Friday Faculty Lunch: Rediscovering suffrage history
Colin Rivera, Staff Writer
At the Friday Faculty Lunch on March 6, Professor Keri Graham of the Gender and Identity Studies program gave a presentation to the staff about a project that she has been involved with for the past few years. She told the story of her work with students and their work to bring to light the efforts of suffragists who were previously forgotten.
The project serves as a backdrop to discuss the time she spent with her classes and her methods used to instruct her classes in completing this endeavor. Graham and her classes were given the names of people who participated in suffrage activities and were asked to research them and write their biographies. Many of them were known only by their names, but little was known about who the people were behind their activism.
To complete the project, she worked with students in her History 305 class. She paired the students off and gave each a pair of individual names. The purpose of this, separate from contributing to the biography, was to test and better the research abilities of the students. One of the most challenging components of this task is the fact that most of these people are not “google-able,” which was a frequent complaint from some students.
Students had to use alternate sources to find information on the names they were given, such as ancestry.com or newspapers.com.
Another issue that students had to overcome was understanding past terminology. For example, some students were looking for a person and discovered the name “Mrs. Jim Smith” and concluded that the person was a man instead of the wife of Mr. Jim Smith. At this point in the class students had not yet learned legal terms, such as coverture, that Graham had taken for granted, and it resulted in some confusion.
Most of the course was centered on gathering skills rather than the content produced. These included general writing skills, finding primary sources, and meeting deadlines. Graham highlights another source of difficulty within the processes of peer review: It is common for many students to skim another’s work and say that they liked it without giving any ways for it to improve.
Some of the biographies produced by the class were strong enough to be published. These can be found on Alexander Street.
Graham has had several takeaways from her time working with these biographies so far. The first is that it helped students develop professional skills. Her past students have told her how well the class has prepared them. Other feedback she received is that there should have been more editing earlier, and that the editing process would have been better if students were able to meet with copy editors.
The quality of the previous work her classes have completed has resulted in being asked to work on even more biographies from more places and demographics than Washington; such as Michigan suffragists and African-American suffragists. These will be a bit more of a challenge due to their being less resources available. Going into the spring semester, the class will focus on editing their current round of articles and they should be ready this summer.