Archival Expeditions, Unexpected Discoveries

By Helen Shears
Ph.D. Student in History

In the fall semester of 2018, my friend and colleague in the Duke history Ph.D. program, Ashton Merck, approached me about collaborating on a project she was developing for the Archival Expeditions grant, a new program sponsored by the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. I agreed. The experience turned out to be more challenging and rewarding than I thought possible, an intellectual adventure that taught me the value of graduate student collaboration and the importance of getting out of my comfort zone as a scholar.

The pilot asked doctoral students to use materials in the Special Collections library to develop modules for particular undergraduate courses. It was a great opportunity for graduate students to develop their skills in course planning with a hands-on research component. Ashton, a historian of modern American business and regulatory policy, was interested in introducing qualitative, humanistic research methods to business students, in the context of classes such as the History of Innovation course in the Innovation and Entrepreneurship certificate, which typically might not involve the use of primary-source documents.

I study the history of early modern European empires, which, on the surface at least, might not seem even tangentially related to this type of project. However, Ashton wanted to work with a pre-modern historian in order to expand and complicate the timeline for scholars who might not otherwise consider the longer history of the concepts of “enterprise” or “innovation,” which we typically associate with the 19th and 20th centuries. We had gotten to know one another through the Duke Sawyer Seminar in Corporations and International Law, and our work shared some important conceptual interests, namely an interest in the intersection of government and commerce through the lens of institutions.

As a fifth-year and second-year student, respectively, Ashton and I were at very different stages in the history Ph.D. program, and the unique design of our specific project meant we were going to be working with minimal faculty supervision. In a sense, the project represented an experiment in striking out on our own terms, in order to see what the research collaboration between two graduate students could produce.

To our pleasure, we discovered that Archival Expeditions was an ideal program to foster research collaboration between pre- and post-A.B.D (all-but-dissertation) graduate students. Ultimately, this realization was the biggest positive outcome of the experience for me. Through this experience, I essentially gained a peer mentor, a professional relationship distinct from the relationships with faculty that I had cultivated so far, but equally valuable.

Because I was still in the coursework stage of my Ph.D., there was less pressure on me to “lead” the research process. Rather, while getting to spend more time in the Rubenstein Library (always a plus!), I got to observe a fifth-year graduate student turn a pedagogical idea into a fully fleshed-out research exercise. The grant became a real window into the mechanisms of project design and management, such as how to write a successful grant, select appropriate faculty sponsors, and locate additional sources of support. I was able to begin to practice these skills with Ashton’s support in a more “controlled” academic environment with little risk attached, which was ideal.

Archival Expeditions also exposed me to other exciting areas of Duke that I never thought I would see. By selecting a professor in the Fuqua Business School as our sponsor rather than a faculty member in the history department, Ashton ensured that we had an even wider range of collaborative opportunities and resources at our fingertips. In addition to becoming more familiar with Rubenstein Special Collections, I learned about the Duke Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative, which connects entrepreneurs with the necessary resources to develop and expand projects that incorporate social justice and artistic media in addition to the more typical sort of business ventures.

By collaborating on Archival Expeditions with a fifth-year in my department, and especially one who works in a different field, I also began to learn how to articulate the value of a humanist approach to scholarship to audiences outside of the humanities. I was nervous about this dimension of the project at first. When the grant began, I was barely beginning to communicate the value of my research to my advisor. I had no idea how I might go about expressing the wider implications of my research to an audience primarily made up of business students! But I also knew that being able to talk about the value of history outside the confines of my department was an important skill to cultivate.

For example, in the first part of our course module, business students examine 19th-century financial records from the Dismal Swamp Land Company, a land-speculation venture company founded in 1763. The examination of familiar business data, such inventory reports, in an unfamiliar format from a different time period enables the students to fully grasp how all forms of data is shaped by social and material contexts. The longer historical perspective is crucial for this kind of exercise.

Archival Expeditions afforded me the opportunity to begin to practice these skills, and to do so with the support of a colleague who was farther along in the program. My best memories of working on the grant basically consist of me and Ashton sitting around (or, more frequently, having epic texting conversations late at night, with the exchange of many GIFs), talking about why it mattered to introduce the fundamental tenets of historical research to non-historians.

These conversations will stay with me, and I firmly believe that having them with a historian outside of my direct research field improved the intellectual foundation of the modules we developed. The value of our collaboration will strengthen our practice as historians long after we finish developing our lesson plans.