On My Many Metaphorical Hats

This semester in Early Minority Lit, we’ve worn a lot of hats.

When I look back on this course, when I try to synthesize everything I’ve learned, I realize that what I’ve learned is a little bit of everything – and the only way I can make sense of the many, seemingly disparate skills I’ve practiced this semester is to reflect on all of these hats.

When we started the semester, we were ordinary English lit graduate students, reading canonical and not-so-canonical works of early American literature. We focused on the intersection between Christianity and slavery, on the impact of religion on the role of women, and we got our introduction to life writing, travel writing, and diary writing.

We asked critical questions – tough questions – particularly about the issue of slavery. We saw the nuances in defenses of slavery written by both black and white authors. I began to understand, for the first time, what it means to try to “imagine” yourself into the mind of someone who lived two or three hundred years ago. I began to grasp how educational it can be to read works from the past when you shed your contemporary biases and attitudes.

Geek Hat

I need this geek hat.

At the same time that we were learning about these authors and their complex beliefs, we were discovering our inner computer geeks. We got our introduction to coding and collaborating through our Wiki pages. I have to admit that if someone had told me, a few months ago, that I would be editing Wikipedia while in grad school, I would have thought they were crazy – but I did it! And now, our class’s work is out there on the “real” Wikipedia for anyone to read. That’s been the biggest takeaway for me in this class: the idea that we can produce public knowledge for a general audience – rather than closed-access knowledge for an academic audience. As a minority scholar and scholar of minority literature, it’s impossible for me to forget the fact that I’m privileged to be receiving this level of education at TCU. I’m inspired by the work we’re doing because it has helped me to find purpose in my academic work, which can feel so far removed from my background… and to envision more ways I can carry that sense of purpose into the future, through digital work.

The computer geek hat is one that I’ve worn both in and out of class. I came to this course with a basic knowledge of HTML, CSS, PHP, WordPress, databases, and web hosting/design. But my reintroduction to digital work has reminded me how much I love it, inspired me to continue down this path, and given me a taste of how I can integrate these skills into my future as a researcher.

Detective Girl

Me in the archives.

Yet another hat I wore this semester was that of a detective. From the moment I stepped into the archive at UT-Arlington, I became a sleuth. First, in finding materials to work with. It took a lot of explaining, questioning, cajoling, and patience to emerge with the single box containing the Gaffney family papers. Then, once I had the papers in hand, I only had a few moments to get over the excitement of discovery before I realized that each letter I read raised more and more questions. Where was Mrs. Gaffney from? What was her relationship with her husband like? When and how did he die? How old were her children? How many children did she actually have? (There were conflicting reports.) Did she own slaves? Was she wealthy before she came to Texas? What kind of education did she have, and why? And on and on and on.

Some of these answers came as I pieced together historical information, and others as I revisited, reviewed, and transcribed the letters themselves. Still more came when I dug into old census records via TCU’s subscription to Ancestry.com. For the first time, I understood what a wormhole genealogical research can be! Still, I found answers – and raised some new questions – that helped me get a better understanding of the woman Mrs. Gaffney was. Gradually, my narrative morphed – I learned that the Gaffneys were not lower class Southerners looking for a better life; Peter Gaffney’s family was actually very wealthy. But I learned that his wife Martha had little education and came from a family of more modest means.

So, having done some detective work, I switched that hat for one of a storyteller. I began to tell the story of Martha Gaffney, nee Martha Whitecotton, who married into a family of means, followed her husband west, and had to manage a massive plantation on her own. In my research, I uncovered the story of a woman who might have felt out of her depth and in over her head – but who rose to the challenge in order to support her family.

Dobby the House-Elf

Dobby the House Elf (From Harry Potter) wearing lots of hats.

Ultimately, it was in this final project that all of these skills came together, that I got to wear all of my hats at once. I was a literature student, bringing my knowledge of history, minorities, life writing, women’s writing, and slavery to the Gaffney correspondence. I was a computer geek, constantly tweaking my WordPress site via themes, plug-ins, CSS, HTML, post and page layouts, and so on. I was a detective, using the massive print and digital resources available to me to puzzle out the story of Mrs. Gaffney. And finally, I was a storyteller, constructing a loose narrative around the details I discovered – in the hopes that someone else can be inspired to take on those different hats, too, and pursue the Gaffney papers even further.

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