Having attended a liberal arts college as an undergraduate, I needed no convincing that teaching at Davidson was a great fit for me. But as a historian, I needed to keep doing research and writing outside the classroom to continue to bring my passion for Latin American history into my classroom. Historians don’t have laboratories the way a chemistry professor might, so finding my evidence involves trips to archives in Latin America and Spain where digitized documents aren’t the norm.
I have been fortunate to have dedicated financial support from Davidson to undertake trips to study such historical documents. As an assistant professor at Davidson, I held the Malcolm Overstreet Partin Chair which allowed me to travel to Spain and Peru for research on my book, Transatlantic Obligations (Oxford University Press, 2016). I read through 500-year-old records that revealed how family members coped with the expansion of the Spanish empire into the Andes. Spanish fathers sent their mixed-race children on lengthy transatlantic voyages to be raised in Spain and native mothers engaged with the Spanish legal apparatus to provide bequests for their children. Reading well over a thousand such documents provided the building blocks for the vision and architecture of the book.
In classes where students often read an article or book that is the finished product of years of research and writing, I use sources from my research to break down that process and at times, even put an image of my 16th-century sources up on the screen to illustrate how challenging it can feel to be at the beginning of the process. This was especially useful in my two years as Director of the Kelley Honors Program in Historical Studies where I oversaw history majors writing year-long theses, most of which numbered more than 100 pages. As seniors, these thesis students begin the most challenging project of their college careers and I used my own documents and book chapters to break down the process of historical research and writing into meaningful stages for them.
Currently, I am on a year-long sabbatical thanks to the Boswell Family Faculty Fellowship. I am working on a collaborative project with Professor Nora Jaffary entitled Women in Colonial Spanish America, Texts and Contexts (under contract with Hackett Publishing) which will bring primary source documents written by and about women in Latin America from the 1500s to the early 1800s. Our collection highlights intersectionality in early Latin American history with a focus on women of color. One Davidson student assisted me with transcription of a 1700s Colombian court case where an enslaved woman made a successful claim against a hacienda owner for property. I will share draft chapters of this book with students in my fall 2017 course “History 364: Race, Power and Sexuality in Latin America.” As co-author of this book, I have all the text files of the documents, so the students and I can run text analysis on the primary sources to look for thematic patterns. The textual analysis is one of several new digital techniques for historical analysis I’ve had time to learn and practice while on sabbatical. I look forward to integrating these digital techniques into my courses in yet another way to involve students in the process of crafting historical work.
Sharing my work process in detail with students demonstrates how projects – in whatever discipline – move from questions and problems to gathering evidence, then analyzing it and drafting clear communication to move those findings to a wider audience. Ironically it is precisely the strong college support for research outside of Davidson, in archives thousands of miles away, that allows me to integrate the lessons for disciplined and passionate research back at home inside the Davidson classroom.