In a couple hours I’ll follow my established pedestrian transect to North Dakota State University (this is the fancy way of saying I’ll walk up to class) to provide a guest talk on archival research for Dr. Kjersten Nelson’s Political Science classes. Over the last couple days, I’ve thought off and on exactly what I could and should impart upon the class (she said there are approximately 17 students). Three thoughts came to mind, and here they are (note: a friend of mine, Don Paul, attended one of those Ford schools back in the day in Michigan. These were philanthropic schools Henry Ford set up for kids to attend — for free. Don said at those hands-on liberal arts vocational schools, the artisans and industrial manufacturing teachers would tell him to follow this rule when giving talks: start out by telling your audience the three things you’re going to tell them; then tell them the three things with explanation; and then conclude by telling them the three things you told them. This makes sense. Work in threes or fours if possible.):
1) Perhaps the best way to go about it is to initially do a bit of podium driving, explaining why research matters, and why professors at universities invest themselves in pushing knowledge in new directions. Just last Friday I chatted a bit with Bill Caraher in Bismarck, this after a invigorating ND Humanities Council board meeting, and in conversation he mentioned how he explains to his students exactly what he does with his time at the University of North Dakota. Students understandably want their professors to be attentive, and professors should definitely do this, both with class room lecture, discussion, and in office hours and over coffee. But the reverse of that is to make sure the students activate the auto-didactic — the self-taught learner — within themselves. The entire idea, I’ll tell the students today, is to do good on your archival research and paper skills because A) this may turn into a larger research project when you are off working on your own PhD in grad school; and/or B) this will give Dr. Nelson the ability to write you a glowing letter of recommendation that speaks to your abilities as a critical thinker, writer, and self-directed learner and problem solver; and C) your friends, colleagues, and current or future life-long partner will indeed dig these skills.
2) From there I’ll delve into the personal, at least how I managed to bring a topic I’ve cared about since 2008 to a manuscript form that was considered and eventually published by a top-flight academic journal. There are enjoyable struggles and processes of preparing such a manuscript, and one pours themselves into these things not knowing if a journal will consider them at all. That, of course, is why it takes the spirit within each person to be driven to figure out a problem in the social sciences or humanities that may, at the outset, induce confusion or frustration. Such was the case when I first heard about and then visited the Civil War monument at Whitestone Hill in southeastern North Dakota some years ago. I was initially confused by it — “Why did North Dakota install a granite Civil War bugler on top of the largest hill in the area?…” There’s a tendency to be confused or frustrated by what is not yet understood. And one doesn’t have to agree with something to understand it, but agreeing with something and understanding it are two disparate things.
3) And finally, this might be a direction that students and researchers think about as they continue to consider their topics: is there anything in the world of politics or political history that induces confusion or frustration? Research always begins with questions, and sometimes if you one feels frustrated about something, they should indeed start asking questions. “Why is that the way it is?” I’m interested in hearing how far along the students themselves are in their research processes. A large part of archival research deals with imagining where the sources might be. Once a paper trail starts to emerge, it can help with imagining where other sources might be. I’ll again default a bit to the Whitestone Hill case study, but broaden it out to envelop which directions the students are pushing.