Written by GRC and graduate student Jeannine O’Brian
The word “research” has been thrown around in every undergraduate and graduate class I’ve taken at UNC, but the opportunities Interpreting the South from Manuscripts (ENGL 075) provides for students to conduct original research are second to none. Under the guidance of Dr. Connie Eble and Ms. Laura Clark Brown, ENGL 075 students use the Southern Historical Collection, housed in Wilson Library, to conduct original research and produce written reports, oral presentations, and a video documentary. Students work directly with letters, diaries, photographs, ledgers, oral histories, and other primary sources.
This semester, the coursework has focused on the Arthur Franklin Raper Papers. Raper (1899-1979) was a rural sociologist, civil rights activist, and social science analyst, both in the United States and in other countries. Using this manuscript collection, which documents Raper’s work, ENGL 075 students have explored issues such as agricultural reform, the Great Depression, education, sharecropping, court cases, and race relations, particularly in the American South. Students learn by searching, reading, observing, analyzing, questioning, and hypothesizing rather than receiving information passively. The collection’s 38,000 documents include (but are not limited to) letters, correspondence, photographs, drawings, pamphlets, and newspaper articles. Students can use digital copies of some documents, but are required to spend time at the Southern Historical Collection’s reading room examining materials in person. The assignments challenge students to examine these primary sources and think critically about the purpose of the materials in the context in which they were created.
For the summative project, students are making short documentary video presentations. They started by choosing a topic that fits within one of the following broad themes: class conflict, economic conditions, education, farm tenancy, interracial cooperation, labor lynching, race relations, rural conditions, and women’s lives. Based on their research within the Raper Papers, students drafted a storyboard and narrative for their video. Students are currently working on the final videos, which will synthesize their findings and analyses.
As a student in ENGL 075, I loved touching the manuscripts, hunting for details on a specific topic, and deciphering handwriting. Writing about my own research was completely new to me, and it seems to be similarly new to many ENGL 075 students. In my role as GRC, I’ve helped students define the scope of their projects, identify things to look for in the Raper Papers, and refine their writing. With a few years’ perspective, I enjoyed watching the process that students go through in becoming researchers. While the course is about research, it’s also about using a library, handling archival materials appropriately, learning southern history, and communicating in a variety of formats.