During our last few classes, we focused heavily on designing portions of our research study for future IRB approval. However, after returning from a refreshing spring vacation, we put our project on hold to take a much-needed trip back in time, courtesy of an enlightening presentation by Dr. Shevaun Watson, Associate Professor of English at UWM.
Shevaun’s talk, supplemented by our other weekly readings, taught us how qualitative researchers can utilize historical archives, memories, and other artifacts to enrich their current understandings of past subjects or places. During America’s formational stages, Shevaun explained that many scholars in the 18th century were viewing rhetoric from an “enlightenment” perspective, prioritizing the elocution, taste, and correctness of language over historic archives and sources. Because of this focus on style, these scholars silenced many underrepresented groups from the time period by largely failing to examine their historical artifacts and accounts.
In her essay “Good Will Come of this Evil,” (published in the College Composition and Communication academic journal) Shevaun illuminates the plights of two African-American slaves turned schoolmasters in 18th century America, examining how a church organization used literacy as a tool to spread Christian ideologies to marginalized communities. Shevaun’s piece is powerful today because it challenges both the “heroic ideal” of literacy and American exceptionalism, digging up previously-silenced voices from the historical archive.
With Pen and Voice by Shirley Wilson Logan and Traces of a Stream by Jacqueline Jones Royster (both pictured above) were just some of the books that Shevaun mentioned during her talk with us. These works are valuable because they challenge traditional research values by giving needed representation to silenced voices from the past.
In the discussion following her talk, Shevaun focused on two main concepts: silences in the historical record and critical imagination. During her research for “Good Will Come,” Shevaun highlighted how difficult it was to find pre-19th century records of African-American literacy, as most historical artifacts of the time period were biased towards American colonialism and made little mention of other marginalized populations. Shevaun asserted that these factors helped form “historical silences”—a lack of personal accounts—from these obscured populations.
In order to give representation to those silenced within the historical record, Shevaun stated that she had to use critical imagination—a researcher’s interpretation of past events—in an attempt to “fill in” these historical gaps of silence. To ensure accuracy, Shevaun carefully grounded her assumptions in fact by recording details from the time period’s letters and diaries, historical archives previously unexamined by more traditional researchers. She even informed us of her plans to visit South Carolina this coming summer, seeking to closely examine modern retellings of colonial history while also immersing herself in the researched environment.
The takeaways from Shevaun’s presentation align with our modern-day qualitative research readings. For instance, the “silences” that Shevaun mentioned still exist in different forms, as evidenced by Susan Wells and Nathan Stormer’s piece in Methodologies for the Rhetoric of Health and Medicine. In their article, the authors assert that both HIPAA and institutional hesitance regarding PHI access create artificial barriers for researchers attempting to study past medical records. In Writing Studies: Research in Practice, Liz Rohan discusses the importance of inclusive historical rhetoric and critical imagination, stating that “connections between lived lives and the lives of deceased subjects can…produce useful knowledge about the past, the present and culture generally, even in not written in the conventional voice of academic discourse” (30). Echoing Shevaun and a previous reading on the value of emplaced research by Jennifer Edwell, Rohan also states that physically going to historic locations can help a researcher connect on a deeper level with their past subjects. In Field Rhetoric, Heather Brook Adams notes how studying memories from her research participants caused her to change her data collection methods (switching from individual interviews to focus groups) and made her pay closer attention to her participants’ emotions during questioning.
Following Shevaun’s visit, we devoted the rest of class time to the organization of responsibilities for our study, which was recently IRB-approved with exempt status! With the overall structure of our study now in place, the class split into two preliminary groups--interview and recruitment—for further planning and collaboration. As we prepared to move into the “data collection” phase of our study, Shevaun reminded us to keep an open mind towards our research results, because what we find may be surprising. Thanks to our new historical knowledge, we will value non-traditional artifacts, further accommodate the needs of our interview subjects, and—above all—remain adaptable as our research process continues. There’s no doubt that these lessons from the past will positively influence our own practices moving forward.