The Wheaton College Digital History Project: Undergraduate Research in a Local Collection
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Digital innovations have been contributing to dramatic revisions in the practices of teaching, research, and publication in disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences for some time now. And whilst the implications of such innovations might have once remained marginal to humanities disciplines, I find it hard to doubt that digital tools will continue to change the central practices of the historical profession. The May 2009 issue of Perspectives featured a series of articles under the heading “Intersections: History and New Media,” and these suggested a range of areas in which such adaptations had proceeded. In fall 2010, the American Historical Association’s Assistant Director for Research and Publications Robert B. Townsend published three articles based on the 2010 survey of historians that indicate adoption of digital tools by over ninety-five percent of historians and online publication among over ten percent of historians that Townsend characterized as avoiders of digital tools.1
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In this context, I would add the following to the questions the editors have posed for this volume: Can undergraduates contribute meaningfully to a long-term digital history project? My affirmative response is based on seven years of using digital tools to teach undergraduates at various levels how to do historical research and writing. I argue in this essay that such tools—some innovative and most grounded in well-established practices of textual editing—have facilitated my own efforts to follow the American Historical Association’s 1990 recommendation that students at the undergraduate level should be taught to “do history.”
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Over the past seven years, undergraduates at Wheaton College in Massachusetts have participated in transcribing and marking up primary sources from the Wheaton College Archives and Special Collections (WCASC). The work I have done with them and a team of colleagues in Library and Information Services (LIS) has shaped the development of the Wheaton College Digital History Project (WCDHP), in which collaborations that include a faculty member, the College Archivist and Special Collections Curator, the Technology Liaison for Humanities, and undergraduates have been contributing to the digitization of a hidden collection. The project focuses on documents related to the founding and early years of Wheaton Female Seminary, an institution for the higher education of women that was founded in 1834, and became a college in 1911. The school was founded by the Wheaton family, and documents authored by Eliza Baylies Wheaton and her husband Laban Morey Wheaton are particularly abundant and instructive.2
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 1 Since most of the documents in the project have not been available or well known outside the institution before work began on this project, they have not been considered in previous studies of the history of women’s education in early United States. Digitization to facilitate access to them thus marks a significant contribution to knowledge about the topic. And since collaborations that include the work of transcription are central to this project as they are to many in digital humanities, I argue that the project demonstrates one way in which undergraduates can both learn principles of historical research and make meaningful contributions to historical knowledge.3
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 In the following pages, I describe the origins and current status of the Wheaton College Digital History Project, present the most recent assignment through which students have contributed transcription and markup, and discuss the project’s significance in the context of the liberal arts curriculum and of history as a discipline.
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The Wheaton College Digital History Project
Since fall 2004, undergraduates in History courses at Wheaton College have been transcribing and marking up nineteenth-century documents from the Wheaton College Archives and Special Collections for digital publication. The opportunity to begin this work arose when a confluence of events combined new interest in and experience with the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) at Wheaton College and the acquisition of the pocket diaries of Eliza Baylies Wheaton. Beginning in January 2004, Wheaton College collaborated with Mount Holyoke College to host a two-part conference that explored uses of TEI in teaching and research at liberal arts colleges. Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation through the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE), the conference included instruction in TEI from Julia Flanders and Syd Bauman of the Women Writers Project at Brown University. We embarked on our first effort at teaching with TEI the following fall.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 3 That semester, students in an introductory course on women’s history, U.S. Women to 1869, learned about economic uncertainties in the lives of unmarried white women when they transcribed and marked up the journal of Maria E. Wood, the daughter of a Baptist minister. In a scaffolded assignment, each student was assigned a set of pages from the journal to transcribe, and then groups of students marked up the entire journal using themes from the course: family, work, religion, death and mourning. At the end of the course, the students expressed a sense of having gotten to know Wood and having understood the past better than they ever had before.4
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Student Research Assistants
In the following semesters and summers, student research assistants collaborated with members of the faculty and staff to create digital editions of the pocket diaries and travel journal of Eliza B. Wheaton. The three students who worked together in summer 2005 became a community of enthusiastic historians. As they transcribed the travel journal and pocket diaries, they used their spare time to explore the town of Norton, especially its cemeteries, where they looked for the birth and death dates of people mentioned in the documents. One of the students went on to work in the College Archives for the next three years. Another combined the diary she had transcribed with family diaries from the same period to use as primary sources for her senior seminar paper. During subsequent summers, new student workers continued to transcribe and mark up related documents and ephemera; these students also proofread the transcriptions against the diaries and made corrections to the files. In recent years, students in courses on gender and work in the nineteenth-century United States have used pdfs of the pocket diary transcription as texts, finding various themes related to gender and work that they have seen in secondary readings, and marking up copies of the diary files with annotations on those themes.
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Teaching Historical Methods with TEI
In spring 2009, the Wheaton College Digital History Project took a new turn, as students in the research methods course for History majors began to transcribe and mark up pages from the daybook that Laban Morey Wheaton kept between 1828 and 1859. This book records financial transactions that reflect some of the range of Wheaton’s business interests during these forty years, including agricultural pursuits and rentals for land and houses as well as tax collections, fees for legal services, and the operation of a general store in Norton, Massachusetts.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 As we had done in the case of Maria Wood’s journal, my colleagues and I developed a scaffolded assignment. In this case, the assignment was intended to model the steps in the kind of research project students are expected to complete in their capstone experience, a senior seminar in which students write a paper of at least twenty pages (5,000 words) based on original research. The descriptions of the stages of the assignment that I present here are taken from the assignment sheet that students receive in the course.
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Collaborative Research Project
As historians, we interpret primary sources, finding the human agency demonstrated therein and explaining the significance of that agency by placing the sources in context. In this collaborative research project, students undertake staged research that models the processes of research and writing that they will follow as they do original research in primary sources for their senior seminar, the capstone experience for students who major in History at Wheaton College. In this project, students contribute to the long‐term Wheaton College Digital History Project, the focus of which is digitization of primary sources related to the founding period of the college, 1834‐1912. Students have been working on this project since spring 2005, first transcribing and encoding the diaries of Eliza Baylies Wheaton.
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Stage 1: Background reading in secondary sources.
Students begin immersion in relevant secondary sources during the first week of the semester with reading and discussion of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s prizewinning book, A Midwife’s Tale (1990). Subsequent secondary sources introduce students to financial records as primary sources and to attitudes toward farming in the antebellum United States.5
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Stage 2: Transcription and markup of daybook page spreads.
Research in primary sources involves taking notes, which often includes transcribing selections from the sources. Since handwritten sources from the nineteenth century and before can be difficult to read, in‐class sessions in which students work together on deciphering and transcribing individual two‐page spreads from Laban Morey Wheaton’s daybook build experience and confidence in this skill that belongs in every historian’s toolkit.
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 3 As we read primary sources, transcribe them, and take notes on their content, historians begin to interpret the sources. Interpretive markup using eXtensible Markup Language and the guidelines of the Text Encoding Initiative (XML/TEI) makes this interpretive process concrete. Thus, students have an opportunity to reflect on assumptions that affect their interpretations of primary sources. We workshop both transcription and markup to insure that students have all the assistance they need deciphering handwriting, understanding unfamiliar language and using appropriate TEI elements.
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Stage 3: Writing and editing episodes for the History Engine.
Historians find the relevant stories in primary sources and explain their significance through their relationship to the larger narratives described in secondary sources.
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Described in another essay in this collection, the History Engine is a collaborative teaching tool hosted at the University of Richmond, and it gives students an opportunity to practice this skills involved in finding those stories. Students choose a transaction from the daybook as the event to describe for their episode. They use one of the secondary sources we have read to help them determine the larger significance of the event reflected in the transaction. Episodes undergo peer review and revision, and then the episodes are published through the History Engine.
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Stage 4: Writing a traditional history paper based on primary sources.
Historians seldom write pieces as brief as History Engine episodes, yet the brevity of the semester does not allow time for the skill development that might occur through the writing of a paper of more than moderate length. Taking a middle way, this assignment requires that students write a paper approximately ten pages in length, telling a story that makes a point about the larger historical issues that are illustrated through the primary sources in the Wheaton Family Papers.
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Stage 5: Application.
In the final third of the semester, students draw on the skills and experience they have developed to find primary and secondary sources and to write a proposal for a seminar paper.
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Digitization as Pedagogy
The scaffolded assignment presented above takes advantage of opportunities offered by a local collection that has not been previously available to scholars as well as of the collaborative creation of content made possible by the History Engine. Long-term goals of the Wheaton College Digital History Project include publicly available transcriptions linked to images of the original sources. A main goal of the project is accomplished as part of the process of digitization, as students become acquainted with primary sources that open a window onto a time both familiar and strange. Through participation in the larger project, students have the opportunity to “do history,” encountering primary and secondary sources, interpreting the primary sources, and writing about their interpretations in both short and medium‐length formats.
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 As Robert Townsend noted in his December 2010 Perspectives article, few historians use digital tools beyond PowerPoint slides or blogs in their teaching. By the time students reach my own classrooms, they might have had experience using such tools in previous course work or writing, but few have interacted with original primary sources to any significant degree. Reading nineteenth-century script, deciphering hand-written double-entry accounts, interpreting transactions in a day book—all of these are practices of historical research that too few students have the opportunity to experience as part of the process of learning to “do history.” And students express appreciation of such encounters with primary sources. In 2004, students who worked with the journal of Maria Wood noted that they had never encountered such sources before, and they claimed to have left the assignment with a new appreciation for the conditions of life of a young white woman in the post-bellum United States. Such comments are echoed in a 2011 note from a student who completed the financial records assignment described above. This student saw the assignment as part of the total arc of their learning as a history major, writing:
The History Engine project made me excited about history and helped me to feel more confident. Then in Junior Colloquium we worked on cracking Laban Morey Wheaton’s Account Books, a truly hands-on approach to history and a really interesting project as well. Then there was this past year where we explored women’s history, and I finally realized that I actually had a good grasp on history!
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Two contexts are relevant for understanding the significance of the WCDHP: works that address implications of digital innovations for the future of liberal education, and other digital humanities projects that include undergraduates. Though many books have been published in the past several years criticizing higher education in the United States, few have made positive suggestions. MacArthur Foundation fellows Cathy Davidson and David Theo Goldberg have presented an exception. In their 2009 report, “The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age,” Davidson and Goldberg presented ten principles they considered central to rethinking education in the twenty-first century: self-learning, horizontal structures, a shift from individual authority to collective credibility, de-centered pedagogy, networked learning, open source education, learning as connectivity and interactivity, lifelong learning, learning institutions as mobilizing networks, and flexible scalability and simulation. The utility of many of these principles is upheld in such educational psychology research as that of George Kuh, who recommends pedagogies that make use of such “high impact practices” as project-based learning and undergraduate research. In their initiative Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP), the American Association of Colleges and Universities has endorsed such high impact practices as well. I read all of these as parallel to the AHA recommendation that students “do history.”7
¶ 29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Like other projects in which undergraduates have contributed to knowledge creation in the humanities over the past seven years, the WCDHP blends textual transcription and markup with attention to principles of discipline-specific research. Our project offers students in history courses an opportunity to learn that close reading of primary sources can open up new insights into the lives of people in the past. Such an opportunity to “do history” parallels projects that faculty members in humanities disciplines have undertaken at other small residential liberal arts colleges. In more than one instance, such undertakings involve undergraduates in projects housed at larger research universities.
¶ 30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 The Perseus Library at Tufts University, for example, includes enabling undergraduate research as a significant theme. The Perseus website lists numerous projects to which undergraduates might contribute. And the website promotes the use of such tools as Treebank, which give students the opportunity to adopt texts, add them to Treebank, and use the tool to compare their texts to others within the collection.
¶ 31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Classicists Chris Blackwell and Tom Martin have contributed digital texts to the Perseus Library that demonstrate the expanded possibilities that digital publication has brought to Classical Studies. Their Homer Multitext makes use of new digital images of extant written fragments of Homeric text to give undergraduates opportunities to contribute to the creation of a reference resource that improves on the previously accepted scholarly authority on these texts. Blackwell and Martin argue that newly available digital images offered undergraduate Classics majors an opportunity to do “real scholarship,” transcribing from better copies of the original sources than earlier scholars had had access to, and creating a better resource for future scholars in the field.8
¶ 32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 Classics is far from the only field in which undergraduates contribute to a larger project hosted by a research university. Rachel Buurma, Assistant Professor of English at Swarthmore College, received a 2010 Community Contribution Award from the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE) based on courses in which her students contribute to the University of Pennsylvania’s Early Novels Database. The Tri-College Consortium is in fact home to a number of instances in which undergraduates do significant work in digital humanities. At Haverford College, Associate Professor of English Laura McGrane asks students to create online archives based on their research in literary history. Bryn Mawr College student Jen Rajchel wrote an entirely digital senior thesis about the poetry of Marianne Moore; Rajchel was also a chief organizer of a student-initiated digital humanities conference, Re: Humanities, that was hosted at Bryn Mawr in March 2011, and will be held there again in March 2012.9
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If learning is best achieved through scaffolded, project-based assignments, digitization of primary sources offers historians one way to help their students learn the processes of historical research and writing. When such sources are part of local, previously hidden collections, those students collaborate in creating digital versions of texts that add to the sum of available information about the past.
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About the author: Kathryn Tomasek teaches nineteenth-century U.S. and U.S. Women’s History at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. In addition to her work as Co-Director of the Wheaton College Digital History Project with Wheaton College Archivist and Special Collections Curator Zephorene L. Stickney, she has written analog articles about women and children in Fourierist communities, about finding feminist utopia in Alcott’s March family novels, and about constructions of race and gender in a short story by L. Maria Child.
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- Robert B. Townsend, “A Profile of the History Profession, 2010,” Perspectives (October 2010), http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2010/1010/1010pro1.cfm; “How Is New Media Reshaping the Work of Historians?”, Perspectives (November 2010), http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2010/1011/1011pro2.cfm; “Assimilation of New Media into History Teaching: Some Snapshots from the Edge,” Perspectives (December 2010), http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2010/1012/1012pro1.cfm. ↩
- For a definition of hidden collections, see <http://clir.org/hiddencollections/index.html>. ↩
- Only one review of the most up-to-date history of the college was published: Dexter L. Alexander, review of Wheaton College, 1834-1957: A Massachusetts Family Affair by Paul C. Helmreich, History of Education Quarterly, 43/1 (Spring, 2003):140-143. ↩
- Tomasek, Kathryn et al. “Encoding Text, Revealing Meaning: Implications of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) for Small Liberal Arts Colleges.” International Journal of Technology, Knowledge and Society 1.3 (2006): 157-164. ↩
- Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (New York: Vintage, 1991); Steven Stoll, Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2002). ↩
- Personal correspondence in possession of author. ↩
- Cathy Davidson and David Theo Goldberg, “The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age,” John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Reports on Digital Media and Learning (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. 2009), 26- 35. ↩
- Christopher Blackwell and Thomas R. Martin, “Technology, Collaboration, and Undergraduate Research,” Digital Humanities Quarterly, 3/1 (2009). Retrieved from http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/3/1/000024/000024.html ↩
- McGrane presented her students’ work in a NITLE Digital Scholarship Seminar in February 2011. Her slides are available through a link on the website for the seminar: <http://www.nitle.org/live/events/121-digital-scholarship-seminar-digital-scholarship-in>. ↩