Graduate students delve into Briscoe Center’s collections for enriching, hands-on seminar course
Is it possible, in fifteen short weeks, for a group of graduate students to gain a deep appreciation of the Briscoe Center’s vast archival collections, to craft from one or more of those collections a tightly-focused scholarly essay, and also to survey the broad sweep of American history through the works of some of its most accomplished practitioners? Last semester eleven UT graduate students accepted this challenge, convening every Wednesday afternoon in the center’s conference room for a research seminar devoted to the “The Art of the Historical Essay.”
This course was designed to make maximum use of the center’s impressive resources in terms of the expertise of its staff as well as the wide range of its archives. At the beginning of each class meeting, a series of center staff members introduced the students to specific collections and/or general categories of holdings, including the Sound and Music archives; Energy and Natural Resources archives with a focus on the ExxonMobil Collection; recent photojournalism acquisitions; Civil Rights collections; News Media History collections with a focus on the Walter Cronkite papers; Sanborn maps, broadsides and Ephemera; the Natchez Trace collection; and Congressional History papers.
The assigned readings, composed of historical essays, were culled from a larger list of articles recommended by U. S. historians at UT. Faculty were asked to suggest their favorite articles—ones they found exceptionally well written and well researched, essays that were methodologically innovative, provocative, or ground-breaking, or some combination of all these. The semester began with essays by Theodore Roosevelt, Frederick Jackson Turner, Salmon Rushdie, Perry Miller, Natalie Zemon Davis, Kenneth Stampp, and Alejandro Lugo. Thereafter the class read, on average, three essays a week, covering the span of American history from earliest colonial settlements to the present—from the history of New Amsterdam to the history of Oprah Winfrey’s media empire.
Each week students also discussed the nature and components of a good essay. Among the topics for discussion were “Boundaries, Borders, and Disciplines,” “Long Views and Case Studies,” “Narrative and Analytical Strategies,” and “The Politics of Racial, Gender, and Class Ideologies.” In addition, students considered the nuts-and-bolts of historical writing—how to introduce an essay, document sources, and set a specific topic within a larger historiographical context, among other topics.
Each student was responsible for completing three writing assignments in the course of the semester. A weekly assignment called upon the student to locate a single, one-page primary source and write a brief analysis of its strengths and limitations as a piece of historical evidence. Students mined a large number of individual collections to find cartoons, song lyrics, letters, newspaper articles, financial account books, photographs, transcripts of radio programs and interviews, diary entries, official proclamations, pupils’ report cards, polling results, mimeographed newsletters, family histories, documentary photographs, and film clips. Among the notable sources discovered (mostly in the center but in a few cases in nearby research libraries) and discussed by students were an application form for the Uvalde County, Texas KKK in 1920s; readers’ responses to Molly Ivins’s political commentary; a Catawba map imprinted on deerskin; lyrics to “Thumbs Up America,” the inaugural theme song written for President Ronald Reagan in 1981; architectural drawings of Mission San Juan church; a George Veditz film clip, part of “The Preservation of Sign Language” series produced between 1913 and 1920; and the sheet music, cover, and lyrics for a Union song, “Little Joe, the Contraband,” published in 1864.
In addition, each student delivered an oral presentation that covered a specific collection—the nature of the materials in it, the time period it covered, and its usefulness for the study of American history. These reports focused on the Bread and Roses School for Socialist Education, 1975–1979; the Texas Governor Ross Shaw Sterling Papers, 1930–1939; the Maverick Family Papers; the James Leonard, Jr., and Lula Peterson Farmer Papers; the William Massie Papers; the Rabbi Henry Cohen Papers; the Mrs. Percy V. Pennybacker Papers; the Natchez Trace Collection; the Bexar Archives; and the Ima Hogg Papers. Accompanying each of these reports were two or three primary sources, which provided the basis for lively discussions among the class as a whole.
Finally, students were responsible for making their own original contributions to the historical literature by completing a 35-page historical essay based on one or more of the center’s collections. These essays covered, among other topics, the role of Robert Trout, veteran radio news journalist, in the 1982 centennial celebrations of FDR’s birth (the Robert Trout Papers); the opening of the Jones Center Hall for the Performing Arts in downtown Houston, constructed on the site of the old City Auditorium, demolished in 1963 (Ima Hogg Papers); the consequences of the Field Foundation’s financial support for the National Indian Youth Council in shaping that activist group’s strategy and agenda in the 1960s and 1970s (Field Foundation Papers); the feminist Haggadah created by Austin-born Frieda Werden in 1972 (Frieda Werden Papers); the vulnerability of free people of color in the antebellum period, as seen through the life of an enslaved woman freed by her master and sent to Cincinnati, only to return south and face re-enslavement for his debts (Natchez Trace Collection).
Each class, with its combination of formal presentations and discussions—some of which consisted of a close reading of a single source, with others ranging widely over methodological and substantive issues—demanded much of the students, and at the same time proved to be intellectually exciting. In addition, members of this particularly culturally diverse seminar embraced the opportunity to learn from each other.
This course was possible only with the help of Center Director Don Carleton and members of his staff, who, in addition to delivering the weekly presentations on the center’s holdings, provided daily support in the reading room for the students researching a number of collections for a variety of assignments. A special thanks is due to Brenda Gunn, Associate Director for Research and Collections, who was instrumental in formulating a framework for the course. Over the course of the semester, with the help and encouragement of the center staff, the students answered the question posed at the start of this essay with a resounding “Yes”!
Mastin Gentry White professor of Southern History/
Walter Prescott Webb Chair in History and Ideas
Department of History
University of Texas at Austin