Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


Dismantling the Minstrel: A Pedagogical Approach

Introduction: Stains of Cork

A buffoon is a figure who cannot succeed in his performance without “failing” in his role. In minstrelsy, many of the characters are buffoons whose failure elides the actor’s identity so that blacks are stereotyped as a race that cannot control their behavior and thus become objects of derision. Blackface extends negative perceptions, regardless of the actor’s race beneath the burnt cork, because these roles are meant to reify stereotypes.

De Vere’s Negro Sketches, End Men’s Gags, and Conundrums.
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The performances I have chosen for this lesson plan are geared toward the construction of “black” men unable to act seriously. This lesson plan aims to teach notions of blackface as well as the cultural construction of minstrelsy that has incorporated the stereotypes beneath the cork. I have included three transcripts of short minstrel shows from the book De Vere’s Negro Sketches, End Men’s Gags, and Conundrums, which are available in Readex’s online collection Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922: From the Library Company of Philadelphia. These sketches include “Bones as a Legitimate Actor,” “He Would Be an Actor,” and “Dar’s De Money” (a malapropism for “Desdemona”).

Dismantling the Minstrel: A Pedagogical Approach


“Be Not Partaker in the Sin”: The Language of Abstinence in 19th-Century Abolition and Temperance Texts

With deep roots in evangelism and a heavy focus on boycott, negative action, and righteous rejection as the means of social improvement, the temperance movement and abolitionist movement of the 19th century were undertaken with some of the same religious arguments. The collaboration between the two is widely known, but the mechanisms beyond religious motivation are deserving of further exploration. Despite a widespread sense in the North (and a nearly universal one in the South) that these movements should be carefully separated (Carson 660), temperance continued to overlap with abolitionism. The heart of this collaboration may be revealed by exploring the language of archival primary documents printed by abolitionist societies. Suffused with the language of boycott and purity, these texts, which are taken from the Readex database of Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922: From the Library Company of Philadelphia, reveal a concern with maintaining middle-class values of abstinence through refusing the touch of slavery with the same fervor that a virtuous citizen might refuse tobacco or alcohol. I suggest the application of sociological temperance theory to the literary analysis of anti-slavery documents published from 1845 to 1861. Through this lens, I identify the correspondences between the two movements as results of a middle-class preoccupation with performative refusal, and I propose that this understanding forms a vital underlying component of the 19th-century activist voice.

From The Child’s Anti-Slavery Book.
Click to open full page in PDF.

“Be Not Partaker in the Sin”: The Language of Abstinence in 19th-Century Abolition and Temperance Texts


Confessing to Nothing: The Agency of Confession in Nat Turner and John E. Cook

On October 16, 1859, the white abolitionist John Brown and 21 followers attacked the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, an event that secured Brown a place in the hall of iconic American personalities and which, paradoxically, obscured the men who sacrificed with him. Indeed, while volumes have been filled about Brown, there is a serious dearth of information surrounding his band of militants, so much so that many students might believe Brown acted alone. One such militant in particular was so invaluable to Brown’s campaign that it would be historically ignorant to overlook him.

John E. Cook.
Image source: green-wood.com

His name was Captain John E. Cook, brother-in-law of Indiana Governor A.P. Willard, poet, womanizer, respected abolitionist—and if it weren’t for the Afro-American Imprints collection—a continued mystery for myself and others. A Readex Archive of Americana collection, Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922: From the Library Company of Philadelphia is an enormous archive of important documents relating to the African-American literary and cultural experience. The collection represents more than just a compendium of slave narratives; it is a gateway to a hidden cultural past shared by slaves, freemen, abolitionists, slave owners, writers and activists. It should truly serve as the logical starting point to any scholarly inquiry related to pre-20th century African-American studies.

Confessing to Nothing: The Agency of Confession in Nat Turner and John E. Cook


Travel to New Worlds: Reconceptualizing Research and Early America with Early American Imprints

One of the challenges—but also one of the joys—of teaching classes on colonial American literature is that students often enter the classroom with few preconceived notions and little background knowledge in the period.  As my comments on my course evaluations have attested, students are often surprised to find that early American literary study involves not just the Puritans but also the study of authors of various genders and cultural and social backgrounds. Because most students have little prior exposure to early American literatures, my courses must address not only the content matter and themes of the texts but must also teach students to read texts written with unfamiliar literary strategies and for very different audiences than twenty-first century college students.  Early American Imprints, Series I (Evans) and II (Shaw-Shoemaker), offer a treasure trove of documents that introduce students not only to a wide range of texts and topics but also to research skills necessary to study in the Humanities.

Travel to New Worlds: Reconceptualizing Research and Early America with Early American Imprints


Student Scholars: Using Early American Imprints to Introduce Students to the Era and to the Field

In the English program in which I teach, majors are required to take one seminar in American literature before the Civil War, one option of which is Colonial American Literature. This course is not generally high on their list of priorities, and students grumble that the “early stuff” is inaccessible and boring—and, despite my love of the time period, I can see that Mary Rowlandson cannot quite compete, for sheer enjoyment, with writers they encounter elsewhere. However, I often find that what hooks students into an (occasionally begrudging) interest in colonial texts is the sense of the real people behind the words. In an effort to promote that interest in colonial people, and in the hope of encouraging them to think about themselves as budding scholars, I decided to make a recent Colonial American Literature class dive into the Early American Imprints collection.

Student Scholars: Using Early American Imprints to Introduce Students to the Era and to the Field


Directing Student Research in Original Sources: A Radical Republicans Experiment


As a full-time high school teacher who aspires to be an independent scholar and a mom, I am always multitasking. My lesson plan for teaching about the Radical Republicans of the Civil War and Reconstruction Era was conceived to serve more than one purpose. On the one hand, it would provide the core of our class discussion and individual engagement with the subject of the Civil War Era. Students would employ and develop their skills for research, writing, and presentation. They would work alone and in groups. Best of all, they would make contributions to my own research project—about Radical Republicans—turning up original documents and making connections that I can hope to include in my forthcoming book, The Revolutionary Republicans, which will be published in 2014 by Hill and Wang.

Directing Student Research in Original Sources: A Radical Republicans Experiment


An Undergraduate's Reflections on Original American History Research: How Online Access to Historical Newspapers Helped Prepare an Award-Winning Tea Party Study

Of all the events that occurred during America’s colonial era perhaps none more immediately conjures up images than the Boston Tea Party, when patriots boarded English ships to destroy taxed tea. Nearly a year and a half later, on April 19, 1775, the skirmish between those patriots and British Regulars at Lexington and Concord provoked the shot that was heard “around the world,” a story with which many Americans are also familiar. Undoubtedly, these events merit widespread recognition, for both were key developments in the establishment of the United States. However, by moving immediately from the Tea Party to the beginning of the Revolution, one neglects crucial moments during those intervening sixteen months that helped develop a pervasive unity necessary for a successful war with Britain. That unity derived in part from responses to the Tea Act of 1773, efforts that were spearheaded in Boston but not isolated there. Indeed, reactions throughout the colonies testify to Massachusetts’ importance as the first colony to act decisively in response to the tea’s arrival. That significance is manifested most clearly in the inspired attitudes of New Yorkers, whose actions affirm the influence of the Bostonians’ decision. 1

An Undergraduate's Reflections on Original American History Research: How Online Access to Historical Newspapers Helped Prepare an Award-Winning Tea Party Study


Pirates, Spies and Dark Nights of the Soul: Entering the Wacky World of Early American Studies

A few years ago, a graduate student told me, "I'm changing fields. I'm switching to the wacky world of Early American Studies."

A few weeks earlier, I had sent her to the microfilm rooms in the University of Minnesota's library with assignments she could complete only by plunging into documents she found there in the two Early American Imprints microfiche series. Commonly called "Evans" or "Shaw-Shoemaker" after the authors of the authoritative bibliographies on which the series were created, they include more than 70,000 items—all extant material printed in the colonies and early republic from 1639 to 1819.

After many hours peering at those curious old documents and their funny typefaces, she surfaced and announced that, despite expecting a wasteland of dry and stupefyingly boring texts, she had discovered in the microfiche a nearly unexplored world of writing that she called wacky but nevertheless found oddly wonderful. Her phrase recalls a famous article about student reaction to early American studies that Daniel Williams published in "Early American Literature": "Not enough Rambo Action."

I find that if I can get students into the actual early documents, they discover that it's all Rambo Action: pirates, soldiers, spies, kings, queens, revolutions, dark nights of the soul, invasions, war and peace, politics, captures and escapes and what we too casually would call religious fanatics. I could have told her so beforehand, but she probably wouldn't have believed me.

Pirates, Spies and Dark Nights of the Soul: Entering the Wacky World of Early American Studies


"Find Ten Primary Sources by Tuesday": Tips for Teaching Students to Use Digital Archives

Many of the topics librarians address in teaching digital archives of historical documents are common to bibliographic instruction of all electronic resources: explain the content and scope, demonstrate searching and show how to print and save searches. Digital archives, however, are sufficiently different from other search tools because their instruction requires a more specialized approach. Several suggestions for effectively teaching such primary source archives follow.

First, explain to your users how using a digital archive will benefit them. While it's easy to spend the limited bibliographic instruction time available on the what and how of the resource—content and searching techniques—it's essential to not neglect the all-important why.

What benefit does a primary source archive offer that a database of journal articles does not? This is a vital information literacy question, and your answer will depend, of course, on the expertise of the users you are teaching. Although historians with extensive experience using primary texts will find the value obvious, it's unlikely that all beginning undergraduates will share that understanding.

Why should students burden themselves with original historical documents—arcane and abstruse as they often are—when they have textbooks available to summarize and interpret the same information? Why would any professor demand such a thing? Teaching digital archives affords you an important opportunity to explore these questions with students. By encouraging an understanding of the value of primary sources—including the potential for original discoveries in unabridged historical documents—users often explore digital archives with a new pleasure in making the required deductions and inferences on their own.



"Behold and Wonder": Early American Imprints as a Tool for Students' Research

Teaching the history and culture of early America to undergraduates is challenging on many fronts. Students' familiarity with the best-known documents of the Revolutionary period can breed either contempt or a reverential awe indistinguishable from ignorance and boredom. The lesser-known material from earlier years presents formidable conceptual obstacles and seldom stays in print very long outside of the excerpts found in anthologies.

In the past decade, online resources have opened up some pedagogical opportunities that can help overcome some of these obstacles in the study of early America. Web-based lectures and research assignments have become indispensable to my own teaching at the University of California, Irvine, where I regularly use early American materials in my lectures for the Humanities Core Course.

Humanities Core is a year-long course that enrolls about 1,200 first-year students. Taught in the usual combination of large lectures followed by small discussion sections, the course satisfies several of our general education requirements, including freshman composition; it is usually the first—and often the only—humanities course students take. Lectures must therefore be challenging but comprehensible to a naïve audience, and they must also equip students with basic research techniques that will allow them to apply what they learn in lectures when writing their own essays.



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