Arrrrrrr! It’s time to Treasure Hunt with Dickinson!

Avast, me hearties, and an ahoy to those of you whose distance-teaching semesters are winding down. Why are you reading this? Please go feed your sourdough starter instead. (And then, please help me to understand how to feed mine. That burping thing it’s doing right now—is that good? Bad? Oh why did I accept this unassuming jar from a well-meaning friend?)


Here at my little liberal arts college, we’re on trimesters, which means we’re just finishing up our fourth week of the term; the party is far from winding down. It’s a special term for me because it’s my first term teaching a single-author class on Emily Dickinson, my favorite poet.

The course is an upper-level English class that is also cross-listed with gender studies, and I have majors and minors from both departments, as well as conservatory students who know Dickinson best from singing settings of her poems, plus a few folks who just straight-up like Dickinson (from physics majors to film studies majors to math majors!). I started thinking about how I wanted to teach this class over a year ago and spent many months casually reading and dreaming and brainstorming. Three weeks before the class was to begin, of course, I got the same call to move classes online that we all did. For me, that meant throwing a lot of what I had planned out the window. However, I was lucky in that we were heading into an extended spring break and I had a few weeks to figure things out. I know those of you on semesters did not have that luxury! While I had to let go of some in-person things I was really excited about doing (so long, working with the Franklin Variorum on library reserve each week), luckily, there are so many Dickinson resources that are digitized and free for the taking (check out her digitized manuscript books!) that it has been easier to teach this class online than it would many others.


This is not a post about all of the ins and outs of how I redesigned my class, how I made big decisions (i.e. how to do grading during a pandemic; what kinds of assignments felt appropriate;  how to emphasize technological accessibility and equity as much as humanly possible; whether to go asynchronous vs. synchronous), what I decided to keep, and what is and isn’t working now. I feel like those conversations came so fast and furious in March that my head is still spinning from them, and maybe yours are, too. I decided to go mostly asynchronous (with one optional Zoom class once a week) because I was concerned about equity issues with respect to how, and when, and how often students are able to access technology wherever they’re living right now.

ed dumbphone
Mr Higginson, Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?

Speaking of technology—I am not very technologically inclined. I use a dumbphone with a QWERTY keyboard; I am not on social media; I have never made a meme. In short, I am the perfect person to have by your side if you are sifting through dusty, crusty manuscript boxes in an archive, but I’m not the first person who comes to mind when one thinks “innovative online teaching, yes!” So rather than try to go all bells and whistles (or even one bell and half a whistle) with my asynchronous class, I got all 2008 (maybe even that is way too late) and decided to do online discussion forums . . . for the VERY FIRST TIME. Yes, there is a reason my brain is so at home in the nineteenth century.

Digging for gold . . . in the nineteenth century (but not the California Gold Rush kind)

I’ve written before on this blog about using archival materials to help get students more invested in the nineteenth century. I’ve placed a particular focus on using databases like America’s Historical Newspapers, which our library subscribes to, and luckily these databases are still available for students to use if they wish. I have had students do presentations on nineteenth century African American newspapers; I have also asked them to use digitized newspapers, among other sources, to become (in the words of one assignment) “archival experts.” These assignments have been in either paper-writing formats or in presentation formats. When I was imagining adapting one of these assignments for my in-person Dickinson class, I was figuring we would do some kind of archival expert presentation once more. Once I knew we were going to be doing spring term at a distance, I briefly considered Zoom presentations before I decided to go asynchronous. I kept coming back to thinking about not only how students would be able to access technology, but also how fatigued and freaked out they might feel—since that’s how pretty much everyone feels. I decided I needed to loosen the assignment up, make it asynchronous, and re-brand it so that it sounded less intimidating than something involving the words “presentation” or “expert.” Thus, the Dickinson Treasure Hunt Forum was born. I mean, what sounds more fun that hunting treasure?


In addition to the Franklin edition of Dickinson’s poems, plus a bunch of articles and archival materials (Rufus Griswold’s 1847 anthology The American Female Poets, anyone?), we are reading the Johnson edition of Dickinson’s selected letters and the Brenda Wineapple biography of Dickinson (and her literary friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson), White Heat. I knew I wanted to create an assignment that would help students become as intrigued by reading these secondary materials as they would be (I hoped) by reading our primary text: the poems. Here’s the assignment I came up with, verbatim from the assignment sheet:

Dickinson Treasure Hunt Forum

On most Thursdays, three students will each post a discussion question about something interesting they have found in the additional readings for the week. These readings include the biography White Heat, Dickinson’s letters, and any other assigned or supplemental readings that have to do with Dickinson’s life in the nineteenth century. Read until you find something that piques your curiosity. Once you’ve got something, see if you can find out more about it. (For example, you could read the poem “I felt a Funeral in my Brain” and decide to find out something about funeral practices in the nineteenth century, or you might read the name of one of Dickinson’s correspondents—Samuel Bowles, Helen Hunt Jackson, Josiah Holland, others—and decide to try to find out more about them.) Share your treasure with us, and then ask the class a question about it. (Try to relate the question to a poem we’re reading that week if possible.)

So, pretty simple. I did not (as I normally would) limit the students to scholarly or archival sources only. Most of them have found their way to good websites like the Emily Dickinson Museum or Smithsonian magazine. Some have even shared links to multiple scholarly articles–unbidden! My goal this term was to ease up a little bit, knowing students would have more on their minds than finding sources. I think that since many of them are English majors, and most of them are juniors and seniors, they are so used to finding good sources by now that they are doing it as if by reflex.


What, am I the only person who has fond memories of Muppet Treasure Island from 1996?

Yarrr, what treasure be found!

So far, students have investigated these things, which they have found mentioned (sometimes in detail and sometimes in passing) in White Heat, Dickinson’s letters, or both:

  • Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where Dickinson went to school for a year
  • Amherst native Frazer Stearns, who was killed in the Battle of New Bern in 1862
  • Pressed flowers, included in some of Dickinson’s letters
  • Opera singer Jenny Lind, whom Dickinson saw in concert
  • Firefighting in the nineteenth century (with a shout-out to Dickinson’s dad)
  • The Pelham Hills, a setting dear to Dickinson’s heart
  • William Cowper’s poem “Light Shining Out of Darkness”
  • W. Higginson’s poem “The Snowing of the Pines”
  • Dickinson’s eye ailment and eye doctors in the 19thcentury
  • Harriet Prescott Spofford’s creepy 1862 short story “Circumstance” (please don’t read this at night)
  • Daguerreotypes

After students post their treasure-hunt finds, they pose a question or questions, and the rest of the class has several days to post responses. I’m asking for everyone to post a total of three times in this forum. Right now we’re having a pretty in-depth discussion about daguerreotypes (see below!). In the age of smartphones (not that I would know anything about said age) and endless selfies, the idea of daguerreotypes is proving intriguing indeed.

A page from Emily Dickinson’s (thankfully digitized!) herbarium

I’ve been pleased to see how excited students are by their finds. I am particularly impressed with the ways students have taken some of these items and personalized them. For example, this week, we read Dickinson’s famous letter to editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson in which he asks her for a picture of herself, and she basically says, “Nope, sorry, I don’t have one”—which is not true; she does have one, but it’s from 15 years before!—“but I’ll describe myself to you instead.” Then Dickinson writes, “I am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur – and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves.”

One student, intrigued by this lack of a photo and how Dickinson got around it, first investigated what daguerreotypes were; next, found images of Dickinson (the one verified daguerreotype from 1847, plus two other images that are in hot contention as Maybe-or-Maybe-Not Dickinson) and provided as much historical information as she could find about them; and then charmingly created her own description of herself in the style of Dickinson’s.

Accept no substitutes
Well, maybe . . . ?
Not qualified to take sides on authenticity here, definitely just the messenger

Finally, the student challenged us all to come up with our own descriptions of ourselves, as if we were writing to Higginson. Here are a few I got permission to share:

  • I have quite a few portraits, but do not deign to send them – I am small, like the bobolink, but solid, like the chestnut – though hopefully not as susceptible to disease. My hair – as capricious as the wind – and my eyes, like the residue at the bottom of a mug of instant hot chocolate, forgotten about – and left to harden overnight.
  • I, too, am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is not so much spun-gold as it is straw – my eyes, I think, are wide, and match the sky – when it is Blue, as are they, and likewise with its Grey. My teeth so slightly twist, like they desire to face and speak to one another in my mouth, and my Hands – I think, are light and small like the butterfly and are always spinning something.
  • I am lanky, like the ostrich legs, and my hair is bright, like the sun at noon – and my eyes, like a vanilla tootsie roll wrapper that a child unwrapped and tossed on the floor.
  • I am small and swift like the gazelle, my eyes darting gold brown leaves, my hair meandering in waves alongside a riverbank.
  • I am gangly, like the colt, and my hair is like the skunk’s back – and my eyes, like the one frog in the pond who has decided not to tell his name to the whole damn bog. (Well, OK, this one was mine!)

This is just one example of the kinds of enthusiasm students are bringing to this assignment. For me, it’s rewarding to see students get invested in learning about Dickinson’s time, but it’s even more exciting to see them personalize what they’ve found in such hilarious ways (perhaps especially during such a dire and difficult time).

I think this assignment could be easily adapted to any single-author course, which might be where it would work the best. The reason students are getting so into this is, I think, that we are very focused in our research—there is much to explore, but it all comes down to Dickinson, so we can go deep. And there’s so much to pick and choose from that it’s easy, I think, for everyone to find something to pique their interests. I’m wondering how it would go if I tried it in the fall when I teach my course on nineteenth century African American writers, which is, though not a strict survey, still a course that covers 7 or 8 writers during a 10-week term. Without the single-author focus, would this still work as well? (And will this fall course be taught online, or in-person? Like my first loaf of sourdough bread that doesn’t suck, that remains to be seen.) I may try it and see. If you try the treasure hunt in your own classes (whether they are single-author or survey, in-person or online), let me know how it goes!

“Wild nights should be / Our luxury!” 

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.


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, 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:


(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.


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!