by Esther R. '19
How do we approach history and why is this our method?
Perhaps these are big questions. But one thing I have learned from my fall history class, Advanced Research Seminar (ARS), is that sometimes the best way to consider large questions is to simply zoom in on specific moments.
We began the class in the land of theory, reading and discussing how history is written. We dissected language and read articles about microhistory and counterfactual history. We learned that when discovering silenced stories, unconventional means become necessary.
In first half of the semester, our class read a historical graphic novel, based on a single court case of a West African slave, Abina, who went to court to win her freedom ("Abina and the Important Men" by Trevor Getz). In our discussions, we empathized with Getz’s aims, even as we deplored the way he ultimately drowned the protagonist in his own commentary. Afterward, we dived into Adam Hochschild’s much more conventional "King Leopold’s Ghost," which, through an exploration of many colorful characters, focuses on Belgian exploitation and brutality in the Congo.
Beyond reading books with stories we had not been exposed to before, ARS invited a new level of participation in discussions. My classmates were engaged, curious, and passionate; because the class was an elective (culminating in a rigorous research project), we knew that everyone was enthusiastic and eager to be there every day. Our teacher, Ms. Kyle, set the tone, as she connected one student’s idea to another’s to the day’s news.
ARS also offered two unique opportunities. After we read our books, we got to speak to the authors. We asked them questions about both their material and their methods. Our conversations elevated our ideas; for a few brief minutes, we were not just students, but fellow scholars.
In the second half of the semester, we began work on our research projects. As I stared down my topic, translation, I was daunted, but our earlier conversations with historians served as inspiration to keep going. My other source of inspiration surrounded me: my peers tackled topics from modern dance to physics with excitement and courage.
I often felt adrift during the research process. While the feeling itself was uncomfortable, it allowed me to take more risks. I strayed from what I originally had envisioned, scanning reference works only to find more questions. In the end, it was by narrowing my focus and writing with sincerity that I was able to finish my project.
Not that the final paper marked a finish line. In a joyous exchange of learning, our class showed off our projects not only to one another, but to our parents and guardians. We had documentaries and short stories, and lesson plans alongside more traditional essays. Although we had been given almost complete freedom to play with ideas and subject matter, there was a common thread connecting our work: revolution and the radically new.
Somewhere along our course, between reading African stories and drawing diagrams of history, between our first timid minutes and our last bold ones, we learned to be brave, telling new stories and embracing new techniques. I am not surprised: as a parent (mine), who attended the research presentation put it, “The room was fairly crackling with intellectual energy. I felt as if I was witnessing the birth of something really big for each student.”