At the beginning of this semester, I entitled my blog “Reading in the dark.” I did this for two reasons: first, because it was a play on light and dark in regards to minorities and, thus, minority literature; second, because it allowed me to put into words how being thrust into this course made me feel:
“Imagine waking up in a dark and unfamiliar room. As you look into darkness, your eyes begin to dart from one side of the room to the other, as you frantically look for an escape. Your breathing becomes shallow and your heart begins beating faster as panic begins to sets. No escape can be found. You muster just as much courage as your mind will allow, and begin moving your way around the room, feeling the walls in the hope of stumbling upon something, anything that can help you. Finally, after what seems to be an eternity of searching, you find something, something small, roughly four feet up the wall… a light.” – In the beginning, there was light
As a new M.A. student from another state, my first graduate advising meeting took place over the phone. It went well, as far as advising can go, that is. However, our director of graduate studies highly discouraged me from taking one of the courses I had wanted to enroll in on the grounds that I did not have enough of my own writing for the workshop-type course. Instead, she advised that I enroll in an early minority American literature course. You could have measured my excitement with the head of a pin. None of my memories of American literature were “good” ones, and, seeing as I am a British early-modernist, I really did not see how this course could benefit me. My concerns aside, my advisor assured me that the archival skills I would acquire in this course would be beneficial to me. And so, in August, I walked into my first class meeting… completely unprepared.
Certain aspects of the course were as one would expect, in early minority American literature we would be studying early minority American literature. As could also be expected, we discussed the objectives and general overview of this part of the course for the first half of class. What came next caught me completely off guard: computer based assignments.
As I would learn in my Introduction to Graduate Studies course, New Media techniques are becoming essential to one’s development if they wish to have a future in the humanities. What I was not expecting was to have a course that rested over fifty percent of the final grade on computer coding capabilities. As you may imagine, I was horrified. This did not go unnoticed by my new professor, who, like myself, was also caught off guard by my extreme reaction to this news as these facts of the course were listed within the provided course description.
Rewind to that advising phone call over the summer: I was instructed as to what course I would take and took my advisor’s word for it. I did not take the time to read the course description and accepted my fate blindly. How was I to know that, come August, my semester was going to be VERY different than I had imagined it. Fast-forward back to that first day in August when I nearly had a panic attack when I did finally go back and read that course description. But, by then, my fate was sealed and I could not do anything but batten down the hatches and prepare for the worst.
The first half of the semester went as expected with a few blog posts here and there. Little did I know that the real fun had yet to begin. Enter October. Undergraduates are stressing over mid-terms and I am terrified of my newest assignment: a fairly specific, narrowed topic, early minority American literature archive project which combined both archival research and computer coding, two things I had been dreading from day 1.
We met at the University of Texas at Arlington’s library to have our first introduction to archival research. Things went well, I got an idea for how things would work and, by that time, I had accepted my fate and was trying to find a silver lining. Meanwhile, back at TCU, my professor began teaching us the ways of the code, which went much better than I had planned. I was finally feeling confident in my skills, and then archival research happened.
My professor told us to prepare to go to the archives at least twice over the following months, explaining that the first day would be spent primarily on finding a topic and finding your bearings. Boy was he right. I went into my first day at the archives with a fairly specific research topic in mind: putting my love of cooking to good use, I wanted to examine the kitchen records and/or recipes of antebellum-Texan estates. Unfortunately, there were none. The closest thing to a recipe I could find was a recipe for toilet soap… not exactly what I had in mind.
While I was floundering at the special collections library, I was at least flourishing at the computer side of the assignments. Luckily, growing up during the time of MySpace boded well for me, and I was able to understand and pick up on the concepts of coding relatively quickly. There was, however, that looming issue: I did not have a research topic.
Day two at the special collections was looking equally as dull, as a box I thought would prove useful for a new topic tanked. Once again I found myself staring at a binder full of archival documents… with nothing for me to use. That is when a fellow classmate came upon a folder within her own box that contained miscellaneous poetry. While most of it was written by white military men during the Mexican Revolution, I stumbled upon two poems which, by the look of the handwriting, were written by the same person. There was no signature and only one date, but it was something.
I decided to take pictures of these documents and see what I could find. Initially, my gut was telling me it was the poetry of a child: supported by the “bubble” style handwriting, misspelled words, and the first poem’s overly heroic depiction of the Battle of the Alamo. Meanwhile, the second poem threw me a curve ball, as its topic of “free Texas” seemed a bit beyond the scope of a child. This left me rather confused and grabbing for straws as to how I could build my final project, a webpage, around these two, anonymous poems.
I began easy and chose to develop a background narrative for the Alamo poem. Then I was finally forced to face the content of the second poem, “Texas.” Unlike “Men of the Alamo,” “Texas”‘s references to “free Texas” and the personification of “Barbed Wire” seemed to signal that this may have been the writing of a slave. With this lead, I decided to look up information concerning slavery in Texas around 1839, the date of “Men of the Alamo.” As it turns out, Texas history, and particularly the Mexican War, is riddled with slavery related issues. With this new knowledge, I decided to reshape my project to follow this trend of slavery from 1820-1865. The results were incredible and lead me to my final project:
While I will save the fruits of my labors for my website, I was pleasantly surprised to have found a topic that both met the requirements of the project while making slavery something of interest. Being from Louisiana, you could get drunk on the amount of slavery information I was fed as a kid. This was a new twist on an old story that also put the politics of the Mexican War into perspective.
To conclude, this course has turned out to be my favorite this semester. Not only did the assignments prove to be fun in their own right, but I have also learned to set up and run my own website. While I am unsure as to how long I will keep my research project online, I did start my own, unrelated website that is dedicated to cooking. In a round-about-way, I still got to do that recipe project I had been hoping for from the start of the final project. The skills I have acquired through this course have been the most beneficial to my career preparation to date, as they allow for my creative side to finally be expressed. I look forward to this New Media age of education and can only hope that my teaching will be as useful to my students as my professor’s have been for me.
Thank you, Dr. May. It really has been an honor working with you.