Dr. Stacey Robertson and senior history major Courtney Wiersema have collaborated on their historical research. Robertson is studying female abolitionists, while Wiersema is exploring gender and the Illinois prairie in the early 19th century.
Wiersema and Robertson, associate professor of history, discovered the value of student-faculty collaboration when they participated in a seminar sponsored by SHEAR-Mellon (Society for Historians of the Early American Republic and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) in Philadelphia last summer.
Wiersema was among 10 history students nationwide chosen to participate in a three-week seminar at the University of Pennsylvaniaís McNeil Center for the Study of Early America. Students attended sessions on the theory of history, discussed graduate school, and did preliminary research for their senior projects. Their faculty advisors attended the final week of the seminar and were encouraged both to help students hone their prospectuses and to conduct their own research.
"We became friends as much as having a teacher-student relationship."
Wiersema and Robertson helped each other with research, a new experience for Robertson, who is accustomed to doing research alone. "Historians are a solitary bunch. We donít do collaborative work much," Robertson says. "By the time I arrived, Courtney was an expert at using the archives. Just learning to use it can take lots of time. Courtney helped me negotiate the archives, and since she had finished most of her research at the center, she volunteered to help with my research."
Robertson is writing a transcript about female abolitionists, and she and Wiersema found a diary written by a group of abolitionists in the Philadelphia area. "Courtney and I both began transcribing from the record books. We sat side-by-side with our laptops, typing. Iíve been working on this for 10 years, and she had a completely fresh eye, which was very helpful."
Wiersema was in awe when seeing the handwritten name of abolitionist and womenís rights leader Lucretia Mott, and Robertson remembered her own experience years ago when she found the handwritten name of another famous abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.
Outside the archives, Wiersema also helped Robertson find her way around the city. Robertson says, "We became friends as much as having a teacher-student relationship."
Back in Peoria, Wiersema will help Robertson with her manuscript, assisting with the final process of checking footnotes, contacting representatives from archives, and more.
Wiersemaís senior project delves into landscape and gender on the Illinois prairie between 1800 and 1860. "Men as providers looked at the land and saw its potential for farming and ranching. Women were taught to be nurturing and were more apt to find the land beautiful. They were less likely to look at the landís ability to produce, but they were pretty tough ladies," says Wiersema, noting the prairie was settled primarily by people from Germany, Sweden, and England.
Wiersema credits Robertson with helping on her senior project "every step of the way. I need someone to point me in the right direction, and she has helped me with that and with editing. Having someone to turn to when youíre freaking out when things donít go right is great. You avoid major errors, and itís important knowing the support is there. The continuity from Philadelphia to here is helpful."
"I need someone to point me in the right direction, and she has helped me with that and with editing. Having someone to turn to when youíre freaking out when things donít go right is great. You avoid major errors, and itís important knowing the support is there. The continuity from Philadelphia to here is helpful."
Wiersema has since visited the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, looking for manuscripts and letters. Her favorite find is a letter written in 1835 by a Peoria resident who described the city as it was then.
Robertson says her experience in Philadelphia has helped her in the classroom. "Educators are moving away from the idea that we scoop out knowledge and put it in our studentsí brains. Now, we strive for a true engagement of ideas. Itís easier to give a lecture on a topic that youíre familiar with than to sit down and do a free-form discussion, but the learning process has to happen in an active way."
She notes, "True collaboration has to be a real give and take. Itís more meaningful for students and professors when the discussion goes both ways."
Robertson will co-lead the next SHEAR/Mellon seminar in June 2009. She says, "I am thrilled to have this opportunity to work with other students who are eager to delve into the wonderful world of history. I am convinced that I will benefit as much from the experience as they will."