Kat Powell is a post-doctoral lecturer in the English Department and the Assistant Director of the Writing Center. As an interdisciplinary researcher, she is deeply invested in archival research, particularly into what life was like during the period of technological transformation introduced by the railways. Her dissertation, published in 2017, is titled Railways and Regret: Revising Mobility Myths in Literature and Culture, 1857-1891. As a teacher, she aims to spark in her students the joy she finds in the “detective” work of archival research. She teaches courses in fiction, poetry, composition, research, and professional writing.
The Composition Office recently interviewed her to find out more about her English 102 class and how she teaches the archival unit.
Our interview follows:
Your English 102 topic is “Inquiry into Crime and Detection.” Could you tell us more about this topic and why you chose this as your course’s theme?
As a former sociology major, I have long been interested in deviance, and as a student of the nineteenth century, I have great affection for detective fiction, particularly detective figures. Considering the proliferation of crime shows on television, I imagined that students would be familiar (if not fascinated) with representations of crime and detection in culture. I mean, who amongst us hasn’t seen at least one Law & Order episode? In all seriousness, whether or not we directly experience crime, we are all affected by how crime is managed. Students have stakes in the topic at the local, regional, national, and international levels. In the qualitative unit, students examine how fear of crime shapes their fellow students’ behavior and survey their classmates’ thoughts about how well crime is managed on campus. In the archival unit, students investigate historical reports about crimes to make inferences about what life and culture was like at a certain time and place. In the secondary source unit, students enter larger national conversations about policing and the judicial system and/or explore how crime affects their field of study.
How do you introduce the archival unit to your students? What are some activities you use in teaching them to find older materials and write about them?
We begin the unit by consuming a bit of popular crime culture, which is an entertaining way to enter a serious practice. We read an excerpt from Erik Larson’s historical fiction book, Devil in the White City (2003), in which Larson describes his methodology, and we use it to consider the problems with archival research and historical argumentation: the practice of selection, the gaps in information, the leads that go nowhere. We then watch an episode of City Confidential, a documentary television show in which a crime (usually murder) shapes or is shaped by the city in which it occurs. The show illustrates for them that crimes do not occur in a vacuum but, rather, are embedded in a time and place—that the relationship between context and event is dynamic. I also ask students to listen to a “mini-episode” of the podcast My Favorite Murder, in which the hosts read listener-written emails relating to murders that occurred in their hometown. Since the hosts of the podcasts are comedians, students are intrigued by the combination of the silly and the shocking—it gets them talking.
This foray into popular culture lets me elaborate on the idea that historical argumentation is a form of storytelling, and we talk a lot about what not to do before we discuss best practices. As students read, watch, and listen to these explanations of historical crimes, I ask them to record the kinds of materials that were used to tell the stories: newspaper articles, maps, photos, court transcripts, confessions, etc. Their assignment is then to research a historical murder (or other major crime) in their hometown and to use the crime as a window through which they can see what life and culture was like at that time and in that place.
What made you decide to examine your own family history and conduct some of your own archival research? What was the process like for you? How do you share this experience with your class, and what is the benefit of doing the same kind of research that you are asking of your students?
In each research unit I teach, I practice live-modeling. In the qualitative unit, we develop a class research question, create a survey together, poll the students from my other section, code the results and write up a research article together. This practice helps students to develop research skills with my guidance in real time.
This last semester, I made our class archival project the investigation of a crime in my family—the death of Alfred “Mac” McSwain Kale. For a long time, I have had a packet of newspaper articles passed down to me from my grandfather about my great, great grandfather who died in a duel over millhand poaching. I have always wanted to do something with them but didn’t have the time. I decided this course was the perfect learning opportunity. Our class looked at old photos of “Mac,” and I showed students how to use Ancestry.com (free through our library) to look up census records, and records of birth, marriage, and death to trace Mac’s movements. We read newspaper articles about his murder and the trial, which are rich with turn-of-the century diction indicating turn-of-the-century values. The students worked hard to make thoughtful, evidence-based inferences about the community of Mount Holly.
By examining all the archival material we had, we could see a clear picture of a time when mills operated as their own city-states with their own logic of self-policing and a not-so-blind justice system. It was exhilarating bringing Mac to life and animating this tragic moment in time to learn about mill culture in post-Civil War North Carolina.
What is the most challenging part of teaching the archival unit and how can teachers work to overcome this challenge? What advice do you have for those teaching the archival unit for the first time?
Students find it challenging to acquire credible resources and make sound historical arguments. I urge them to be dissatisfied with the amount and quality of source material that they find, so as to encourage them to keep digging. I am explicit that this assignment is not a book report on a crime but, rather, an evidence-based argument about the significance of that crime (for example, how does the way the crime was reported tell us about the community’s values?). I refer often to the metaphor of a window when explaining historical argumentation. By making the crime the window, I shift the focus from the event to what lies beyond it. I explain that archival research tilts the blinds covering the past open. The more research we have, the more we tilt the blinds for a clearer picture. We must acknowledge, though, that part of the view will always be obscured by both the remaining edge of the blind and also the frame of the window, so we have to be transparent about those shortcomings as we piece together evidence to tell the story.
I would advise future teachers to include an activity where students can research their own lives or interests. When I first tell students that they have access to Ancestry.com, they immediately want to look up all of their family members or records of people they know. I designate time for them to do that because I know it also builds excitement. You could do this as a practice exercise at the beginning of the unit and have students share their findings. I acknowledge the pitfalls of asking students to examine what seems directly relevant to them, but I think in introductory classes having personal stakes ensures that they engage in the research with energy. It makes it fun for them, and then they learn firsthand the pleasures of discovery inherent in research.
Listed below are some photographs Kat Powell shared with her class during her archival unit: the first photograph is of her great-great grandfather, Alfred “Mac” McSwain Kale, and the second photograph is of a newspaper article published shortly after the trial.