Revisiting the second half of Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition (Eds. Alexis E. Ramsey, Wendy B. Sharer, Barbara L’Eplattenier, and Lisa S. Mastrangelo), two additional pieces cropped up that I found created interesting connections to the two I discussed last week. The first of these was an interview with Kenneth Lindblom: “Spinning Gold from Old Straw.” Lindblom sets up his discussion of the Illinois State University Archives by noting that the “most precious” material had been removed decades previous to the interview. Left behind were texts considered “less important,” though these still contained many of interest to the rhet/comp field such as old notes, policy documents, courses of study, handwritten correspondence, and photographs. Said materials were not particularly well-kept, but the result is that they were also largely unexplored, untouched. Lindblom was also able to get to know the university’s archivist, historian Dr. JoAnne Rayfield, who became familiar with his research interests. This allowed her to offer him targeted documents that might appeal to said interests with increasing accuracy over time. In time, this relationship allowed Lindblom to “strike gold,” finding just the sort of correspondence that most interested him.

This interview calls to mind the similar piece with Peter Mortensen that I discussed last week. Mortensen advocates playing out a hunch in hopes of a serendipitous find, and he also uses the metaphor of having “struck gold.” Whereas Mortensen’s claim escaped me somewhat at the time, I feel that Lindblom may have cast some light upon this idea of “striking gold.” As Lindblom notes, it’s not only a matter of “luckily” finding a previously unknown text but of having created the conditions in which “one might find old straw out of which one might spin historical gold.” Lindblom identifies a relationship with the historian, Rayfield, who maintained the archive he was working on as well as pointedly characterizing the context of his search; we understand what the archive he was working was like and have some sense of how it got that way. Notably, Lindblom also advocates David Gold’s position, stating, “I believe the best way to remain open to new archival discoveries is to keep oneself from assuming a position too early in the process of study.” Between this “beginner’s mind” mentality, the characterization of the archive itself, and the discussion of Lindblom’s working relationship with the archivist, we begin to see a method emerging that may begin to create a context for “playing out a hunch” that I can more fully understand.

Lindblom’s discussion of working with Rayfield creates a logical bridge into the companion interview with Lindal Buchanan, “Making Fortunate Connections.” Buchanan characterizes her research as focusing on women’s rhetoric, covering materials such as letters, speeches, journals, and articles as primary sources. Addressing her own experiences with serendipity in the research process, she recounts a project that started her thinking about collaboration. She describes making contact with Carol Mattingly, who was a scholar of 19th Century women’s rhetoric who worked out of a nearby university. Buchanan extended contact via email, discussing a research question concerning motherhood and rhetorical production. Mattingly was able to tell Buchanan that this particular question had been little discussed, offering a point of entry to “dive in,” which Buchanan did. Characterizing their relationship as “novice” to “expert,” Buchanan advocates for the importance of guidance from more accomplished scholars. Taking what she learned from consulting with Mattingly, Buchanan was able to “wander” into through archival research with questions of maternity in mind, and this led to her own “striking gold” moment and the production of two essays related to the subject. At the end of the piece, Buchanan offers one last useful nugget: she keeps particularly open to any material that strikes our familiar sense of oddity or interest. This seems to offer another useful element to this “method of serendipity” that these interviews have constructed.

The idea of keeping open to the odd and interesting may seem obvious, but perhaps there is need to at times state what may be obvious. This seems, for me, very linked to the concept of the “beginner’s mind.” If one can lay aside the need to find a particular sort of success, then perhaps one will be more open to the unexpectedly “odd” or “interesting.” As scholars, we like to think ourselves open-eyed, open-minded folk, but specific threads of research might at times serve as much blinders as lenses—thus, the mind (and eyes, perhaps) of the non-expert, allowing oneself to be struck by what is interesting (even playing out a hunch?), and knowing when to reach out to make a connection and ask for help may frame at least a beginning of useful research methodology for the serendipitous find.

  1. Cristina Ramirez says:

    First, I appreciate these perspectives of the “going into” and “working in the archives” because it shows me that my methods of finding material were just as common as these leading researchers. Allow me to share my “strike it gold” moment. When I was a grad student working and reading on my project, I was directed by one of my diss committee members to work with this young girl who was interested in doing research for her senior paper on Mexican women journalists. We visited, and I quickly learned that she had lived and still had family that lived in Durango, Mexico. This bit of information was interesting because one of the women that I was writing on was also from Durango. I asked the student, Chelly, if she would do some research for me there in the archives in Durango when she went for Christmas. Well, she followed with an invitation to go with her family. I couldn’t say no, so days after submitting my grades, I found myself in the archives of Durango, Mexico.

    I had done some heavy reading before this visit, which Marshall suggests is important for archivists (145). Had I not read a history by the historian Carr about the communist influence in Mexico at the turn of the 20th century, I would not have been drawn to the newspaper, La Bandera Roja (The Red Banner). This turned out to be a radical newspaper that espoused women’s rights. While searching through this volume, I found the feminist manifesto that is now chapter 3 of my book. I think I had mentioned in class that there were other people who had been looking for this document for over 25 years, but could not find it.

    So what frame of mind are you going into the archive you are visiting tomorrow, Dave? We’re interested to see what you find.

  2. Dave Rick says:

    That’s such a great story–I’m glad you shared it here. As for me, I’m hoping to take this “method of serendipity” and see what I find. Of course, I will be paying particular attention to the way the archive presents history (and, by extension, how I experience that history) and will probably post my findings here, so we shall see!

  3. Linda says:

    Dave,

    I also liked these interviews. I gave my students a short essay today about the importance of evidence in academic writing (Slevin’s “Letter to Maggie”) and the author of that article says that perhaps one of the reasons we DON’T talk about the most important things (like the fact that MAKING a point is better than just HAVING a point) is that they’re so important that we take them for granted. Your comment about the necessity of being open-minded is, as you say, something that SHOULD be obvious, but we get distracted by so many things. I like what you say about how we’re focused not on certain ideas or archival finds, but “the need to find a particular sort of success.” I love all of the implications of this (like if Liz Rohan [I think] was married to the particular kind of essay she thought she would write, we wouldn’t have her excellent essay about how unusual and productive in an unforeseen way her “frustrating” research was). On the other hand, it can be hard when, for those students still in courses, to be open to the kind of serendipity that seems like it requires more time to be open-minded. I know everyone has deadlines and other kinds of restrictions on their work, but I feel like students are in a special kind of restricted time-frame. In writing seminar papers, usually in a very short time with little experience in the topic, graduate students may find it difficult to explore topics that they didn’t plan. I guess being able to draw projects out, even just by a little bit more, is just one more carrot to getting that academic job, huh? 🙂

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