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A biannual publication offering insights into the use of digital historical collections

Using the Archive of Americana at China's Finest University

Graham Russell Gao Hodges

the George Dorland Langdon Jr. Professor of History and Africana & Latin American Studies, Colgate University

It was through my early American history classes at Colgate University that first I discovered the joys of using the Archive of Americana as a teaching tool. In those classes, I compelled my students to make use of this valuable resource by establishing citation levels for each grade. For my advanced undergraduate classes on early American and New York City history, I advised students that they needed 30 citations from America's Historical Newspapers and related collections; 50 citations qualified students for the B level; those who could cite 80 different sources could aspire to an A. Note that they could "qualify." The papers still had to include solid writing, vigorous analysis and a cogent thesis. Despite some grumbling, the Colgate students submitted to the protocol and a few earned an A in the seminar.

Then, I got the opportunity to teach as a Distinguished Fulbright Professor at Peking University (Beida) in Beijing. I was determined to introduce my Chinese students to the Archive of Americana as well. While I did not expect that Peking students had the time, skills or inclination to make such extensive research in English-language sources, I did hope that we could master some research techniques and that they might uncover evocative historical moments. But as often happens when teaching abroad, my plans met with a number of difficulties.

My hopes for Peking rested in part on the success the Archive of Americana enjoyed with the history department at Nankai University in Tianjin, a large seaport southeast of Beijing. Nankai has one of the best American Studies programs in China. Under the leadership of Li Jianming, who has studied at Harvard and is an expert in colonial American history, Nankai's history department has graduated a number of Chinese scholars who have worked on subjects such as slavery, Reconstruction, the career of W. E. B. Du Bois and other topics. Routledge Publishing has put four of these into print in the United States. Li, who subsequently moved to Peking University, was a prime mover in attracting donors to help secure access to Archive of Americana collections at Nankai.

Peking University was different. Although it has embarked on a major academic and physical expansion, the school has little money for early American history. This is true despite the burgeoning interest in American Founding Fathers, the Constitutional Era and American government in general. During my travels to Chinese cities, such interests manifested themselves through numerous questions about the promises and problems of the American Constitution and political history.

Chinese history scholars and students working on American history stick largely to the 20th century and to studies in diplomatic history. Dissertations such as Sino-American Foreign Relations during the 1950s, American Diplomacy and Cross-Straits (China and Taiwan) or Richard Nixon's Diplomacy with China are common. Dissertations on early American history are uncommon. Most such efforts are individual. An example is Li Cuiyun's dissertation on John Winthrop, which she wrote at Peking in 2006 using only Internet sources. She will be spending this academic year as a Fulbright scholar at Harvard University's Charles Warren Center. Her illustrious example demonstrates that despite the difficulties I encountered, internet sources can be highly useful for researching and writing serious scholarship in China on American history.

That said, few scholars in China seem willing to match Li Cuiyun's efforts. In China, mentors customarily assign dissertation topics to their graduate students. Given the prominence of diplomatic history, most dissertations, as noted, focus on subjects within this genre. When I arrived as a Fulbright lecturer at Peking University, I worked with graduate students and undergraduates. My task with the graduate students was to help them choose topics for their dissertations. I also taught African American history, a subject highly conducive to use of America's Historical Newspapers.

After arranging for temporary access to the Archive of Americana during my period of teaching at Peking University, several issues emerged quickly. First, many graduate students regarded early American or African American topics to be irrelevant to their plans and so declined to use the Archive. Although I found their attitude frustrating, I had to accept that as a temporary professor I would have little impact on their long-term scholarship and career plans. I did insist that they try to use the Archive for research and writing exercises. This method was somewhat successful, though the graduate students lacked much of the contextual knowledge necessary to understand the primary sources they found.

A second problem—and one that affected the undergraduate students as well—was the unwillingness of the university librarians to help students find and use the Archive of Americana. In the United States, enabling students to read and research is key to librarians' mission. In China, protection of source materials to all but highly qualified researchers is considered paramount. I had to make several trips to the library to request, through translators, that the library open up use of the Archive to my students. This was not unusual: I had to do the same with the hundreds of books I had donated to the school.

My luck with the undergraduates was a little better. The class I taught focused on Black History and, using class computers, I was able to do simple searches on such historical figures as Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois; or on slavery and fugitive slaves. Chinese students usually lack deep insight into black history and often know little about slavery beyond what they've seen on the film Gone With the Wind, which is screened routinely on Chinese television. This is unfortunate because black history was often featured in Chinese media during the 1960s and 1970s. Only Wang Xi of Indiana University of Pennsylvania has mined the rich lode of African American history available in Communist-era Chinese publications.

Another key problem was the poor quality of the Internet servers, which meant that downloading articles could take many minutes of class time, a process not conducive to the rapid pace of a lecture. Yet another problem, but one which could be overcome with numerous examples, was the unfamiliar fonts and spelling of early American newspapers. Explaining Early American English was a huge task in itself, but one that, given the fascination of the students with the language, was profitable. With patience and use of illuminating articles, I could use the Archive of Americana as an effective teaching tool for the undergraduates. As Peking University students are among the best in the nation, they quickly caught on and were able to incorporate limited use of the Archive in their papers.

My experience taught me that sophisticated research tools such as the Archive of Americana are not easy to export because of the lack of sustained interest in early American history (a similar problem exists at home), as well as because of unforeseen obstacles within the library system and the general preference for study of more recent American history. Still, I consider my use of the Archive to have been a successful part of my pedagogy at Peking University. As is the case at my home school, long-term impact on students is a humbling prospect. But I would not trade the experience of explaining Frederick Douglass's career through original newspaper articles to top Chinese students for anything.

Graham Russell Gao Hodges is the George Dorland Langdon Jr. Professor of History and Africana & Latin American Studies at Colgate University. He is author or editor of more than a dozen books. In March 2010, the University of North Carolina Press published David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City. Other recent publications include Chains and Freedom: The Life and Adventure of Peter Wheeler: A Colored Man Yet Living, A Slave in Chains, A Sailor in the Deep, and a Sinner at the Cross (edited and with an introduction by Graham Russell Hodges, University of Alabama Press, 2009); : Thomas Jefferson, Thaddeus Kosciusko, and Agrippa Hull (co-authored with Gary Nash, Basic Books, 2008); and Taxi! A Cultural History of the New York City Cabdriver (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).

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