Posted on May 4 2018 by Jessica C. Linker, CLIR Humanities and Digital Scholarship Postdoctoral Fellow, Bryn Mawr College
Historical Thinking for Digital Projects: Teaching Research Skills with the Mary Whitall Worthington Diaries
Over winter break, two of the undergraduate Digital Scholarship Research Assistants (DSRAs), Courtney Dalton (’19) and Jocelyn Dunkley (’20), completed an internship for Bryn Mawr’s History of Women in Science (HoWiS) Project. I’m going to recount how College Women played a part in this process by telling you about a transcription exercise I used to prepare the DSRAs to research in Bryn Mawr College’s Special Collections.
The HoWiS Project, which I direct, is currently in its pilot phase. One long-term goal of the project is to use 3D technology to reconstruct historical spaces where women practiced science. The resultant interactive spaces will be paired with digital resources, including photogrammetry models of archival artifacts, digitized textual sources, data sets, visualizations, and historical essays. All of us want this project to tell important stories about the past – ones that can help to contextualize the current status of women in science professions and will perhaps also encourage women to pursue scientific knowledge. Consequently, in addition to all the digital skills they’re amassing, the DSRAs are learning how to conduct historical research.
The DSRAs and I are not simply thinking about digital platforms as a container for historical narratives - historical research influences our process and informs the digital objects we build. No single document can tell us how to construct, furnish, and contextualize a historical space. DSRAs will need to figure out what information exists, how to interpret materials, and how to best represent historical objects when concrete answers cannot be found. When I’ve taught undergraduates research methods in the past, it’s been in the context of a traditional classroom experience where I’ve had an entire semester to ease students into the unnaturalness of historical thinking (to give a shout-out to Sam Wineburg). I usually do this through a series of workshops where the students handle primary materials and are asked to assess and re-assess their research processes at various points in the course. In contrast, the DSRAs and I had a couple of days in January to get the hang of it.
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There are usually a couple of things I try to determine before I let undergraduates loose in archives. These “things” can be as basic as gauging information literacy, but they also encompass organizational and interpretive skills. For example, if students are using manuscript materials, will they be thrown off by period handwriting and need to practice paleography? Will they know enough historical context to identify and break down relevant passages, or will they need to do additional reading? Will they understand how to contextualize historical information? How do they determine what is important? Also, how will they keep track of important information? It is useful to have these conversations with students, but I have discovered that it is not always easy for them to self-assess their capabilities. Frankly, it can be difficult for anyone to describe their research process if they have never thought of it as a process. It is better to set up a controlled situation, have students actually show you how they interact with primary materials, and then have them reflect upon their decisions afterward.
Our “controlled situation” used the Mary Whitall Worthingon diaries, which have been digitized and are available for research and teaching through the College Women portal. Mary Whitall Worthington was the niece of M. Carey Thomas, and a member of Bryn Mawr’s graduating class of 1910. She began a career in medicine that was tragically cut short, dying not long after starting a degree at Johns Hopkins University. Worthington would have had a rigorous science education while attending Bryn Mawr to prepare her for medical school. The diaries were therefore excellent candidates for the DSRAs to practice transcription, source assessment, and recording and organizing information that answered the questions posed by the History of Women in Science Project. We were looking for information pertaining to the everyday experiences of Bryn Mawr’s students and faculty in scientific spaces. How was science taught? How did women practice science here? What equipment did women have access to, and what experiments did they perform? These smaller questions underpin a more significant inquiry: how can recreating historical spaces allow us to interrogate the nature of women’s scientific practice?
There are other reasons why I chose this particular set of diaries to start with. Worthington’s diaries posed various problems students would need to navigate in order to retrieve answers. Her diaries, like most diaries, discuss many of her interests and activities, forcing the students to locate crucial information in a sea of everyday life. The diaries were also substantial enough that I was confident they couldn’t be surveyed comprehensively in the time the DSRAs would spend with them for this exercise. They would inevitably have to make choices about how and what to read. Would students try to read from beginning to end? Or would they skim? Worthington’s handwriting wasn’t always the neatest and she often used abbreviations and coded language, making decisions about how to read the diaries all the more complicated. There were various elements that, on first pass, might not seem consequential until one was deeper into the diaries and more familiar with the author. And I wondered how they would decide to represent many of the non-textual elements; Worthington often pasted in different kinds of ephemera.
On a particularly snowy day, Courtney and Jocelyn started to look for information in the Worthington diaries. I told them that I would give them time to transcribe the materials between 10am and 2pm. They would have to make all the decisions about organizing information, dividing the labor between them, developing an apparatus that would make transcription decisions transparent to another reader, and identifying the important information related to our project. I told them there would be no way they could get through all the diaries before 2pm; I simply wanted to see what they would prioritize. And with that, I left them to it, with the promise that I would check in from time to time to see if they had any questions.
They did exceedingly well, transcribing a good ten or more pages of relevant information in that time slot (with an hour-long break for lunch). They occasionally asked me to read a word or two they couldn’t figure out, but for the most part, they got better at deciphering Worthington’s abbreviations, handwriting, and period colloquialisms as they progressed. They started off transcribing alternate pages in full – which seemed a fair if not entirely practical way to divide the labor in half - but later decided to skim until they found the passages they really wanted to focus on. At this point they began reading more like historians, with each DSRA reading a section of sequential pages that allowed them to absorb more of the context for any specific entry. They began referring back to older entries to decide whether something was worth transcribing, consulted with each other, and became a team rather than two individuals reading discretely. Afterward, we talked about some of the things they thought they could have done differently or at the outset – such as developing a spreadsheet with metadata for entries they weren’t sure about but opted not to transcribe, or the best way to communicate where a photograph was inserted and what the photograph was of - but they ended up figuring out a lot on their own.
As a result of the exercise, the DSRAs had a better sense of what they had to think through before reading a historical manuscript, how to navigate elements they didn’t expect, who/what to consult when they needed to make sense of something they didn’t understand, and how to commit their findings in writing in a way that would be useful to them and to others who would consult their work as the project advanced. After this activity I felt confident that they could head to Special Collections and start looking through the manuscript materials. Over the course of the next two weeks, they learned how to read finding aids, and about contemporaneous sources they could consult to contextualize historical material. They also read and took notes on several sizable manuscript collections – far more than I had ever anticipated was possible in such a short amount of time. But the DSRAs often exceed my expectations in exciting ways.
If you want to know what full internship was like for the DSRAs, do take a moment and read Courtney Dalton’s write up over on Bryn Mawr’s Digital Scholarship blog. It’s smart and thoughtful, and it’s clear to me that she learned a lot.
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Historical research skills can be useful for a variety of projects, practical and academic, regardless of one’s disciplinary preference. If this is an activity you would like to try with your own students or project team, there are other manuscripts digitized for College Women you can work with in addition to the Worthington diaries: