Why I Love My Job

This semester I am working with a senior on an independent study, which focuses on the admittance of female students to the University of Virginia in the early 1970s.  The student in question has already been accepted by UVA on a full scholarship to play golf.  After reading a number of secondary sources and meeting with a member of UVA’s history department, who focuses on women’s history, I decided it was time to head on over to Special Collections to check out some primary sources.  My goal was to get her acclimated to the system so she can go in alone and on her own time.  We looked at a number of collections, but one in particular stood out.  It was called the “Woody Report” and it was commissioned by the university in 1968 to gather information from various campus community’s on where they stood on the issue of the integration of women into the university.

We thumbed through the pages, but at one point my student looked at me and said, “Mr. Levin, do you realize that this is the originial copy of the report?”  I knew at that moment exactly what was going on in her mind, and I also knew that this student would never look at history the same way.  In that moment she made the leap from textbook to an actual document.  It’s impossible to communicate the experience of holding history in your hands; in those moments time collapses and you are confronted with a piece of a story that you’ve only read about through the interpretation of another.  As we drove back to campus I casually remarked that she would have to find time in her schedule over the next few weeks to go back and check out some additional collections.  Well, she looked at me and said that she had already decided to go back first thing tomorrow morning.

…and I’ve had a smile on my face since then. :)

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10 comments… add one

  • Chris Feb 13, 2009

    That’s truly wonderful Kevin!

  • Jenny Feb 13, 2009

    I did some research a year or so ago for Eric Wittenberg up here at the Western Reserve Historical Society. Was planning on spending several hours paging through slides of microfilm and was startled to instead receive several boxes filled with the actual documents, just tucked away somewhat haphazardly in folders. This was my first real opportunity to actually touch something written during the Civil War, let alone during a major battle and campaign. You read about battlefield communiques being written on scraps of paper, and I always thought that was probably mostly hyperbole, but I found it is literally true — there were many field orders scribbled on scraps of paper or backs of envelopes, often in pencil. Very thrilling to be able to gingerly hold in your hands a fragile piece of actual piece of history like that and you’re absolutely right that it really can’t be communicated in words.

  • Jim Cullen Feb 13, 2009

    Kevin,

    As a neophyte to the world of blogging with a lot to learn, allow me to compliment you on the high quality of content and presentation in your work. I regard it as a model for my own work.
    –Jim Cullen (author of “The Civil War in Popular Culture: A Reusable Past”)

  • Ken Noe Feb 13, 2009

    Twenty years ago, working at Chapel Hill on my dissertation, I came across one of Stonewall Jackson’s orders in an otherwise unrelated file, dated May 1 or 2, 1863 (May 2 I think, but I won’t swear to it). I remember just sitting there for a long time, holding it in my hand.

  • John Feb 13, 2009

    Hi Kevin,

    Wonderful post! As a former elementary school teacher with an emphasis on reading, I experienced something similar. During my first year of teaching at a school in a poorer neighborhood I made a herculean effort to convince my students that reading isn’t work. It’s fun! One day at our usual library time, during which I read a book I brought a book from home while using my peripheral vision to keep an eye on my sometimes rambunctious kids, one boy came up and politely asked, “What are you reading?” I answered that it was “1984” by George Orwell. His eyes got wide. “Can I read that too?” I gently explained that it might be too hard and lead him to the fiction section and “Animal Farm” by the same author.

    To see what you’ve worked so hard for come to fruition like that is a truly wonderful feeling. Kudos to you and your student. Thanks for stirring up the memory.

    John

  • Sherree Tannen Feb 13, 2009

    Hi Kevin,

    Being one of those women who attended the University of Virginia in the 1970s, I don’t quite know what to say, except perhaps, that the only thing that might top holding in your hands a document from the past , is actually living that past. Believe me, there was never a dull moment, lol.

  • Kevin Levin Feb 14, 2009

    Ken and Jenny, — I think the experience the three of us have described is crucial in implanting that love for research as well as the stamina to sit for hours and strain our eyes in the hope of finding something interesting.

    Sherree, — I wonder if it might be possible for my student to interview you by phone. Let me know via email: kevlvn@aol.com.

    Jim, — Thanks for the kind words. It looks like we have quite a bit in common. I placed a link to your site in my blogroll and I am looking forward to spending some time with it.

    John, — Glad to hear that the post brought back fond memories.

  • Heather Feb 14, 2009

    This is the kind of thing that makes archivists smile, too. Introducing students (and students of history) to original materials rarely gets old. I’m glad to hear that your student enjoyed her introduction so much!

  • Paul Taylor Feb 14, 2009

    Even though I do not have a professionally-trained academic background, I also share that rush of holding history in one’s hands, especially when your research let’s you stumble across something unexpected though clearly remarkable. That feeling, I believe, is the closest we can come to a sense of time travel. I liken it to the charge that an archeologist must get when s/he comes across something after hours or days of digging.

  • Chris Meekins Feb 14, 2009

    I agree with Heather, even working daily with such items does not take the sheen off the moment. And I would add that even those in the profession can still get the chill.

    Working on a class paper about a murder committed by slaves in rural swampy NC, I was finding a wealth of information. The coroner’s inquest on the body of the victim included the questioning of several slaves and their activities. The murder happened on Christmas eve and the slave quarters were very busy. Ultimately four slaves were held for trial. As I canvassed slave papers in the county collection I came across a slave pass – one of two in the NC archives. Instantly I realized this was the item used to convict three of the four slaves (one was acquitted). The pass gave slave Jack permission to visit his wife on a nearby plantation. In sworn testimony to the coroner three of the slaves stated the reason Jack was angry (noted by other passersby) was because he did not get a pass to see his wife at Christmas. Caught in this lie (and several others) one can see how Jack’s statements would become suspect. Jack and his two friends hanged for the murder – and the slave pass sealed their fate. It still, even now, makes the hair on my arms stand up.

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