Well, I am sitting here in my office grading midterms and writing student comments. It’s a busy time of the year and the realization that spring break is more than a month away doesn’t make the situation any better. I received the final essays from my Civil War class. I taught a research seminar course that was structured around the Valley of the Shadow. Students were expected to collect resources from the database and read additional secondary sources. The final essays look really good, though they run the spectrum in terms of overall quality. The best papers were written by those who paid careful attention throughout the semester on how to begin with the formulation of the research question and thesis to the analysis of various kinds of sources to following through with clear analytical prose and formatting.
One student wrote a 33-page social history of the 5th Virginia. This student compiled multiple tables from both the Valley’s dossier listings and the Howard volume on the regiment. Tables focused on pre-war occupations, age of enlistment, and desertion rates. In addition the student actually provided analysis of the tables within the narrative along with a careful consideration of the letters and diaries of the men who served in the regiment–a first-rate job. Another student analyzed the debates in Augusta County, Virginia on secession. This student went through letters, diaries, and newspapers and crafted a very sophisticated interpretation that acknowledged the wide-range of opinion on this paper. In addition, she used articles by William Freehling, Charles Dew, Peter Carmichael, and James McPherson to connect her analysis to the ongoing scholarly debates. This is a paper that with little revision should be submitted to a high school history journal for publication. Another student analyzed the correspondence and family history of Jedediah Hotchkiss. He was particularly interested in how a northerner became a fervent Confederate. Finally, another student wrote a very thorough essay on how the residents of Augusta County and people in general dealt with the death on a large scale. In addition to the primary resources on the database this student read studies on the subject by Drew Faust and a chapter in John R. Neff’s new study of how Americans honored the Civil War dead.
I am still learning how to more fully utilize the internet and other technologies in the classroom. That said, I have to say that my little experiment this semester was successful. Most of my students now have a solid grasp of the research process. I could have taught the standard lecture course, but the research option gives them a skill that they will be able to apply to most of their college courses.