During Spring Semester 2015, Ohio State English Professor Elizabeth Renker oversaw the creation of unique student research projects in her archival research graduate seminar. Typically, the course covers the practicalities, mechanics, and rigors of archival scholarly investigation through hands-on work, particularly in American literature from 1865-1900. Using the Rare Books and Manuscripts Division at Thompson Library, students integrated their original primary research into a larger scholarly conversation in the form of a long research paper.
In conjunction with Piatt Castles' centennial celebration, students presented their research at the Mac-O-Chee Castle in West Liberty, Ohio. Learn more about some of the students' research processes and individual projects below:
Did this seminar correlate with your scholarly interests?
“My main field of interest is African American literature. In the course, I discovered a connection between Sarah Piatt and an African-American woman writer, Pauline Hopkins. My research ultimately led to an unexplored vein of Hopkins scholarship. With improved skills as a researcher, and graduate student, I now have several articles I can publish and a direction for my Program of Study. Lastly, in Dr. Renker’s class, I became a better presenter. In class, we discussed different methods of presenting, conducted simulations in class, and openly shared feedback. The course also provided professional opportunities to present to the public, such as the Memorial Day program 'Salon at Mac-O-Chee.' Professor Renker’s class not only offered a fascinating perspective on nineteenth-century literature; it also created a space to explore and take ownership of what it means to be a literary scholar."
Why did you enroll in this seminar?
“Dr. Renker’s class seemed like it would orient students to the archive experience, from its drudgery and demanded patience to its potential hidden treasures and how to find them -- even its sometimes stringent rules and etiquette. Any successful dissertation must include original research and this class offered a promising first encounter with the wealth of resources.”
What inspired you to pursue research about ‘transatlantic poetry’?
“Because of my scholarly interests in the British empire, I wanted to situate Sarah Piatt outside of a strictly American context. My project's transatlantic focus takes up Piatt's years writing poetry in Ireland (1882-93) during a period of Land Wars and resurgent Irish nationalism. I focused on her poems that sympathize with emigration and Irish economic hardship. My main goal was to determine how Piatt structured responses to her Irish poetry by directing readings of her poems within a tense political climate. By studying the notes, prefaces and strategically placed reviews that surrounded her poetry collections in Ireland, I found that Piatt purposefully aimed to diminish the political resonance of her poetry by separating politics from her aesthetic.”
How did you utilize the archives?
“One of the collections I explored contained multiple readers and primers geared toward grade school children in the late 19th century. One of the prominent pedagogical tools used in the texts is Native American history and mythology. Because my research concentration is focused on Native American and settler interactions, I opted to delve deeper into the history of textbooks in the U.S. educational system from 1884-1912. More specifically, I looked through grade school textbooks within that timeframe to analyze how Native American history and culture was being taught. From there, I developed a set of research questions to foreground my final project for the course: Is the presence of Native Americans in textbooks incidental? Are their images present because they can provide a mythological caricature of a “primitive people” or a “primitive nation” or is there evidence of an interest in teaching Native American history as part of a standard or perhaps non-standard curriculum? My project offered a set of diverse examples of American history textbooks that utilize imagery of Native Americans to teach American history. Finally, I examined the rhetoric employed by the authors to describe Native American culture and history.”
What inspired you to pursue research about ‘stuttering’ in literature?
“Unlike my classmates, who wrote in some way about American poet Sarah Piatt, I wrote about discourses of stuttering in turn-of-the-century America. Herman Melville's novella Billy Budd, about a handsome but tragic sailor who stutters, inspired me to explore views on stuttering in the late 19th century. All scholars who have written about Billy Budd's stutter have interpreted it metaphorically rather than in terms of the historical discourses around stuttering. I wondered if I would be able to find anything in the archive that could point me to those historical views. I found a number of materials related to elocution culture and stuttering schools that claimed to ‘cure’ stuttering.”
What have you learned from this seminar and your research project?
“Of course, I've learned about archival research! I always knew it would be a mix of tedium and moments of excitement; getting to experience that first hand made it less daunting. I was afraid I might not find anything on stuttering, but I ended up finding quite a rich source of material. This experience showed me that you don't know what you'll find in the archives and not having expectations is perfectly fine. There are so many interesting ideas there in the archive that you're bound to find a project there, even if it's not the one you set out to do."