Modeling Undergraduate Research

Creating a Federal Government succeeds through the contributions of its team.  That team includes not only the project author and digital humanities specialists, but also a cohort of students who have participated in this project since its inception.  This project has always been designed as one creates opportunities for students: opportunities to work with scholars and digital humanities specialists; opportunities to learn about research; opportunities to learn about technology; and opportunities to learn how scholarship, research, and technology come together.

The notion that students contribute to knowledge creation is nothing new in some disciplines, most notably the sciences.  But the humanities have long struggled to find ways of bringing students into the research process.  Creating a Federal Government responds to this state of affairs by modeling different forms of involvement for undergraduates and graduate students.

This project has also involved undergraduates and graduate students at every stage of development, either for pay or for credit.  They have contributed to the data, but they have also helped discuss project design and data analysis.  These opportunities are rare in the humanities, in stark contrast to the valuable research experiences that so many students gain in the sciences.

An Extended Cohort

Students have worked both individually and in groups, depending on their own interests and specific tasks.  This work has included the following:

  • Identifying Appointments: the first students to participate in this project laid the foundation for the Archive by identifying appointments to federal office.  They did so in a distributed manner during the summer, combining work on this project with their own individual pursuits.  Recording their data on a networked data entry tool provided for a coordinated system, with students checking each other’s work when necessary.
  • Checking the Tax Collectors: in the summer of 2010, a team of three students clarified the existing list of appointments through a careful dissection of changes in the titles and offices of the officials who collected federal revenues.  These were among the most numerous federal appointees, and making sense of their shifting titles required careful research into the system through which the United States funded itself while seeking to provide oversight for an arena with a high potential for corruption.
  • Deciphering the Territories: in the summer of 2012, a team of five students worked in close collaboration to develop a system for identifying and encoding the thousands of appointments to territorial office.  Two graduate students specializing in western history provided vital intellectual and organization leadership to this process for the three undergraduates.  Over the course of five weeks, this group became a highly effective research team.

A Research Training Ground

While student work contributes the particulars of this project, it has always been designed as means for students to gain vital research skills that will serve them throughout their undergraduate careers. 

The subject of greatest focus has been to help students understand what it means to work with primary sources.  Historians are quick to emphasize the importance of exposing students to historical sources, but the demands of the classroom often limit this exposure.  More specifically, students rarely immerse themselves in individual collections, nor do they learn how historians choose their sources or how those sources come together to support conclusions.  Creating a Federal Government teaches students to think like historians by having them work as historians.  Students are required to understand the provenance and value of collections.  They are encouraged to take ownership for the sources they examine, considering the possibilities and limitations of those sources.

Training Historians for the Digital Medium

In addition to their training in historical sources, Creating a Federal Government also trains students in the technologies and organizational techniques of digital projects.  Students usually come to this project with experience on the internet and comfort with an individual computer, but almost no awareness of how material is placed online or how computers interpret their information.  The Humanities Digital Workshop (HDW) at Washington University in St. Louis trains these students in the abstract concepts of machine intelligence as well as the pragmatic concepts of digital project management.

Extended Results

Many students work on this project, draw satisfaction from the experience, and move on with their academic lives.  But a large number of students have applied the specific skills of this project to subsequent work.  Still others have developed their own research projects related to the materials in Creating a Federal Government.  Here are a few examples:

  • An undergraduate history major working on appointments and resignations at the National Archives in College Park, Md., used that experience to explore State Department records that he planned to use for a senior honors thesis on the history of U.S. foreign relations.
  • An undergraduate political science major conducted a directed study project on the link between patronage and partisanship during the transition from the early republic to the antebellum era.
  • An undergraduate planning to attend law school focused his research on U.S. attorneys, exploring federal law enforcement in the early republic
  • A graduate student in history who created the initial data entry tool used that experience as the basis for a career in instructional technology.