Syllabus 2009

Submitted by Karen J. Sanchez-Eppler on Saturday, 1/24/2009, at 5:50 PM

Research Methods in American Culture

Spring 2009

This course is designed to provide American Studies juniors, English majors with an interest in interdisciplinary literary research, and others with an opportunity to write a research paper on a topic of their own choosing.  We will engage a wide range of materials and methodologies in this course in order to grasp the broad interdisciplinarity of the field of American Studies. English majors using this course to satisfy their English 95 requirement should settle on an essentially literary topic. Through short written exercises students will gauge the utility of various methodological approaches to determine which are most useful for their own independent work. All students must complete the first four short writing assignments. Each student must also select and do two of the remaining writing exercises.


The major requirement of this course is a research paper, approximately 20 pages in length that will be due at the end of the semester. This course is designed to structure the process of independent research and writing. All students will be required to discuss their topic with the instructor, to submit a prospectus and preliminary bibliography, and to write a rough draft of their paper well in advance of the final due date.  Individual conferences on these drafts will be scheduled between April 14st and 29th. Students will also be required to make formal presentations of their work in progress.                     



Available at Amherst Books


Theresa Strouth Gaul, To Marry an Indian: The Marriage of Harriett Gold and Elias Boudinot in Letters, 1823-1839 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005) 080785029

Martha A Sandweiss, Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception across the Color Line (Penguin, 2009) 1594202001

D.J. Waldie, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005) 0393327280

Anna Deavere Smith, Fires in the Mirror (New York: Anchor, 1993) 0385470142

Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998)

Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: A Novel (New York: Mariner Books, 2006) 0231111495

Jean Pfaelzer, Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008) 0520256948


Additional readings are available on-line through E-Reserves and are marked (R) in the syllabus



Summary of Research Project Schedule


February 23rd to March 9th                  Individual project conferences

March 11th                                                                               Prospectus

April 10th                                                                                Full first draft

April 13th  to 24th                                                        Individual draft conferences

April 29th  to May 6th                                                  In class project presentation               

May 15th                                                                                  Research paper done!





A Sense of Place


Monday, Jan. 26th        Introductions  


Wednesday, Jan. 28th    meet at the Jones Library on Amity Street


In class workshop: Many different kinds of records – including maps, prints, albums, photographs, personal letters, business records, published books, newspapers and periodicals – afford a glimpse of the past. I will give each of you an object or record from nineteenth-century Amherst and ask you to discover what can be learned from it. You will then work in small groups to see what larger stories the combination of different bits of evidence produces.


Buildings and Things


Monday Feb. 2nd


            Viviane Pollak and Marianne Noble, “Emily Dickinson, 1830-1886: A Brief Biography”                              in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson (Oxford UP, 2004), 13-65. (R)

            Emily Dickinson, selections from her poems and letters (Class Handout)


Wednesday Feb. 4th meet at Emily Dickinson Museum on Main Street


            Susan H. Dickinson, “Magnetic Visitors” in Amherst Magazine (Spring 1981) (R)

            David Dillon, “Home is Where the House Is.” (R)

            Diana Fuss, AInterior Chambers: The Emily Dickinson Homestead,@ Differences 10                         (1998), 1-46 (R)


            In class workshop: We will tour both the Dickinson Homestead and the Evergreens to explore what we can learn about ordinary daily life in 19th century Amherst and about this extraordinary poet from studying the architecture of these houses and the domestic objects they contain.

Life Stories

Monday Feb. 9th                     


Karen Sánchez-Eppler, “Copying and Conversion: An 1824 Friendship Album ‘from a Chinese Youth,’” American Quarterly 2007 59(2):301-339. (R)

Martha Hodes, “Fractions and Fictions in the United States Census of 1890,” in Ann Laura Stoler, Haunted by Empire (Duke UP, 2006), 240-270. (R)


Wednesday Feb. 11th meet at Lane Room, Frost Library


Martha A. Sandweiss, Passing Strange (2008). Prologue and Part I


In class workshop: After a brief introduction to a variety of on-line search tools, you will begin researching the life of an ordinary person.


Assignment 1: Following the structured research steps I will provide, you are to write a brief biography (4-5 pages) of an ordinary American, drawing on at least three of the research tools introduced in the workshop. This is an assignment that stresses research, but it also requires narration. Your goal is to conjure a life out of the facts you have managed to collect, while always remaining careful to distinguish between knowledge and speculation. Biographies are due posted on-line Tuesday February 17th.



Biography and Micro-history

Monday, Feb.16th                   


Jill Lepore, “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography,” Journal of American History 2001 88(1): 129-144. (R)

Martha A. Sandweiss, Passing Strange (2008).  Part II, III, and Epilogue


Wednesday, Feb 18th   meet in Lane Room, Frost Library


Read your classmates’ biographies and prepare for class discussion by making a

            list of at least two larger stories that inform these individual life narratives.


In class workshop: Introduction to the online resources that will allow you to build a specialized bibliography for this project.


Assignment 2: Write a brief paragraph identifying the larger themes you would want to explore in turning your biography into a micro-history. Create a bibliography of at least 20 entries including both books and articles that would help you work this transformation. Due Friday February 20th




Contemporary Census Stories

Monday Feb. 23rd                   


            D.J. Waldie, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir (2005)


Wednesday Feb. 25th   meet in Lane Room, Frost Library

                        Presentation by Douglas Black


In class workshop: An introduction to the on-line and in-print United States Census data from 1980-2000. 


Assignment 3: The challenge of turning your own memories or experiences into a narrative with larger implications can be considerably harder than using an historical figure to examine broader historical themes. Drawing from data from the 1980, 1990, and 2000 census reports, write a 2-3 page paper that places your own family’s experience within the general trends of the communities in which they’ve lived. You may focus on yourself, your immediate family, or a relative. Where does the experience of your family seem to resonate with larger cultural trends? Where does it seem to diverge? To the end of your paper, append a one-page reflection on what sort of data you would need to acquire in order to use your family’s experience to illuminate a larger theme in American history. What theme would that be? What information could help you develop that argument? Due Monday March 2nd .



Reading and Contextualizing Personal Papers

Monday, March 2nd                


Theresa Strouth Gaul, To Marry an Indian: The Marriage of Harriett Gold and Elias Boudinot in Letters, 1823-1839 (2005)


Wednesday, March 4th meet at Archives and Special Collections, Frost Library


Emily Honey “The Girls of 83 Round Hill Road: Boarding Houses, Social Interaction, and the Culture of Consumption at Smith College, 1892-1895" (R)


In class workshop: We will look at the College’s collection of  letters, scrap books, diaries etc. from Amherst students as well as college newspapers, course catalogs, histories, club minutes and other materials towards preparing an annotated transcript of one letter or other brief manuscript text. This workshop will also show you how to use the Five College archive and manuscript finding aids for all kinds of collections including family and personal papers.


Assignment 4: Transcribe and annotate a letter or other brief manuscript text from the Amherst Archives. Then, just as you thought about how you might transform your biography into a microhistory, write a page suggesting some of the larger historical, cultural, or literary stories that this manuscript could help you to tell.


The Text Encoding Initiative provides far more detailed information on the complexities of attempting to represent the qualities of manuscript material in print than is at all necessary for this project, but their guidelines will make you aware of the kinds of manuscript characteristics you might want to pay attention to, as well as how to tag them. This is the scholarly standard in the transcription field.


The description of editing and annotation practices that Robert Root prepared for a Michigan public history project offer more user friendly and helpful guidelines for this assignment.

Annotated Transcriptions are due Monday March 9th.        



For the rest of the semester assignments will be related to your specific project.  We will continue to have weekly research-skill activities in class and related assignments, but each of you will only need to do two of the remaining assignments, picking ones that are most useful methodologically for your particular project and doing it in a way that can be incorporated into your research.

Interpreting Images


Monday, March 9th     


                                    John Berger, “The Uses of Photography,” in About Looking (1980), 29-67. (R)

Mary Niall Mitchell “Introduction: Portrait of Isaac and Rosa” Raising Freedom’s Child:Black Children and Visions of the Future After Slavery, (2008)1-13 (R)

Lorie Novak, “Collected Visions,” in Marianne Hirsch ed., Familial Gaze (1999), pp. 14-31 (R)

            Explore and



Wednesday, March 11th  meet at Mead Art Museum


In class workshop: drawing cultural or social information from photographs, with some attention to engravings, lithographs, and paintings.


Assignment 5 (optional): How can you develop an historical argument from a visual image? Working with a single image or a group of images in the Mead Collection, Amherst College Special Collections (or with a selection of your own devising appropriate to your topic), write a 3-5 page paper that argues for how these images conveys a story or a point of view without recourse to, or in association with, textual descriptions of the same place, persons, or events. You should give attention to content, form and context, thinking hard about how original audiences might have encountered these pictures, as well as how they were composed. Due Wednesday, March 25th.




Prospectus for your final project due Wednesday, March 11th

Before drafting your prospectus you should make an appointment to meet with me to discuss possible projects. You can work on any American topic that is of strong interest to you, but you will need in your work to draw on at least three different sorts of research tools. Reviewing this syllabus and the assignments outlined here may help you to think about the kind of research activities you would like to do this semester. Students taking this course for credit as English 95 will need to pick a topic that is literary in scope. Your prospectus should include a 2-3 page discussion of the problem you intend to explore, the questions or issues you will raise, and what sorts of evidence you intend to use.  Please attach a preliminary bibliography.



Spring Break


Surveys and Data Analysis


Monday, March 23rd  meet in Webster 102 computer classroom

            Presentation by Jan Dizard


In class workshop: Prof. Dizard will demonstrate the use of statistical software designed for the analysis of social survey (“public opinion”) data, as well as aggregate data from state and national data bases. If you are intending to use survey or demographic data, please let me know the kinds of data you are interested in and Dizard will try to incorporate data relevant to your projects into the day’s workshop.


Wednesday, March 25th 


Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life, 1-88, appendix 1 and appendix 2


Assignment 6 (optional): If you are conducting a survey as part of your project this assignment would be a good opportunity to experiment with various ways of presenting and analyzing that data. You should discuss your particular survey with Prof. Dizard to discern the best models to experiment with here, turn in tables or graphs presenting your data and a 1-2 page reflection on the process and the strengths and weaknesses you see in this data and its analysis for your particular project. For those of you not conducting your own surveys, there are many publicly available databases that may be of use for your research. Douglas Black, Professor Dizard, and I can help you locate databases relevant to your particular project. Experiment with various ways of presenting and analyzing this data, and turn in the resulting tables and graphs together with 1-2 pages of  reflection on the process and the particular strengths and weaknesses you see in this data set and its analysis for your particular project. Due Monday, March 30th.





Oral History


Monday March 30th


Anna Deavere Smith, Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities (read play and view streamed video)


Wednesday April 1st 


Janet Malcolm, “The Morality of Journalism” New York Review of Books (March 1, 1990) 37(3). Accessible online at: (R)

Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in America Life, 89 - 207

            Oral History Guidelines from the Oral History Association available at                    


Assignment 7 (optional): For this brief oral history project interview someone whom you think would be a useful source for your particular project.  We will hone possible interview questions and approaches during our class on oral history. After your interview, review the tape and type out no more than one page of material that strikes you as particularly illuminating.  Then write another 1-2 pages that discusses how these passages are useful for your project and reflects on your interview and selection process. In light of our class readings what do you see as the utility and limitations of oral history material and this particular interview as a source for this specific project? Due Monday April 6th.



Legal cases and government documents


Monday, April 6th


                                    Jean Pfaelzer, Driven Out: The Forgotten War against Chinese Americans (2007)

With Jean Pfaelzer


Wednesday, April 8th  meet in Webster 102 computer classroom


            Jean Pfaelzer, Driven Out: The Forgotten War against Chinese Americans (2007)


            In class workshop: researching legal cases


A rough draft of your essay is due Friday April 10th. I will schedule individual meetings to review your drafts between April 13th and 24th.


Assignment 8 (optional): Online legal data bases offer a way to look not just at the development of case law, but at a wide range of broader social problems and points of conflict. You can explore the effects of a particular historical event, track shifting problems in social relations, consider alterations in the understanding of race or gender, analyze changes in attitudes towards such things as marriage or divorce. Using the tools we studied in class write a 3-5 page paper that makes use of legal cases to examine a particular issue in American social life. You might focus on a close analysis of one case, or use several cases to track shifting opinions or points of view. Due Monday, April 13th.



The Periodical Press


Monday, April 13th meet at Archives and Special Collections, Frost Library


            Meredith L. McGill, Lurking in the Blogosphere of the 1840s: Hotlinks, Sockpuppets,             and the History of Reading, ” Common-Place (January, 2007)   

David Henkin, “Print in Public, Public in Print: The Rise of the Daily Paper” in City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York (1998),   101-135 (R)

Whitman Archives section on Whitman’s poetry published in periodicals    


In class workshop: working with actual periodicals and periodical databases to think about how to evaluate audience and circulation, and how to think about the relations between different types of content, including illustrations, advertisements, editorial and subscriber materials, and overall publication design.


Wednesday, April 15th   


Carolyn Kitch, “A Working-Class Hero is Something to Be: The Lasting Story of September 11th” in Pages from the Past History and Memory in American Magazines (2005) 38-60.

Susan Lurie, “Falling Persons and National Embodiment: The Reconstruction of Safe Spectatorship in the Photographic Record of 9/11,” in  Daniel Sherman and Terry Nardin, Terror, Culture, Politics: Rethinking 9/11 (2006) 44-68.


Assignment 9 (optional): How could you use a periodical to help you think about issues in your project? Periodicals are a great source of information, in part because each specific piece is surrounded by an abundance of diverse cultural materials. Write a 3-5 page paper that either centers on the way one or two periodicals cover your topic, or that looks at one or two periodicals from the time and place of your project and reflects on things you find there that provide an illuminating context for your concerns. You may focus on the literary content of the periodicals, the illustrations and advertisements, or a combination of all three. If you are working on a literary topic you could use periodicals to look at reviews and advertisements for your text and/or its serial publication. In every case make sure that you pay attention to such characteristics as audience, layout, and advertising. Due date: Monday, March 23rd.





Monday, April 20th


                        Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: A Novel (2006)


Wednesday, April 22nd  


Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: A Novel (2006)           


             In class workshop: literary style and form as tools for social analysis


Assignment 10 (optional): Literary texts can offer evidence for efforts to understand a particular time, place, or problem,  because of content certainly, but even more powerfully through the ways in which formal features express that content: not just the “what” but the “how”.  Pick a literary text that seems to you relevant to your project. Write a 3 page essay that describes a particular stylistic feature of this work and then suggests some of the ways that this formal feature illuminates an issue you are addressing in your project. Due Monday April 27th.



Your Research Projects


Monday, April 27                    Class Presentations


Wednesday, April 29              Class Presentations


Monday, May 4                       Class Presentations    


Wednesday, May 6                  Endings                      



Final Paper due Friday, May 15th 10:00 a.m.



Tags:  syllabus2009