unfortunately rather illegible, as you will see below) titled “Longfellow’s New Poem!” in the paper, so we could see that Longfellow was famous enough that the publication of a new book was a newsworthy event.

longfellowpoem

The student also noticed, with irony, an article entitled “The Landing of the Pilgrims,” a romanticized historical piece that makes no mention of Native peoples. Speaking of the pilgrims, the article’s anonymous author says, “Their landing; the history of their future toils, dangers; their struggles and privations; their heroic self-denial and unconquerable trust in God, are among the proudest recollections of our history.”

Transitioning from this article, the student brought up the fact that the Yakama Indian War, a three-year dispute about land rights between the U.S. Government and the Yakama and allied tribal groups in central Washington state, had just begun the month before, in October, 1855. There’s no mention in the newspaper about the progress of this war. Even more glaring was the fact that the Battle of Union Gap, between the Yakama and the U.S. army, had begun the day before and was not mentioned at all. The charitable interpretation is that news had not had time to travel across the country yet; however, we went in another interpretive direction. The student thought about the fact that Longfellow’s poem was so immediately popular, and we wondered if the American public generally preferred to read about mythologized Native Americans, like Hiawatha, rather than real ones, like Kamiakin, chief of the Yakama tribe at the start of the war, pictured in this sketch, below.

kamiakin
Kamiakin, chief of Yakama Tribe, 1855
by Gustavus Sohon, courtesy Washington State Historical Society 

In this issue of the newspaper, Native peoples are ignored or not included. Longfellow’s poem seems to be their only presence in the issue. Twenty-five years earlier, there would have been articles about Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act, but in 1855, Native issues are not at the forefront of the general public’s consciousness, if this newspaper is any indication.

The Salem Register and John Greenleaf Whittier’s Snow-Bound (1866)

Sometimes, the students looked at the poems in the newspapers and made connections and comparisons with the poems we were reading in class. Here’s a poem printed in the Salem Register for February 15, 1866:

littlefeet

(Yes, the date on that says November 12, 1866, which can’t be right, but it is what is printed in the Feb. 15 issue of the Register—I double-checked!)

 We had been talking about sentimentality in Whittier’s poem Snow-Bound the class before, with some of the students coming down pretty hard on what they saw as Whittier’s overly nostalgic view of the rural New England places and people of his childhood. However, reading the poem “Little Feet” put that into perspective. We discussed the different ways Whittier guards against this kind of too-easy feeling and ideas in his poem (particularly focusing on the complexity of the way he elegizes his younger sister, Elizabeth). We also spent a long time talking about the rhyme scheme and meter of both poems, since they are both written in iambic tetrameter and are largely in rhyming couplets. We discussed how Whittier’s diction and his use of enjambment create a complex rhythm and more lofty tone than “Little Feet” is able to achieve. And we also discussed how smart Whittier was to stay away from refrains like “Patter, patter, little feet” in his elegy, which would’ve wrecked the gravitas of his poem.

The Cincinnati Gazette and Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt’s That New World (1877)

Because we had begun the term discussing the child elegy genre in the poetry of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, then revisited it when we read Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Emily Dickinson, students had the analytical tools to approach Piatt’s elegies for her two children in the searing book That New World, but they were still shocked by the grim, direct nature of this poetry, which sometimes feels like a wrestling match between a grieving Piatt and a detached God who doesn’t care how mothers feel about the children he takes.

Since we had been talking so much about death, the student who presented on the November 6, 1877 issue of The Cincinnati Gazette started there, showing us articles about some gruesome deaths by murder (which included the dead body then being put in a church and the church set on fire to destroy the evidence), falling from a wagon, being run over by a train, and fire again. The student asked us to compare how the deaths were reported on in the newspaper with how Piatt talks about death in her poems, particularly “No Help” and “To a Dead Bird.” One thing we immediately wondered was if the death of children from disease or accident was so common that it simply wouldn’t make the news. The only “report” of a child’s death might come through poetry. We thought about what poetry does that news doesn’t, and vice versa.

This class occurred on Election Day, so the student also had us think a little bit about Piatt and politics. After pulling out a few articles and headlines about local politics, the student asked us to think about how Piatt feels about monarchy in her poems “If I Had Made the World” and “A Queen at Home.” (The answer is—she doesn’t like it!) We had a great discussion about Piatt and democracy, even looking back to Whitman to compare how Piatt expresses democratic views in some of these poems versus how Whitman does the same.

 Assessment

Overall, this assignment worked very well. It accomplished what I wanted it to accomplish: the students got more invested in (even excited about) the time period. I liked how the assignment was specific, but also allowed them to go in pretty much any direction they wanted with both the newspaper and the poems. Students had fun with it, often pointing out humorous ads or articles and sharing them with the class. The only times the assignment failed were when students did not follow the instructions or when they made wild surmises about connections between the poet and what was in the newspaper (the latter of which could be gently corrected in class). Overall I would rate this assignment as a success, and I plan to do it again.

“But I don’t have access to these subscription-only archives,” I hear you saying. Never fear, this assignment will also work with open-access archives, like the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America, which has thousands of digitized newspapers to read for free. If you try this assignment, or some version of it, I hope you’ll let me know how it goes!

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Teaching Jane Johnston Schoolcraft

This fall, I’m teaching an upper-level literature course on nineteenth century American women writers. It’s a big class, full of mostly English and Gender Studies majors and minors. This is the second time I’ve taught this course, but the first time I’ve included Ojibwe poet Jane Johnston Schoolcraft.

Jane_Johnston_Schoolcraft

(Note: in the 19th century, the Ojibwe people were variously known as Chippewa, Ojibwe, and Anishinaabe. Anishinaabe is the name that is most in use now. Schoolcraft used the name “Ojibwe” to describe herself, so, following scholar Robert Dale Parker, that’s the word I’ll use too.)

Born in 1802, Schoolcraft (whose Ojibwe name was Bamewawagezhikaquay, or “Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing through the Sky”) was one of a large métis (French for “mixed”) population in her hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, located on the border of the Michigan Territory and Canada. The daughter of an Irish immigrant and an Ojibwe mother; a bilingual speaker and poet; the métis wife of a white man, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, the first U.S. Indian Agent in the Michigan territory; highly educated and among Sault Ste. Marie’s social elite; possessing both Romantic and Ojibwe sensibilities; married to another literary writer but not publishing in her lifetime; writing within the poetic conventions of her time—Schoolcraft is a complex figure, and because of this I thought she’d be a great writer to begin the course. I wanted to get students thinking immediately about nineteenth century women as not easily categorized, to get them used to holding contradictions and complexities in their minds without trying to oversimplify these women’s lives or their art.

sound the stars make

Robert Dale Parker’s excellent scholarly edition of Schoolcraft will give you everything you need to get going with this poet: a thorough and engaging introduction to her life and work; all of her known poems and prose; and extremely helpful notes on each poem that detail, as best as can be known, when it was written, in whose handwriting (Jane Johnston Schoolcraft’s or Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s) it was found, whether it is a translation, and if so, if it was translated by Jane or by Henry. Often, it’s not clear who wrote or translated what (something Parker does not gloss over but lets be, in all of its complexity).

I asked students to read all of the poems from the Parker edition for the next class period (but to focus on a handful of poems I wanted to make sure to cover in class discussion). Each day, I asked students to reread all the poems while focusing particularly on the poems we’d be discussing in class.

A three-day Schoolcraft plan

I had three days for Schoolcraft, though I wanted more. (Our terms are ten weeks long at my school, so pretty much every writer gets about three days, unless they’ve written an exceptionally long novel—looking at you, Harriet Beecher Stowe.) I tried some different strategies each day to shake things up—and also, since it was the start of the term, so students could quickly get used to the kinds of things I like to do in my courses. This term, I’m ditching the short weekly papers I usually assign in favor of daily informal writing: one or two paragraphs due each class (done mostly outside of class, but sometimes in class) which I am hoping are low-stakes enough to encourage students to play around more, make more of a mess, and take more risks with their ideas. In addition to daily writing, we are using a variety of multimedia, looking at other 19th c. texts and visual materials to provide context, and diving into literary criticism.

Day 1: The Way In

Writing focus: Personal response

Thematic focus: Nature

Poems discussed: “To the Pine,” “To the Miscodeed,” “On the Doric Rock, Lake Superior,” “Pensive Hours”

It makes sense to me to do a more personal writing assignment on the first day of a new writer, particularly with nineteenth century poetry, which may at first feel old-fashioned and off-putting to even the perkiest English major. I think it’s good to encourage students that any way into the poems they can find is a good way in, and that they don’t need to be intimidated by this poetry.

On the first day of class (the syllabus-introductions day), toward the end, I put the names of four Schoolcraft poems—none of which the students had read yet—on the board and asked students to choose one. Then I asked them a few simple questions, which I adapted from an exercise by Lynn Hammond that I first found in the always useful Engaging Ideas, by John Bean:

  • Why did you choose this title over the other ones?
  • What in this title would draw you into the poem—would make you want to read it? (Or conversely, is there anything in this title that causes resistance or makes you not want to read this poem?)
  • Based on the title of the poem, what do you expect this poem to be about?

From here, I told students to keep what they had written and, for next time, to write about whether their expectations were met once they actually read the poem in question.

I learned that for many students, familiar nature imagery (pine trees) was the draw, although a few brave students made their choice based on their lack of familiarity with title words (like the miscodeed flower, also called “spring beauty”). Other students chose a poem set on Lake Superior because we are in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula isn’t that far away from us. Many students were surprised at what “miscodeed” was (they guessed all kinds of things). Others were comforted by the simple fact that Schoolcraft felt such a connection to pine trees (as one student said, “I have a thing for pine trees”).

spring-beauty-splash

This first day on Schoolcraft, we talked about her as a Romantic poet and a nature poet, as well as how her métis identity and geographical region may have influenced her writing. I supplemented this lecture with lots of visuals: pictures of the miscodeed flower, 19th century maps of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and photos of Lake Superior so students could get a visual sense of Schoolcraft’s relation to place.

doric rock

Day 2: Form, Genre, Contexts

Writing focus: Annotation

Thematic focus: Motherhood

Formal focus: Elegy, child elegy

Poems discussed: “Elegy: On the death of my Son William Henry, at St. Mary’s,” “Sonnet,” “To my ever beloved and lamented son William Henry,” “Sweet Willy”

Our second day on Schoolcraft, we discussed her wrenching child elegies, written after the death of her oldest child, William Henry, from croup at the age of two. I wanted students to really dig into the poems’ formal qualities, so the informal writing assignment due in advance of this class was an annotation. Since Megan Ciesla has recently discussed annotation in detail on this site, I won’t say much more about this except try it—it’s old school, and that’s part of the fun for students. I, too, asked students to do the annotation by hand (either in their books or on a photocopy of a page if they don’t want to write in the book) and then take a photo and upload it. I printed them all out (speaking of old school) and then graded them by hand (my usual practice). There’s something really interesting in seeing where students will go when they’re not typing and not thinking “Essay! Must write essay!” I found that most of them uncovered much, much more about the poems’ formal qualities than they might have mentioned if I had had them write a few paragraphs of analysis instead. There was no opportunity for summary, so they had to jump right in and analyze.

informal writing #2 copy

To give students context during class, I put up slides of other poets’ poems from the period: Lydia Sigourney’s “To a Dying Infant,” which allowed us to talk more about the child elegy genre of the period; and Ann Taylor’s “My Mother,” a poem that directly influenced the form of Schoolcraft’s poem “To my ever beloved and lamented Son William Henry.” Because students had thought so much about the craft of the poems in their annotations, they were better able to make connections between stylistic commonalities: similar imagery in Sigourney and Schoolcraft, for example, or similar use of refrains and questions in Taylor and Schoolcraft.

taylor my mother
Courtesy of Florida State University’s Special Collections and Archives blog

Day 3: Criticism, revision, and translation

Writing focus: Taking a position

Thematic focus: Identity, authenticity, ownership

Poems discussed: “Invocation,” “The Contrast,” “Song of the Okogis, or Frogs in Spring,” “On leaving my children John and Jane at School”

Like Corinna Cook, I also assign critical works in class, and I also have students in charge of leading class discussion on those critical works. In the past, these sessions have really fallen flat, but I was trusting to the power of daily informal writing to help us along this time around. Because the discussion-leading group would be outlining the larger points of the article with us, I decided to focus the informal writing assignment a bit more tightly. For this class, I asked students to choose one small point from the article they read (Bethany Schneider’s “Not for Citation: Jane Johnston Schoolcraft’s Synchronic Strategies”) and to make one of these argumentative moves with it: to say “No,” to say “Yes,” or to say “Maybe, but” (which I am again stealing from Bean! Y’all see what I was rereading this summer). Students then had to write 1-2 paragraphs explaining their response.

This article proved extremely difficult for students (it’s quite dense and complex), but that didn’t prove a deterrent to class discussion. I was surprised and thrilled that our class discussion on this article lasted nearly the whole class long (I had only budgeted for half the class, but students had so much to say that we just went with it). This is a big change from how these article discussions have gone in the past, and I attribute this directly to the targeted informal writing I had students do. They had taken a position on the article and they were ready to share those positions!

Much of Schneider’s article asks readers to consider the interplay between Schoolcraft’s poetry and the writing of others, whether that be husband’s translations of her poems, her own allusions to Romantic poets like Shelley and Keats, or her response to the language of letters she received from acquaintances. So the poems selected for this class were in multiple versions: multiple English versions all written by Schoolcraft; poems Schoolcraft wrote in Ojibwe and translated into English; poems Schoolcraft wrote in Ojibwe that were translated by others. It’s not always clear, as Parker makes evident in his wonderful notes and introduction, when an English translation is Jane’s and when it is Henry’s. Our discussion, then, revolved around what we perceive as “authentic,” which typically also involved questions of identity (i.e. how do we “read” Schoolcraft as a person, and how does this affect the way we read her poems? how do we read a Schoolcraft poem if we’re not totally sure she wrote or translated it?).

We spent a long time on the poem “On leaving my children John and Jane at School,” discussing (as Schneider also does) the differences between the three versions that are provided in Parker’s edition of Schoolcraft: Schoolcraft’s Ojibwe version, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s “free” English translation, or a contemporary translation by Dennis Jones, Heidi Stark, and James Vukelich. This is a perfect poem to talk about translation and authenticity. How does seeing these three versions on the page next to one another force us to compare versions and ultimately color our readings of all three versions? Do we believe that the literal version by modern scholars is the one Schoolcraft herself would have made had she chosen to translate this poem into English? Would Schoolcraft’s version have looked more like Henry’s, strictly rhymed and metered and adhering to the conventions of early 19th century poetry—since this is how she writes all of the rest of her English language poetry? Or is there something important (we thought that there was) about the fact that Schoolcraft never translated this particular poem into English?

To end our session on Schoolcraft, I played a recording of Margaret Noodin, an Anishinaabe poet and scholar who is the founder of ojibwe.net (an Anishinaabe language site with recordings of Anishinaabe songs and poems—an amazing resource), singing the Ojibwe version of “On leaving my children John and Jane at School.” Although no one in the class speaks Anishinaabe, we agreed that we were all moved by the beauty of the song. I liked ending the section on Schoolcraft in this way, with an acknowledgment that with any writer we read this term, there will be things we can’t access and can’t understand—but that makes these writers from another time more interesting, not less.