Making History at a History Conference: Bringing Research Mentoring to the AHA Annual Meeting
Benjamin Justice, October 2012
From a graduate student's perspective, the big annual meeting of any research field can be a daunting experience. In a tight job market, the American Historical Association plays host to high-stakes job interviews, appointments with potential publishers, and conversations with journal editors. And then, of course, there are the paper presentations and discussions. To make conferences more user-friendly for graduate students, the AHA and other associations now offer special mentoring sessions in which graduate students and professors meet informally for advice on various aspects of the profession. As an alumnus of such mentoring programs myself, I think they are a useful and important. Nevertheless there is a cart-before-the-horse quality to our grad student mentoring. Advice on job searches, publication, and life as an assistant professor all presuppose the core activity of our profession: doing research.
Why not bring research mentoring to the AHA annual meeting? With the world's leading scholars descending on a single city for an entire week, the annual meeting provides a unique opportunity to bring experts and novices together to "do history." With the right group, the right problem, in the right archive, the potential for learning (not to mention doing interesting research) seems enormous. The enemy, of course, is time.
How can we bring research mentoring to the history conference? Is it worthwhile? For two years the annual meeting of the History of Education Society (HES) has offered archival research mentoring sessions concurrently with the regular program. While different in location, content and scope, these projects offer clear lessons in the possibility for meaningful research mentoring at an academic conference. With sufficient lead time and two days in an archive, graduate students and faculty have engaged in a structured, guided experience that covered the range of the historical research process, from the identification of a question, to reviewing literature, planning methodology, engaging in actual archival research, and finally, presenting results. And we have had a blast doing it.
The 2009 annual meeting of the HES met in downtown Philadelphia, a city rich with archives. After sketching out the idea of bringing scholars together with grad students in a single archive, I invited my colleague Kim Tolley (Univ. of Notre Dame de Namur) to help coordinate the project, and selected the library of the American Philosophical Society (APS) for our site. Not only does the APS have an outstanding facility and staff, but it also contains the perfect-sized project: In 1795, the APS sponsored an essay contest to design a nation-wide system of public schools. The contest attracted seven entries and published the two winners. The five losing essays were relegated to obscurity and their authors remain anonymous. The APS library collection contains documents relevant to the contest, and many, many more on educational thought in the early republic. We aimed to solve the 200-year-old mystery: Who wrote the losing essays? Beyond that simple question, however we identified a variety of broader ones: What can the essays, and knowing the identities of the authors, tell us about the politics of education in early America? About mass education seen through lenses of gender, class, religion and race? What kinds of research methods can help us identify anonymous authors? The research project was authentic, interesting, and seemed to be the right size for a team of six graduate students.
Two years later, in fall 2011, Ann Marie Ryan (Loyola Univ.), Dionne Danns (Indiana Univ.) and I planned a second research mentoring session for the HES meeting in Chicago. Among the city's many archival treasures, Ryan identified the little-known Chicago Public Schools Archive as an ideal location for collaborative research, and selected the controversial decision to create Local School Councils for Chicago Public Schools in 1988 as our focal point. Our six graduate students identified individual areas of interest that clustered into two main themes: One group focused on parent training by and for these councils, as well as the link between this effort and previous waves of community-based reform. The second group looked at local, state, and national levels of reform and interracial tensions within Chicago's black and Latino communities.
Can one do quality historical research in the short timeframe offered during an annual meeting? Yes, but only if the project begins before the team reaches the archive and extends beyond the conference for those who wish to continue. Since the ultimate goal is mentoring, however, the quantity of ground covered matters much less than the quality of the experience.
After advertising for applicants and selecting our participants, we distributed reading lists and then held online meetings. Our goal was to help students shape individual research agendas and coordinate our plans of attack. We kept our archivist in the loop as much as possible. Because the HES annual meeting runs Wednesday afternoon through Sunday, we were limited to two days, Thursday and Friday, in the archives. In addition, we scheduled a Saturday meeting to plan our Sunday presentation session, with students speaking informally about their experience for five minutes apiece, with faculty moderating. For Chicago, Ryan and Danns made significant improvements to the original blueprint, including using face-to-face internet meetings (as opposed to a chat room), and more importantly, organizing group debriefing sessions for each day at the archive, in which students not only reported back, but discussed each other's findings and strategized about the future.
As we engaged in archival research, all team members balanced time spent on this project with participation in other HES conference events. (Occasionally students and faculty members had to leave the archives, though most remained for the entire two days.) In addition, the Philadelphia group got a behind-the-scenes tour of the collections of the APS, which included such astonishing artifacts as a draft of the Declaration of Independence, the journals of Lewis and Clark, and Benjamin Franklin's personal library. The Chicago group was treated to lunches with archivist Richard Seidel and historian Jeffrey Mirel.
Was two days in an archive enough? By Friday afternoon, the Philadelphia team had unmasked one essayist with certainty and had strong evidence for another. The team also managed to complete transcriptions of handwritten documents and began exploring the collections for their individual research interests. With a more open agenda, the Chicago students were able to make strong headway on their research projects and have rich discussions about what they were finding. More importantly students in both programs had learned about the basics of research, including how to formulate questions, craft a research agenda, and work in an archive. Meanwhile they were able to collaborate with other historians, meet colleagues with similar interests, and have fun.
From Collaboration to Individual Publication
The collaborative nature of both projects struck all of us as the most positive aspect of the experience. Much of the productive work came from discussions with each other—in meetings, across the archive table or even across the room, as participants plowed through the documents, shared their ideas and assisted each other. All this collaboration provided an excellent learning opportunity. It also posed an interesting and unresolved challenge.
Most historians are intellectual loners. We are trained that way and encouraged to publish that way. Typically graduate history students in the United States are not trained to do collaborative research—especially not in archives or in the presence of primary documents. Collaboration comes after research, in writing groups or on panels at conferences.
From the very beginning of the research mentorship program, we wanted each research project to be authentic, so that students could eventually write a research paper of their own, if they chose. We defined authenticity in individual terms. Yet even during the initial online planning sessions it became clear that each part of the project benefitted immensely from the input of all members, so that when students determined who would do which tasks, or present on which issues, there was a good deal of overlap, common effort, and common thinking.
Four of the six original participants from the 2009 project in Philadelphia presented peer-reviewed papers at the 2010 Annual Meeting. These papers were single-authored. Moving forward again, three of the original six graduate students of the Philadelphia group will join six award-winning senior scholars in contributing chapters to an anthology on education in the Early Republic. The book, entitled The Founding Fathers, Education, and "The Great Contest": The American Philosophical Society Prize of 1797, is scheduled for release in 2013 with Palgrave MacMillan. In addition to chapter contributions, it will include the first-ever complete set of education essays from the APS contest. The introduction and acknowledgements will certainly mention the efforts of all students in the project.
It is too early to tell how the 2011 Chicago group will fare in carrying their experience through to the publication phase, though students unanimously reported that their experience was worthwhile. Significantly, none of the students in either year's project reported feeling like they "missed out" on other aspects of the annual meeting.
Indeed, there need not be a conflict between the traditional conference mode and an active research experience. The chance to rub shoulders with colleagues in an actual archive, if structured well, could make an exciting addition to an existing conference format. For graduate students in particular, there is no substitute for hands-on training in historical research as the first, fundamental step in entering the community of historians. What better place to make history than the history conference?
Benjamin Justice is associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University. He is the author of numerous works on the history of American education, including The War That Wasn't: Religious Conflict and Compromise in the Common Schools of New York State, 1865–1900 (SUNY, 2005).
He wishes to express his thanks to Dionne Danns, Karen Graves, Philo Hutcheson, Ann Marie Ryan, Richard Seidel, Kim Tolley, Jon Zimmerman, the administration and staff at the American Philosophical Society, and the graduate-student participants, for their assistance and participation in the mentoring research projects described in the article.