Dear Future Editor,
Welcome to English 486: Networking the Antebellum Archive. As a student from the original pilot program course, I am (hopefully) going to offer some advice not only for success, but also for enjoying yourself in this class. Because this class was brand new in the Spring 2015 semester, none of us had any idea of what to expect—there were no students who had previously taken it to offer any insight. I didn’t know how much of the course would consist of writing (my strong suit) compared to researching or theorizing (things I’m still a little scared of). You might have that same curiosity now. Hopefully this will ease any worries you might have: it’s a good mix of both. If you enjoy writing above all, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to do so, and if you’d rather get lost performing research in Internet archives, you’ll be happy.
I initially had a lot of doubts about my own ability to perform decent research. I’ve realized, though, that I struggle more when the task of my research is so broad that I feel like I can never fully grasp enough information. That’s not really the case in this course; it always felt like I was on a hunt for very specific details or parcels of information. Finally finding those things, then, came with quite a rewarding feeling. I can’t say that I’m now a master researcher, but I am, in fact, more confident in my ability to find and evaluate information from online databases and resources after taking this course.
When researching a piece in order to write an annotation and an editor’s note, it can be difficult to pinpoint when you’re on to a crucial discovery and when you’re going down a rabbit hole in which there will be no easily attainable answers. I don’t have the precise solution to this problem, but I do have a suggestion of something that might help: talk about your favorite, strangest nuggets of newly-found information to someone who has no idea what you’re doing in the class, and see how quickly they appear either intrigued or bored. I can’t tell you how many times I walked straight into work after class (or perhaps the morning after doing some research at home) and started babbling about some weird fact to whomever would listen. One time, I was particularly amused by the fact that my quest to find the term for a specific cult-like religious group led me to its leader, who also happened to be the inventor of the Graham cracker. I didn’t shut up about it for at least five minutes. (When I finally did, I continued my ramblings on Twitter.) Even if you don’t get a strong reaction from anybody, talking out loud about your findings will help you to make better sense of them. Don’t put the entire fate of your edition project in the hands of your friends’ opinions—you, after all, are the specialist best equipped to write about your piece (relatively speaking). Do, however, see if odd findings strike a chord with those around you. It will help when you ultimately sit down and decide what to include and exclude from your final edition.
One last thing that’s weird about this type of research, as one of my classmates pointed out this semester, is that as undergraduates, we’re used to reading research and analysis by scholars who are much higher up on the academic food chain than us. Therefore, for us to be switched into the “authoritative” position of editors/annotators feels a little absurd. Professor Hurh addressed this concern in a way that helped us to realize the uniqueness of our position, though: because we are only undergraduate students, we aren’t weighed down by the bulk of period-specific knowledge that experts have. Our editions, then, reflect the immediate reactions and sparks of interest that are ignited among more ‘ordinary’ (that’s a terrible word, but I can’t think of another) readers. The class website puts it best: “This project aims not to give the final word on these topics, but the first.”
Don’t feel like the recorded history of 19th century literature is going to be ruined if you aren’t able to track down a miniscule detail to add to your editor’s note. Certainly don’t feel like some expert scholar is going to come after you if they disagree with your interpretation of an article’s meaning or cultural significance. Instead, try to regard the work you do in this class as an opportunity to put your own little flag on the moon that is the (largely) lost published texts of 19th century America.
Wishing you good luck and good times,
Spring 2015 Student Editor