Seminar Uses Archives to Explore Women's History

Students in the World Views of Uncommon Women seminar gather with professor Holly Hanson and archivists in the College Archives. Students analyze archival materials relating to women involved with MHC from 1837 through 1937. They then apply the perceptions of social theorists, and what they glean from historical writings addressing the place of American women in the creation of culture, to the primary sources.

Holly Hanson, assistant professor of history and African American and African studies, is asking students in her seminar, World Views of Uncommon Women, to consider broad questions about patterns of thought in society. These include: How do people create ideas about the world? What makes the world change? How can we understand individuals' aspirations and efforts toward social transformation? and Are people the products of their time, creators of it, or both? Then students try answer the questions using materials in the MHC archives.

Each week, students analyze archival materials relating to women involved with MHC from 1837 through 1937. They apply the perceptions of social theorists, and what they glean from historical writings addressing the place of American women in the creation of culture, to the primary sources. For example, Mary Lyon has been examined in the context of social theorist Antonio Gramsci's writings about intellectuals; the letters of missionaries Charlotte and Mary Ely, and those of other nineteenth-century women living and working in foreign lands, were considered in conjunction with articles focusing on the cultural biases and unconscious agendas common to Western women of this era.

Hanson's area of expertise is African history (she is teaching the never-before-offered seminar while Assistant Professor of History Mary Renda is on leave), so developing a U.S. history seminar was an "educational process." Hanson worked with Renda to select readings that dovetailed with archival holdings; Director of Archives and Special Collections Peter Carini and Archives Librarian Patricia Albright pointed her in the direction of relevant primary sources.

"Part of what motivated me to create the class is that Peter and Patty were so helpful and had great ideas," says Hanson. Carini says, "Holly and I talked about the uses that could be made of records and how those uses related to concepts she wanted to get across to students. It is vitally important that students understand how to find and use primary sources. Even if they never need to use primary sources, understanding their importance can help them to better evaluate critical writings and histories that are based on primary sources, or worse, are not based on them."

Each year, Carini and Albright assist with five or six courses and teach portions of the Pasts and Presences in the West survey class. They praised Hanson for involving archivists in planning, as well as implementing, the seminar. The class will meet in the archives several times, and each student will meet individually with Albright and Carini to discuss her research paper, which must use archival materials. Jennifer Cote '00 will consider "how the burning of MHC's seminary building, and the reconstruction of the institution in its current form, affected students and the general conception of architecture and education." Cynthia Krohn '00 will examine the experiences of missionary and 1900 MHC graduate Alice Browne Frame and how she adapted to Chinese culture. The group's completed papers will be linked to the archives' Web site.

"Archival materials make historians' large questions concrete and immediate," says Hanson. "Perhaps the most exciting aspect of being an historian for me is trying to make sense of the fragments of peoples' lives that I find in a box of documents in the archives. I wanted to share that experience with students through this seminar."

Photograph by Fred LeBlanc


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