Made-to-measure rhetorical acts from James P. Beasley

2017 Conference on College Composition and Communication Paper

Archival MEthods: Cultivating Disasters In-Action

            Hello, and welcome to our panel “Archival MEthods: Cultivating Disasters In-Action.” I’m James Beasley from the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Florida, almost as far away as you can get from Portland, Oregon. Which is in many ways symbolic of archival research, as where you begin can be as far away as you can get from where you started. The intention of our panel was to present the results of a semester-long archival methods class from four perspectives: of mine the professor, of one of the graduate assistants in the course, one of the undergraduate students in the course, and finally the perspective of one of our community partners in the course.  Since our acceptance to this conference, however, our student presenter decided to have her first baby girl this weekend, so she is unable to present today, and the graduate assistant from the course has taken a job outside of academia that would not allow her the time off. Therefore, I will be presenting a brief introduction to the course, then Jeannette Vigolotti of the Virginia Commonwealth University will present her work as one of our community partners, then I will read some of the work of the other two students that cannot be here today.

            The course, English 4004 Research Methods in English, serves as one of the course offerings for the undergraduate Writing Minor at the University of North Florida. Several years ago, I added this course to our curriculum to increase the research presence in our English major. I have taught it many times and usually the same way every time—an introduction to empirical methods in English studies. I always first began with a three week unit on archival research, much like the archival methods unit described in Jonathan Buehl, Tamar Chute, and Anne Fields’s 2012 C’s article, “Training in the Archives: Archival Research as Professional Development.” After beginning with archival methods, I introduced students to case study research and ethnography before moving on to quantitative methodologies such as discourse analysis and experimental designs. I often vacillated between two final projects, a straight-up comprehensive exam, which demonstrably proved that my students were meeting our department course objective of excellence in content knowledge, or with a collaborative poster design, which was much more enjoyable for both the students and myself by far. In the spring of 2016, however, I found myself having two graduate assistants in the course, both students that were part of our graduate concentration in rhetoric and composition. Both students had taken the graduate version of research methods, and both wanted to utilize their own research methodologies in their work as graduate assistants in this course. This dynamic now became the organizing principle of the course, how to utilize the graduate assistants in the course to facilitate their own research interests. The three of us set out on an ambitious agenda—we would have three separate research projects, developed simultaneously, throughout the semester. We decided that the course would just focus on archival methods, since that was consistent with both of their research interests and mine, as well. I wanted the graduate assistants in the course to have some readings and methodologies that were familiar that we had covered in the graduate version, but I also used the opportunity to push them out into some new areas that we had not been able to cover, as well, namely, research in the digital humanities.  So, we began in the familiar, with Carolyn Steedman’s classic work, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History. We spent about four weeks with her book and some of the records from our own university archive. So far, this was both familiar territory for the graduate assistants and exciting for the undergraduates, who had never been introduced to utilizing primary sources before. After this four week unit, we read Buehl, Chute, and Fields’s article together, discussing the six themes that they generated from their own experiences. Those themes are as follows:

1.     An appreciation of the practical aspects of historical research

2.     Discovering the activity of browsing as a research strategy

3.     Understanding the rhetoric of historiography

4.     Understanding the discipline by practicing historical research

5.     Articulating what graduate students need from methods training

6.     Imagining teaching with archives

So, based on this list, it was easy to see how several of these themes were appropriate for the graduate assistants in the course, and how some were appropriate for the undergraduate students in the course. For the undergraduates, I wanted to focus on the first three of these themes as they moved forward with their research projects, and for the graduate students, I wanted them to focus on the last three of these themes, as they moved forward in their leading their students in their respective projects.

            At this point in the class, things are working well, both the graduate assistants and undergraduates are learning together, and the graduate assistants are getting to apply some of their own archival work with the undergraduates. It is also at this point that we move a bit outward from the first two themes of understanding archival methods and browsing, to the third theme of understanding the rhetoric of historiography. For this theme, we review some of the archival work they have already done using Tarez Graben, Alexis Ramsey-Tobeienne, and Whitney Myers’s “In, Through, and About the Archive.” In their chapter, they write that “In our own work, at this intersection, we view the archive as a critical rhetorical space that demands equally of its creators and users, a site for testing theories about how texts migrate among discourse communities and new practices come into being” (233). So, specifically with the Black Baptism group, they began to write about how when these archives were collected, it would have been unfathomable to imagine that these records would be read and used outside the St. Augustine Historical Society. How these texts “migrate” throughout our course, became part of their project. Students began to see how these records were not “beholden to physical spaces” as Graben, Ramsey-Tobienne, and Myers write. So, in understanding the rhetoric of historiography, students began to first comprehend the “migration” of these archival documents. The second characteristic of the rhetoric of historiography that these students were able to understand was their dual role as researcher and archivist.  Graben, Ramsey-Tobienne, and Myers write, “While rhetoric and writing scholars have increasingly recognized their potential to act as both archivists and researchers, and while technology makes enacting this dual role easier, we should consider the ramifications of smaller, decentralized archival spaces created by scholars familiar with archival protocols but not specifically trained as archivists.” For the students, their Excel spreadsheets became an extremely decentralized archival space, as they traded these files back and forth and around with the rest of the class. Students began understanding that they were making choices that an archivist would make, and those moments became not only moments of agency, but also of anxiety. When it was time to come back to the full class and report on their work, they were very reluctant to display their Excel spreadsheets in front of the other students not in their group. The third characteristic of the rhetoric of historiography that these students engaged in was what they themselves wanted to do with the data they had collected. They knew they would be just giving the Excel spreadsheets back to the St. Augustine Historical Society, but the fact that they had to do that made them want to do something with the data themselves, and Graben, Ramsey-Tobienne, and Myers write that “The decision about where to locate these archives and how to determine location is itself predicated on several complicating factors.” So, what became apparent is that while the St. Augustine Historical Society would be able to utilize my students work in their own projects, the students deeply felt the exigence to write, an exigence that I did not have to compel or provide on my own.

At this point in the course, the circle began to widen again, this time, however, the students did so on their own. They wanted to visit the sites that were connected to the records they had been using, so they visited the Miguel O’Reiley house in St. Augustine. One student describes her visit as follows: “While going through the house we discovered that none of O'Reilly's memorabilia was there because after he died the house was rented out and the possessions disappeared over time. Although through our research we discovered that O'Reilly was the mentor of Father Felix Varela, a Cuban independence fighter that would go on to be deemed Venerable by the Archbishops of Miami and New York and is currently being considered for sainthood. This lead my group to focus our piece of Varela returning home to St. Augustine from New York to see his mentor, now dying, one last time. The events we wrote them in are slightly out of order, for the sake of creativity we thought it would have been more interesting to have Varela visit O'Reilly after being exiled from Cuba for his protests when originally he left for Cuba after O'Reilly passed. This change, we believe, helps us shape Varela as a hero coming home. We wrote it from a diary perspective because a trip from a port to St. Augustine by horse-drawn carriage was about six hours, plenty of time to document a visit to a friend.”

By using this creative writing technique, the students discover what Greg Ulmer famously calls punctum, “an emotional, pathic response, and it is at this point of the ME that the discursive abstract information and my unique existence intersect.” What is even more interesting about this particular punctum is that was discovered by the students through the creative act of recreating a story from documents. Katherine Adams writes that “Documents must grow into storytelling or they are not really worth writing about. But the path of document to story, or course, is a treacherous one, with inferences made by the writer, often based on her own prejudices, and thus her own story.” While this is certainly true of this students’ recreation of these events involving Father O’Reiley, what is unique about this situation is that the story is not the final destination. In this instance, the documents led to a story, yes, but the story itself led to an emotional punctum, a place where student would now begin to generate a completely new path for their project that went well beyond mere data entry. For this project in particular then, these students began to identify the Disaster in Action that existed in St. Augustine.  Ulmer writes that MEmorials appropriate features of consulting and tourism, so the students began to think about what kind of punctum they wanted to create in St. Augustine and who they wanted to create that punctum for. While Liza Potts writes, “Whenever we sit down to start a project, the first question I have is, who is our audience? Understanding audience is a key skill to develop in our students.” And of course I would agree with that, but in our case, the students didn’t discover their audience until well after the data had been recorded, they had learned more about the rhetoric of historiography, they had visited the places where Father O’Reiley had baptized the 800 slaves they had read about, and they had discovered their own emotional attachment to him and his work. Potts also writes that “Concentrating on building the systems that provide for engagement between the curators and the participants can broaden the audiences for these projects, addressing both the needs of both researchers and the public” so at this time, I will turn it over to Jeannette and have her read her work on this kind of boundary between curators and participants, researchers and the public.