|Historian's Collaborative Seminar Yields a Book — By 73 Davidson Authors!
June 22, 2009
Contact: Bill Giduz, 704-894-2244
Undergraduate research and publication are Davidson hallmarks. Students regularly work on extended projects with professors, and end up listed as co-authors of articles faculty members publish in journals about the work. These long-term, publication-worthy investigations — common products of hard science research — usually involve a single student, or at most a small team.
|(center) Wertheimer meets in his office with students from another history seminar (l-r) Sarah Baley '09, Chet Howland '10, and Rex Salisbury '10.
So Davidson College Professor of History John Wertheimer has surely established an unassailable record for undergraduate collaboration in the recent publication of his new book, Law and Society in the South: A History of North Carolina Court Cases (The University Press of Kentucky, 2009). On a page facing the table of contents, Wertheimer lists 72 of his former students as contributors!
"I don't know of a single other example like this in undergraduate history teaching," said Bill Link, a professor of history at the University of Florida and co-editor of the series that published the book.
Link, who is a 1976 graduate of Davidson, continued, "History by its nature is not collaborative like the sciences. Historians tend to be ‘lone rangers,' doing research on their own."
The story didn't begin as an attempt to set a record, or even as a book project. "It started as a teaching tool in my 1997 legal history seminar," Wertheimer said. "I had been thinking about the fact that professors always ask students to write research papers, but never tell them with much specificity how to do it. So I decided to emphasize research methods as part of my class pedagogy."
To prepare his students to write individual research papers later in the semester, Wertheimer directed them to spend the first weeks working collaboratively on a "dummy" paper about a North Carolina legal case. They discussed several general topic areas, and settled on women and violence. Wertheimer then sent class members on a field trip to the state archives to identify a particular case that would address the scholarly debate over whether courts traditionally treat women chivalrously, or more harshly than men.
The students discovered a 1931 arson case involving a group of young, white, female inmates who torched two buildings at their state-run "training school" to escape harsh treatment there.
With the topic selected, Wertheimer guided students through the process of developing a professional-level paper. Wertheimer was surprised to find them getting increasingly excited by the process-making the road trip and identifying the case, preparing a bibliography, developing research questions to pursue, and analyzing the current state of historical understanding of the topic. He recalled, "They even called me from the archives to tell me what they were finding. They were so excited they were slapping high fives and telling me about all the colorful characters they had discovered. Their collaboration had ignited a collective passion for history usually restricted to honors students and departmental groupies."
|Wertheimer's book is a part of the University Press of Kentucky's "New Directions in Southern History" series.
In fact, the students so enjoyed developing their paper over the next weeks that they pleaded with Wertheimer to drop the requirement for individual papers and let them continue working collaboratively. "We learned how to do history, rather than just read it," wrote one student in a course evaluation.
Acknowledging their exemplary level of involvement, Wertheimer relented.
His students didn't disappoint. They dug deep for sources beyond the officially published record about the case, and discovered a particularly rich source of material in the unpublished trial notes of the defense counsel. They also read relevant newspaper articles, state government records and personal correspondence, and studied the history of prison reform to put the case in context of current events.
When the semester ended, Wertheimer polished the students' paper for publication, and it appeared in the October 1998 North Carolina Historical Review. The paper clearly demonstrated that the legal system had treated the accused women more severely than most men. Women of the day were routinely incarcerated by their families without any legal proceedings, and for social misbehavior that was common and unpunished among men. However, though the women in this case were definitely guilty, the accused were eventually treated chivalrously by the courts as victims of a harsh system that caused them to rebel.
In addition to its publication, Wertheimer noted proudly that the paper prompted at least one rebuttal paper that attacked the Davidson team's analysis of the case. "When people are attacking you, that's high praise," he said. "It means they take you seriously, and in this case they were taking student work seriously."
On the first day of the seminar the following year, Wertheimer reviewed the achievements of the previous group of students, and challenged the new group to also work collaboratively. They seized the opportunity, as did every succeeding incarnation of the class he taught through fall 2003. Papers produced by two of those classes also were published - one in the October 2002 South Carolina Historical Magazine, and one in an edited book from the University of South Carolina Press titled Warm Ashes.
Those cases concerned a 1914 challenge to a Winston (Salem), N.C., city ordinance mandating racial, residential segregation, and the Reconstruction-era prosecution of a black man and a white woman for "fornication," although the couple was legally married.
By 2004 Wertheimer's students had written eight unusually detailed portraits of particular legal disputes from the 1830s to 1970s that concerned traditional southern issues such as race relations, the role of religion, gender roles, and cultural mores. He presented one of these papers at a regional history meeting, and in doing so discussed the work of his classes with colleagues. They included two editors of the University Press of Kentucky's "New Directions in Southern History" series -- Bill Link, who was then teaching at UNC Greensboro, and Michele Gillespie of Wake Forest University.
Link recalled, "At dinner later I told him it would be a great book. I thought that tying the papers together could show trends about both society and the law. Also, it was an interesting approach in studying cases in state court, which tend to be neglected by historians of the law."
Wertheimer was delighted with the positive response. Publishers of social science work are generally skeptical of publications written collaboratively with students, assuming them as automatically less than professional quality. "I was happy Bill and Michelle were willing to take a chance on a project of such unorthodox origins," he said. "They saw student collaboration as a strength rather than a weakness."
Wertheimer spent his sabbatical in 2004-05 working on the book. He finalized chapters, developed commonalities and themes that linked the individual cases, wrote the introduction and conclusion, and compiled 87 pages of notes and index.
The enterprise would not have been possible, Wertheimer notes, without college support. Wertheimer received faculty study and research funds from the Office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs, and George L. Abernethy Research Award funds. Most importantly, college funding enabled a student member of several of the seminar groups to spend time during the summer following the seminar doing additional research and writing.
While the cases stand individually as interesting studies, Wertheimer linked them in various ways to reveal historical trends in the legal system. He showed that the cases challenge the widespread assumption that the American legal process is an impartial and apolitical form of dispute resolution. He also demonstrated that the court system was not always a tool for the elite to dominate those of lower social strata. He further showed that the North Carolina state court system has been remarkably open and accessible to the working class, and that seemingly logical alliances of litigants and defendants have in actuality been unpredictable and shifting.
Wertheimer concluded, "The legal system was neither an entirely neutral arbiter of social conflict nor a blunt weapon of elite dominance. It was a less predictable entity, a forum within which a wide array of North Carolinians continually renegotiated basic social values and rules, while vying for personal, group, and institutional advantage."
The book classifies the cases in three sections to demonstrate how they reflect social trends. "Drawing Lines" describes three legal efforts by whites from the era of slavery to the era of Jim Crow to sharpen the demarcations of the state's racial hierarchy. In all three cases, the courts refused to sharpen racial lines as requested. "Modernity and Tradition" explores cultural conflict between the world wars, including the ban on teaching evolution, prohibition and gender issues. Part three, "Civil Rights," explores civil rights activism by two different ethnic groups--African Americans and Native Americans. These final cases demonstrate the increasing openness of North Carolina's legal system to diverse voices, as well as the expanded reach of federal law within the state.
Wertheimer published an article about the collaborative method of research in the March 2002 edition of The Journal of American History.
In his first collaborative courses, Wertheimer directed students toward cases to pursue, but recently he has only provided guidelines. He tells students to propose state supreme court cases that are historically interesting, legally important, and involve compelling people whose stories will enliven the final product. Students read each other's proposals and engage in often spirited debate before settling on a single case among the 10 or 12 contenders. "It takes a long time to choose," Wertheimer said. "This gives the class a real sense of meaning right up front. The stakes are high, because they'll be sticking with their decision the whole semester."
Wertheimer believes that public presentation of the material is a highly beneficial step in creating a final draft. "Students blossom at the public presentation," he said. "They invite friends, professors, and parents. They prepare overhead projections. They dress up and comb their hair. Unaccountably, no matter how crummy the rough drafts and dress rehearsals, the public presentations are always wonderful. My favorite part might be the question-and-answer session, when students stand shoulder-to-shoulder and field questions as one."
He also insists that students do some off-campus archival research, traveling together to facilitate their bonding, and working together to increase their chances of finding relevant material.
He also reassures students that that archival research is a hit-or-miss proposition, and that they will not be marked down if, despite good efforts, they return empty-handed.
Wertheimer's insistence that students receive proper credit for their research led to the stickiest negotiating points in publishing the book. He wanted the relevant students' names printed, as is done with scientific papers, directly under the chapter title. But that seemed unwieldy and foreign to officials at The University Press of Kentucky. Everyone eventually settled on listing all the student authors on one page at the front of the book, and listing those who contributed to each chapter at the bottom of the chapter's title page. Wertheimer also credited them on the dedication page, which is imprinted warmly and simply, "To my students."
Wertheimer has enjoyed keeping up with his students as they have graduated and moved on. Several have become academic historians, and many have pursued law school and legal careers. He once received a $25 honorarium check for a journal article that the class published, and decided to send each of the twelve alumni collaborators a $2 check. "One guy didn't cash it because his girlfriend framed it for him!" Wertheimer laughed.
The publication of Law and Society in the South now provides Wertheimer with another opportunity to show his appreciation. He has invited all 72 of his co-authors to return to campus on Homecoming Weekend, September 11-12, for a "class reunion" that will feature a book-signing party and presentations in the Carolina Inn on Saturday afternoon.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,800 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.