Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.

From Student Researcher to Careful Scholar: Tips from a Lexicographer

As a lexicographer, dictionary web site editor and co-host of the KBPS radio show "A Way With Words," I receive a large number of questions from the public about word histories.

Many of these queries come from students who want help with their studies. As long as I'm not asked to research the entirety of an assignment, I try to provide a few key sources, a few examples of useful searches and to warn them off of sources I know to be misleading or wrong. My overall intent is to educate these students on how to better find digital data for all of their research, that is, to help them become careful scholars.

For example, I can see in the logs of my dictionary web site that some web searchers share the characteristics of bad drivers: either they are too timid or they are too aggressive. The ability of Google to turn up excellent results no matter how poorly a query is composed seems to bring on a high level of impatience. While conducting searches on sites other than Google, these hurried searchers rarely try alternative approaches like breaking compounds up into two words or making two words a single-word compound, using plurals or conjugated forms, or looking for intentional misspellings, such as eye dialect. They also search as if all query functions on all web sites can handle natural language queries, when, in fact, few can. Searchers often misspell words and don't notice. (When they do, I see the correctly spelled word appear immediately after in a new search). So, I tell these students that becoming a careful scholar means to search with an eye for error—his or hers and others'—and to keep in mind the variety and variability of English orthography.

From Student Researcher to Careful Scholar: Tips from a Lexicographer

Dance in Colonial America: A Research Challenge

In 1976 the American Bicentennial created an audience for information about early American dance, but no scholarly resources were available. I took on the challenge and since that time have collected and indexed the raw materials with the help of two grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities (EASMES and PACAN).

Today many relevant primary sources are available online, and some—including several found in the Archive of Americana—challenge widely accepted historical understandings. From these and other resources, I have just completed a comprehensive history of dance in colonial America, covering dance of Native peoples as well as of European and African immigrants.

Here are a few examples of recent findings that have broadened our knowledge of music and dance in 17th- and 18th-century America.

Searching Mary Rowlandson’s description of her experience at a Wampanoag victory dance in 1675, I discovered that the festive clothing of her captors had incongruous European elements probably obtained from traders. Rather than the usual deerskin loin cloth, quill decorations, and detailed body paint, "he was dressed in his Holland shirt, with great laces sewed at the tail of it, he had his silver buttons, his white stockings, his garters were hung round with shillings. . . she had fine red stokins, and white shoes, her hair powdered and face painted red, that was alwayes before black" (Rowlandson, 57).

Dance in Colonial America: A Research Challenge

"Out of the Jaws of Death! Out of the Mouth of Hell!" - Dispatches from the Front during the American Civil War

"We are in the midst of the most terrible battle of the war—perhaps history." 1 So wrote General George McClellan to Chief of Staff Henry Halleck and President Abraham Lincoln before the telegraph wires went dead the morning of September 17, 1862. The wires would remain dead all day, as the battle of Antietam consumed the lives of 6,000 men and the fate of the nation lay in the balance.

Indeed, the first report of Antietam's outcome to reach Lincoln would come not from his generals, but from a reporter, George Smalley of the New York Tribune. Smalley had guessed where the two massive armies would converge, and was there from the beginning, joining General Hooker on horseback. During a crisis early in the battle, Hooker's attention was drawn to Smalley, who was gazing at the battle around him with cool aplomb. "In all the experience which I have had of war," Hooker would later write, "I never saw the most experienced and veteran soldier exhibit more tranquil fortitude and unshaken valor than was exhibited by that young man." 2

Early in the fighting Hooker turned to Smalley and enlisted him as his official messenger to his officers, which put Smalley in one of the most dangerous and important roles on the battlefield. Smalley had two horses shot out from under him, but lived to not only deliver Hooker's orders but to observe the entire battle so keenly that his published report in the Tribune came to be known as the standard against which all battlefield reporting would be measured.

That Smalley managed to do this at all is surprising enough, but that he did it so well almost defies belief. A sample:

"Out of the Jaws of Death! Out of the Mouth of Hell!" - Dispatches from the Front during the American Civil War

Thanks for the Memories, ... and the Documentary Records: Thanksgiving and the History of American Holidays

"Twas founded be th' Puritans to give thanks f'r bein presarved fr'm
th' Indyans, an' . . . we keep it to give thanks we are presarved fr'm th' Puritans."

—Finley Peter Dunne, "'Thanksgiving,' Mr. Dooley's Opinions" (1901)

Holidays are like peaks in a nation's topography. Without them, the landscape would be flat and monotonous; with them, we find places that rise above the everyday world and give us lofty views and broader perspectives. America's national holidays are the extraordinary annual events that help define the United States and its people. On such occasions, Americans tell themselves and the world who they are. They commemorate their origins, call attention to their basic values and ideals, celebrate their good fortune and express thanks to those who created, nurtured and protected their nation. All these qualities make Thanksgiving especially promising terrain for American historians, ground that's easy to chart because historical actors have left such prominent signposts—documentary records—of their festivity.

Thanksgiving is America's most cherished holiday. The autumn festival's nearly universal appeal comes peculiarly from its elasticity and ambiguity. Invented in the 17th century, Thanksgiving has been continually reinvented ever since. Though it began as an exclusive tribal rite for white Anglo-Saxon Protestant New Englanders, Thanksgiving has been appropriated generally by Americans of various tribes well beyond the New England Pale. Some might quibble with Mr. Dooley's historical analysis, but he was surely correct in noticing the value—to immigrants and other marginalized Americans—in the creative recycling of this vital American tradition.

Thanks for the Memories, ... and the Documentary Records: Thanksgiving and the History of American Holidays

Slinging Mud and Talking Trash: The Gutter Age of American Journalism

The Golden Age of America's founding was also the gutter age of American journalism. It seems a remarkable paradox. And the Founding Fathers were both the perpetrators and the victims of this brand of journalism.

The Declaration of Independence was literature, but the New England Courant talked trash.

The Constitution of the United States was philosophy, but the Boston Gazette slung mud.

Its chief mud-slinger was Samuel Adams, whose name has become far more credible as a brand of beer than it ever was as a brand of reporting. Adams wanted the colonies to be free from British rule—legislatively if possible, militarily if need be. And toward that end he not only wrote lies about egregious behavior on the part of British soldiers and diplomats stationed in Boston, behavior that never happened, but urged violence to punish them.

In at least two cases, the violence was carried out: against Andrew Oliver, who was appointed to collect taxes in Boston under the Stamp Act, and against Thomas Hutchinson, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, whom Adams accused, falsely, of being one of the architects of the Stamp Act. Adams seems as well to have been one of the organizers of the Boston Tea Party, and it was probably in the back room of the Boston Gazette that the colonial marauders applied their Indian makeup and took their bows to one another when the tea had been dumped into the harbor.

Other newspapers took their cue from Adams, the Pennsylvania Journal publishing a list of punitive measures being considered by Parliament in the wake of American opposition to the so-called Intolerable Acts. None of it was true; all of it was incendiary, Sam Adams-inspired journalism for the purpose of rousing public opinion, not reporting the facts.

Slinging Mud and Talking Trash: The Gutter Age of American Journalism

Searching for the Forgotten Movie Mogul: William Fox, Founder of Twentieth Century Fox

When I began work several years ago on my in-progress biography of William Fox (1879–1952), founder of Twentieth Century Fox, I knew I was in for trouble. Although Fox was arguably the most important of all the early movie moguls because of his foundational contributions to the art, technology and business of movies, he seemed to have largely disappeared from history. No serious biography of him yet existed, and most movie history overviews made only scant, passing reference to him. Personal papers? Fox left none. Studio archives? Successive management regimes threw away almost everything except minutiae from Fox's regime—keeping extras' contracts and the like, but none of the founder's correspondence or business files. As if all that weren't bad enough, the general field of early film history, especially from 1900 through the mid-1920s when Fox was highly active, was woefully under-cultivated. No wonder no one had ever written a William Fox biography.

Searching for the Forgotten Movie Mogul: William Fox, Founder of Twentieth Century Fox

Puritan Amnesia and Secular Attitude: Newspapers and National Identity in Revolutionary America

For many, the American Revolution represents the beginning of our history as a society. In the public memory of the past, the preceding colonial years are relegated to Puritan pre-history, as if only after 1776 we began to walk upright. This assertion of public sentiment can be traced through diverse sources, including civic commemorations, historical fiction and America's early newspapers.

This pre-history was not akin to a period of prelapsarian innocence. There is evidence that America's newly minted citizens were reluctant to embrace their Puritan heritage. A unique feature of American newspaper accounts in the years between 1776 and 1784 is the absence of any allusion to that biblical and metaphorical "city on a hill" invoked by John Winthrop, incoming governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in his 1630 sermon preached on board the Arbella bound for New England. "The eyes of all people are upon us," Winthrop said, and warned that if the Puritans made a mess of things, they would become global laughingstocks. 1

If the "eyes of all people" were upon the colonies in 1776, the colonists—at least those whose letters and opinions appeared in the papers—were not interested in having that gaze cast backward at their Puritan forebears. Francis J. Bremer, who detected a similar evolving pattern of Puritan neglect in Boston's civic commemorations, concluded that "the first symptoms of Winthrop amnesia emerged as early as 1905." 2 Judging from the manner in which Winthrop and the Puritans were treated—or not—by the revolutionary press, amnesia set in significantly earlier than that.

Puritan Amnesia and Secular Attitude: Newspapers and National Identity in Revolutionary America

Finding Book Reviews of Classic American Literature: Search Tips for Students Using the Archive of Americana

Finding recent scholarship on 18th- and 19th-century literature poses no great challenge to the skilled researcher, who may use a variety of available tools to support such an inquiry. It can be more difficult, however, to discover contemporaneous responses to significant 18th- and 19th-century authors. One useful tool for that type of search is the digital Archive of Americana. With a bit of strategic searching, students can discover a wealth of book reviews and other responses to classic American literature within the Archive, especially in America's Historical Newspapers.

American Broadsides and Ephemera and both series of Early American Imprints all include "Book Reviews" as a genre. However, only a few items are identified as belonging to this genre—four in American Broadsides and Ephemera and one each in Series I: Evans and Series II: Shaw-Shoemaker. These varied items range from a compilation of critical responses to The Life and Labors of David Livingstone included in the Hubbard Bros.' exclamatory prospectus ("A BOOK OF MATCHLESS INTEREST! WITHOUT A PEER!! MAGNIFICENTLY ILLUSTRATED!!!")

Click to access full image

to John Quincy Adams' "rather political than literary" American Principles: A Review of Works by Fisher Ames.

Finding Book Reviews of Classic American Literature: Search Tips for Students Using the Archive of Americana

Chinese Exclusion Acts: A Brief History of United States Legislation Aimed at Chinese Immigrants

Chinese immigrants first arrived in the United States in large numbers after the discovery of gold in California in 1849. Initially coming to work as miners, many took farming and manufacturing jobs when the Gold Rush died down.

Another surge of Chinese immigration took place in the 1860s, when construction of the Transcontinental Railroad demanded a large number of reliable workers. Because Chinese laborers were willing to work for lower wages, they were often preferred to other workers by the Central Pacific Railroad Company, particularly during construction of the Transcontinental Railroad's western section.

With the number of Chinese immigrants increasing, China and the United States signed a treaty on July 28, 1868 to supplement the 1858 Treaty of Tianjing. The new treaty, popularly known as the Burlingame-Seward Treaty, established several principles that aimed to ease immigration restrictions and limit American interference in China's internal affairs. The treaty stated:

The United States of America and the Emperor of China cordially recognize the inherent and inalienable right of man to change his home and allegiance, and also the mutual advantage of the free migration and emigration of their citizens and subjects respectively from the one country to the other, for purposes of curiosity, of trade, or as permanent residents….

Chinese subjects visiting or residing in the United States shall enjoy the same privileges, immunities and exemptions in respect to travel or residence as may there be enjoyed by the citizens or subjects of the most favored nation….

Chinese subjects shall enjoy all the privileges of the public educational institutions under the control of the government of the United States, which are enjoyed in the respective countries by the citizens or subjects of the most favored nation. 1

Chinese Exclusion Acts: A Brief History of United States Legislation Aimed at Chinese Immigrants

Start Locally, Think Globally: An Approach to Teaching History

"Why does this stuff matter?"

"Why should I care?"

Questions like these have accosted most instructors during their teaching career. It can be especially challenging to show students in social studies classes the relevance of what they perceive to be centuries-old clumps of dates, events and timelines. Students in many classrooms experience "none of the questioning, argumentation, and wrestling with the past that so marks the vigor and fecundity of history as a disciplinary practice," as Bruce Van Sledright has noted. "All acquisition of others' ideas about what the past is and no participation in the activities that produce those ideas in the first place leaves them largely empty headed and seat-twitchingly bored."1

The research of Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen shows that Americans' connection to history is strongest when they can locate a personal point of entry: "Many told us they wanted…to reach into history by reaching outward from their own lives. They wanted to personalize the public past." 2 Educational theorists have also shown that constructivist approaches to teaching—emphasizing students' active production of knowledge through inquiry and analysis—are typically more engaging to students than traditional approaches centered on lectures and quizzes. How can educators take these lessons into account and awaken students to the fun of historical exploration and the pertinence of the past to the present?

Start Locally, Think Globally: An Approach to Teaching History


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