Student Digital Research and Writing on Slavery: Problems and Possibilities

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 13 In Holly Springs, Mississippi, where the historically black Rust College where I teach is located, there are not less than a half dozen intact former slave cabins still situated behind their respective “big houses.” In addition to the town’s architecture, most streets are named for the town’s founding families, many of whom were owners of slaves. For the past two years, I have invited students taking my Composition II (research and writing) course to go on a walking tour of the town, and we have had an opportunity also to walk through the antebellum structures of both master and slave. Were it not for this tour, students at Rust would not likely know of the existence of architectural remnants of slavery, for they exist very much on the periphery of most of our students’ modern perspectives. This experiential study of history is part of the introduction I provide to the study of American slavery and African American Civil War experience, an ongoing research focus for the course. Students enrolled in my sections have had an option either to focus on this history as their course project, or to propose any other topic. In the two years in which I have offered this option, about twenty percent of my students have embarked upon historical work, becoming involved as student-researchers in the Eaton-Bailey-Williams Freedpeople’s Transcription Project (hereafter referred to as the Freedpeople’s Transcription Project or FTP). 1

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The Freedpeople’s Transcription Project is my own historical research project, which is centered upon transcription and analysis of a Civil War contraband camp register. 2 The record includes names of more than 2,100 formerly enslaved persons living at a Memphis, Tennessee camp during the war, and more than eight hundred of their former masters. Since 2010, the partially-transcribed register, aptly named the Register of Freedmen (ROF), has been available online. 3 In the first year in which Rust students were involved in the project, 2012, they were assigned to research slave holders from Marshall County, where the college is located, as well as those from two nearby Tennessee counties. The objective of this second phase of FTP, following the initial transcription, was to create, from traditional, ten-page research papers, short (100 to 250-word) biographies that would be published to a project wiki. A project goal was to have the wiki, Digisense, complement the ROF so that the wartime document would begin to take on dimension, or, in real terms, enable living descendants of formerly enslaved persons included in the record to learn something of their ancestors’ former owner(s). 4 An overwhelming majority of the slave owners were from northwest Mississippi and southwest Tennessee although a total of eleven states were represented as former residences. Because so many of our students come from the main areas represented in the ROF, I considered the possibility, if not likelihood, that some students might discover a personal connection to the record. I perhaps even hoped that this would happen.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Click to view the Digisense Wikispace in a new tab/window.Click to view the Digisense Wikispace in a new tab/window.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 1 The peculiar and perhaps ambitious goals of FTP bring together pedagogical and social aims. The historical work, always intended to be published to the Web, is a clear example of the kind of digital activism taking place both within college and university communities, among special interest groups such as genealogists, and with individuals. Without this important work, fewer historically-significant documents, photographs, and other material items would be available to the public. In the case of the ROF, fewer African Americans would know of the 150-year-old log of persons living at Camp Shiloh. Because of the information the ROF provides, it is in fact one of a relative few documents that might be seen as a direct link to the black past in slavery. I have expressed to my students this potential social function of our work at Rust, and they have weighed this potential accomplishment, as well as their own individual feelings about history, to justify choices to either become involved in the work or to choose other research focuses.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 From the outset of this initiative I have been hyper-conscious of the ethics of merging teaching and learning within an institutional setting with social activism. I find some justification for the merger in the idea and practice of service learning (SL), which FTP most certainly is. Still, I realize that unlike with perhaps most SL projects even if a majority of my students do not discover a personal connection to the ROF, I am nevertheless nudging them into a past that they might—for disclosed or undisclosed reasons–rather not enter. I also have been aware that my students’ work not only assists reconstruction of African American history in general but potentially reconstructs as well the students’ senses of time. In truth, all teaching might be said to have such an effect, but perhaps the teaching of history, not to mention involvement of students in the potential revision of it, more consciously reconstructs both present and past. I have no better proof of possible effects of the work of FTP on some students than from comments offered by them in a post-research survey and in conversations had after the course had ended. The comments ranged from changed attitudes about African American history, slavery, and also the research process to very personal disclosures about mystical experiences. Of the twelve students involved the first year, half shared views and experiences that suggest that they had during the research process become more deeply involved in the work than they had expected to. However, disappointingly, of these six students, a majority chose to end their involvement in our work after the course was over while two, who seemed from the beginning to have a deep interest in and commitment to our subject, chose to continue working on it without course credit or other remuneration. While I feel confident in stating that these two students and others exercised a right of choice in determining their focus for the course, I believe that a new infusion of history into American culture—through digitization and social media—may raise an issue of our students’ rights to their own temporality as we increase their exposure to controversial, historical documents.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 3 The manner in which I have involved students in FTP might also be thought of as crowdsourcing. In theory, having twelve or more students a semester researching slave owners would develop our project wiki, Digisense, much faster than I could have done by myself or even with the help of outside members. However, one significant failure of student involvement in FTP has been their hesitance to buy into the idea of membership in the Digisense site, reluctance that has translated into most of them not uploading the biographies of the slave holders assigned to them. In fact, of our first twelve researchers, only one uploaded his writing. I myself, with student permission obtained, published the work of some of the others. The process of publication was fairly simple. All of the researchers had membership in the wiki and editing permission. They were given a brief tutorial on publishing to the site, but their biographies had to be approved by me prior to publication. The biographies were abstracted from a more traditional required paper, which was due near the end of the course. The longer paper was in fact the main work of the class, making up the bulk of their grades and included several steps (a bibliography and an annotated bibliography, for instance) and drafts. By comparison, the biography was worth only five percent of the grade, equal to a required PowerPoint presentation to be delivered also in the last couple of days of the class. Clearly, practical matters such as completing the various course assignments and consideration of incentives for performing well on one type of work versus another played a part in the low-level of participation by the students in the project wiki. When the course ended, I quickly realized that student buy-in could undoubtedly be improved by weighting the wiki participation more heavily, placing it at the center of the course, and having it take the place of the PowerPoint. Issues of timing and student evaluation of requirements would be easy to fix. However, I would for the time being not be able to substitute digital publication of the short biographies for the traditional paper (its structure, length, and purpose), moving the biographies from placement which may have felt to the students like an afterthought to the center of our course activities. I considered that in the future changing student views of digital publication might be achieved through intense moral suasion—stronger statements by me concerning the potential value of our work to the public.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 In fact, several students expressed in a post-research survey just such an evaluation of the work even without their own active participation in final digital publication. 5 One such student, Larance, a social work major, wrote concerning a paucity of information currently available on American slave owners:

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 1 Certain information should be available, and because slavery was such a big part of American history, the biography of a slave-owner should be one of those things. Such records should be kept accurate and able to be easily accessed by anyone, but in particular, African Americans. 6

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 4 Larance’s sense of “historical accountability” comes through in his comment, yet his passionate remarks do not include a suggestion that persons like himself—a student, African American, and a private individual–might become providers of the desired information. 7 In fact, Larance did not publish his research, and he was no longer involved in FTP after the course despite the fact that he had indicated on his survey that he would likely continue such research. I did not speak further with him about his decisions, and while I would continue to see him around campus he never again mentioned the topic of slavery. For most of his peers as well, involvement in the project ended with the course.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Two other students, Naomi and Joshua, both English majors, immediately following the class expressed interest in continuing the work. For Naomi, investigations into the life of Ebenezer Nelms Davis, one of the largest slave owners in Marshall County, had become political. She had been outraged to learn that Davis had owned a second plantation, in Alabama. After learning that he had with some of his slaves fled there during the war, she concluded that as war had approached, he had become even more committed to slavery. Before our class had ended, she and another student, Terry—he researching Mississippi Governor Joseph Matthews—had engaged in several heated debates on the question of whether slave owners and slave holding were humane. A month after the end of the course, Naomi revised, for an upcoming undergraduate research conference, her initial paper, this time framing it around the central question of slavery and (in)humanity. Her biography of Davis would eventually be published at Digisense, but she expressed little interest in helping to develop the wiki. Rather, she seemed especially motivated by more traditional forums and publication. Joshua too prepared a paper for the conference, yet, for him, a strong interest in Internet research seemed to lead naturally to active involvement in the project wiki. He was the only student to publish his work there without my nudging or assistance.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 The level of student participation in our project wiki should not be the sole standard by which I judge the success either of Digisense or FTP, which I had hoped to get off of the ground at Rust because of the college’s history and mission, its location, and the demographics of its student population. Not yet having achieved for FTP the level of participation I had hoped for, I have nevertheless reveled in the fact that Naomi and Joshua have continued the research, even working on related papers this past summer while studying as fellows at Emory. I see their conventional work as paralleling writings published at Digisense; however, I have given serious thought to a question of whether more traditional forms of writing and publication not only better fit student purposes—a focus on course completion—but if more traditional writing assignments, because they have a clear beginning and ending and because they usually remain private, also are a buffer between the student and the public on the one hand and the student and uncertain elements on the other hand. Simply put, I thought maybe students are reticent about allowing the public to read their writing even when it is offered anonymously. Entry into the public realm of the Internet may in their minds decrease their sense of control over their work as well as their presence in the universe of the Internet. Larance’s comments, for instance, might be described as pre-activist in that he has not yet imagined himself as a public researcher/writer. His hesitance may involve several issues that include privacy and the nature of the topic of slavery. These issues taken together may suggest some concern not solely for protecting privacy but for protecting one’s sense of self in history. While on the surface of things these critical issues seem not to have been a concern for Joshua, who in fact has continually sought engagement with the public about our work, Naomi’s view of public interest in her research is expressed in a description she gives of her experience visiting one of the town’s antebellum homes. In her conference paper, she wrote that she felt “swarmed” by Holly Springs’ elite matrons and gentleman, who held her captive to their entreaties concerning the “better” sides of slavery and the benevolence of their ancestors. 8 Long after the visit, Naomi’s experience as a researcher of slavery continued to be characterized by this same sense of being swarmed or overwhelmed if not by actual persons then by subconscious thoughts expressed mostly in her dreams. Joshua too indicated that the theme of slavery was surfacing in his dreams.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 In the fall of 2012, Naomi and I were selected as William Winter Fellows and would in February of 2013 attend together the 2013 Natchez Film and Literary Festival, whose theme for the year was the Civil War in Film. At this point, Naomi continued experiencing a heightened sense of the past, and, as we traveled even deeper into the South, her feelings growing more intense, she implored me to explain to future students who might become involved in FTP what she felt was a spiritual or mystical aspect of the work. I promised her that I would while also explaining that my neglect in doing so with her cohort was due to an assumed inappropriateness in bridging, especially in a traditional research course involving mostly conventional methodology, the spiritual and the academic. I had doubted not so much that the students wouldn’t want to involve themselves in anything “ghostly,” but that the modern field of composition studies lacked a contemporary discourse for even broaching the topic of the spiritual in writing and research. Even while Naomi was attending and I was teaching at a private, religious-affiliated institution, I had found no easy way to suggest that doing research on slavery, taking, as Larance put it, “steps back into history,” might in fact engage a cosmology and an epistemology more in keeping with my students’ African ancestors than with the perspectives of their living elders or the teaching practices of most of the professors at Rust. How might I reasonably suggest that a step back might in fact be a spiritual crossing of a delicate line between The Good Red Road of the living and the blue or black roads that are “the worlds of the grandfathers and grandmothers?” 9 Despite Rust’s Christian heritage, students of this faith do not likely consider their own prayers to Spirit or Jesus’ transcendence of time and space as belonging to the same universe in which they might unconsciously engage ancestral spirits. If such beliefs were included in the faiths of their enslaved ancestors, there is reason to believe that such a belief system has not been passed on to our modern students. The idea that writers and researchers might experience visitation or assistance from the spirit world might resonate with creative writers who insist on the reality of the muse, but how might one explain such experience as a part of “objective” research? Both in his paper and in subsequent conversations, Joshua suggested that we were indeed awakening sleeping dogs, an act about which many of his family had warned him. Journeying into the past he saw both as a movement and as a reopening. 10

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 One could argue that engagement of the spiritual is a decentering of the subject or researcher. For many years, I have been intrigued by the research theory and practice of anthropologist Paul Stoller, who has suggested not that the ethnographer is merely decentered but that she is consumed. 11 Offering a sensual and embodied scholarship that challenges Cartesianism, Stoller goes beyond resurrection of the human body–as text–to an acceptance of the body as receiver of spirits. He writes, “. . . I argue that embodiment is not primarily textual; rather, the sentient body is culturally consumed by a world filled with forces, smells, textures, sights, sounds, and tastes, all of which trigger cultural memories.” 12 Might it be appropriate to ask if the kind of information found in the ROF, as well as findings of my student-researchers concerning former slave owners, is experienced through the bodies of these students if not through their whole beings? And could this be the reason that a majority of them chose to limit their involvement in slavery research to the confines of our course? The challenger to Naomi’s thesis concerning slavery and humanity, Terry, resurrecting Gov. Matthews, wrote of his own experience:

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 It was almost as if I was living out his life through third person just by reading, and trying to imagine the things he had been through or seen. . . I couldn’t put the book down or turn off my computer while doing research. However, I was still far from done with my journey traveling through this gentleman’s life. 13

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 As with Larance, Terry, a biology major, did not choose to continue his involvement in FTP despite or perhaps because of feeling, in Stoller’s words, consumed. In conversation with me, Terry stated that he had had trouble sleeping during his research experience. Focus and extra energy, their source or sources unclear, had kept him late into the night working on recovering the life of Gov. Matthews. During the course, Terry would seem to have given over control of his own habits of structuring time.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 7 In my own field of Rhetoric and Composition, scholars have been renewing considerations of the once abstract concept of time and its potential role in the teaching of writing. Deborah Mutnick, arguing for a reconfiguration of a cultural polarity of academic writing and personal writing, suggests that Bakhtin’s chronotope, or time and space, might be a way to invite young writers to engage “the personal” in the writing classroom. 14 Mutnick’s appeal is part of ongoing debate of the place of the personal within composition, and in her approach to this question, a turn toward investigation of time and space in the lives of students, she perhaps unwittingly expands the universe of the classroom as she nudges students to go where they have perhaps not thought to or been encouraged to go before. On the one hand, this turn brings the political as well into the classroom in a new way since, as Mutnick explains, “worldviews and social realities are forged by the interaction of space and time, history and location, content and form.” 15 Because students, like their instructors, are situated within certain temporalities, both constructed and acculturated, they cannot be said to be innocent of the implications of the worldviews and social realities that rely on the temporal and spatial constructions. Does this mean that neither I nor my student-researchers can claim innocence as some of them seek to keep history at bay and as I at the same time gently push them to engage it? Mutnick’s sense of the value of the chronotope may be more worldly than spiritual; however, I think she would agree both that student writing about “the personal” might invite the spiritual and that teaching that suppresses the supernatural constructs time and space for students and perhaps teachers alike. It may be that most, if not all, of my students have accepted this order of things: an efficient world that leaves the pasts of those who were enslaved, as well as those who enslaved, unexplored. However, while Rust students taking my Composition II course may have had the option not to engage the topic of slavery, or to shy away from playing an active role in disseminating within the digital sphere information on the subject, ongoing digitization of historic records like the ROF make it all but inevitable that not only they but the entire world will soon have to confront problems and possibilities that come from widespread re-infusion of the historical. In his theorization of the work of archivists, James O’Toole writes that historians are just beginning to use records to understand the slave’s point of view. 16 He is correct, and the digital universe promises both that such use will multiply exponentially even in the next few years and that the democratization of access to records) is also likely to increase continually. Theoretical, political, and pedagogical implications of these two facts cannot be ignored if we intend our students to be digitally active.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 About the author: Alisea Williams McLeod is an Assistant Professor in the Humanities/English Division at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi. She specializes in critical literacy and is especially interested in the ways that students and others construct time and space.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Notes:

  1. 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 3
  2. John Eaton, Jr. was General Superintendent of Freedmen in charge of the supervision of wartime camps for fugitive blacks in Tennessee and Arkansas. Africa Bailey and Daniel Williams, former slaves, enlisted in 1863 in Eaton’s 63rd Regiment. Both Bailey’s and Williams’s families lived at Camp Shiloh in Memphis; their names are included in the Register of Freedmen, the Civil War document on which FTP is based.
  3. Thousands of African Americans who sought refuge behind Union lines during the war lived mostly temporarily in camps opened by the Union army. The first, arguably, was at Fortress Monroe, Virginia.
  4. “Register of Freedmen,” Camp Shiloh, Memphis, Tennessee, circa 1864, Last Road to Freedom website, http://www.lastroadtofreedom.com/uploads/3/1/1/7/3117447/register_of_freedmen_ii.pdf.
  5. “Marshall County, Mississippi, Slave Owners in the 1864 Register of Freedmen, Digisense wiki, http://digisense.wikispaces.com/Marshall%20County%20Mississippi%20Slave%20owners.
  6. Fifty-two percent of students enrolled in the course returned one of two separate surveys (based on research topic). Fifty percent of students conducting slavery research returned surveys, three choosing to respond anonymously.
  7. This student and others gave permission for their names, survey responses, and papers to be used in this essay. Larance Carter, “The Life and Lineage of Matthew Lacy,” (unpublished paper, Rust College, Holly Springs, Mississippi, April 18, 2012). The traditional research paper for this course was in fact offered as an I-Search paper in which students were encouraged to reflect upon their process and experience.
  8. I borrow this term from James O’Toole, “Archives and Historical Accountability: Toward a Moral Theology,” Archavaria 58 (Fall 2004 ): 4.
  9. Naomi and Joshua both visited the home of the descendants of the former owner of slave Henry Totten. Naomi Rahn, “’To Treat the Slaves as Humanely as Their Conduct Will Allow’: A Question of Humanity or Inhumanity” (paper presented at the Mid-South Undergraduate Research Conference, Southern Arkansas University, Magnolia, Arkansas, October 3-5, 2012). The title of Naomi’s conference paper is taken from a contract between Ebenezer Davis and an overseer. It is included in the Audubon Mississippi/Strawberry Plains Finley Collection, MUM01701, Series II, Department of Archives and Special Collections, University of Mississippi.
  10. Jamie Sams and David Carson, Medicine Cards (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 13, 22.
  11. Joshua Stampley Gardner, untitled, unpublished Paper (Rust College, Holly Springs, Mississippi, April 18, 2012), 2.
  12. Paul Stoller, Sensuous Scholarship (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), 55.
  13. Ibid, 55.
  14. Terry Dent, “Is There a Good or Bad Slave Owner: a Questioning of Slave Owners” (unpublished paper, Rust College, Holly Springs, Mississippi, April 18, 2012), 5-6.
  15. Deborah Mutnick, “Time and Space in Composition Studies: ‘Through the Gates of the Chronotope’,” Rhetoric Review 25 (2006).
  16. Ibid, 43.
  17. O’Toole, 13.
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Source: https://webwriting2013.trincoll.edu/crossing-boundaries/mcleod-2013/?doing_wp_cron=1716001025.1313159465789794921875