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.