It felt less like course work and more like detective work.
“Archival research meant literally digging through thousands of documents—most that had nothing to do with our project—to find a single piece of paper,” said Emilie Irene Neumeier, a student in Professor Matthew Lassiter’s winter 2015 seminar, History 497, Global Activism at U-M: The Anti-War, Anti-Apartheid, and Anti-Sweatshop Movements.
“As tiring as that can get, the moment of finding a document that mattered was so exciting it made up for the hours spent looking through everything else,” said Neumeier, a history and political science major who graduated in May.
Neumeier was among thirteen undergraduates who set out to understand the role of University of Michigan students in social movements against the Vietnam War, apartheid in South Africa, and sweatshops that manufactured U-M apparel. Their quest took them deep into university archives and less traditional territories, even requesting documents from the Office of the President via the Freedom of Information Act. Some sought answers from the participants themselves, compiling hours of interviews, all captured via video.
The students and the instructor all agree that conducting research for a public audience motivated everyone involved to work extremely hard. “Instead of the traditional lengthy research paper, where the intended audience is generally the professor, the students produced a high-quality public website—an in-depth digital version of a museum-style exhibit with images, documents, and interviews,” said Lassiter.
Lassiter’s course was the first installment of Michigan in the World: Local and Global Stories project, a collaboration between the Department of History and the Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies, with additional support from a generous gift from alumni Lisa and Timothy J. Sloan (the Sloans hold three U-M degrees between them, including Timothy Sloan’s bachelor’s in history and economics in 1982). Michigan in the World will continue through the university’s bicentennial celebration in 2017.
The program provides undergraduate history students the opportunity—in course work and through paid summer internships—to undertake archival historical research on the university and its relationships beyond its borders, and to present their findings to the public in online exhibitions.
Projects like these, called public history, provide students with a new perspective on historical research and the role of the scholar in society. They benefit the public, providing digestible yet nuanced accounts of historic events. And they help students gain technical knowledge in the construction and presentation of the online exhibits. These skills are essential in many of today’s career paths.
After bringing themselves up to speed on the secondary literature surrounding their topics, the students dug into the archives. They met regularly at the Bentley Historical Library, which preserves documents, images, films, and objects related to the history of the university and the state. They also explored the Joseph A. Labadie Collection, which focuses on the history of social movements. Part of the challenge was simply learning what to look for—and to limit their project’s scope—over the course of a single sixteen-week term.
“The students became adept at sifting through vast amounts of information and using sources to find other sources, which led to some incredible discoveries in untapped archival collections,” said Lassiter. The online exhibits include hundreds of these full-text original sources, which allow viewers to review digitized versions of documents and images, most of them available to a general public audience for the first time.
In March, the students in the anti-war team took advantage of the fiftieth anniversary commemoration of the 1965 U-M teach-in on the Vietnam War to interview key players like William Gamson, Tom Hayden, and other former professors and students who returned for the event.
“Having the opportunity to interview them in person was priceless,” said Obadiah Brown, a history and international studies major who plans to graduate in 2016. “The oral interviews were extremely intimidating at first, but slowly it became easier asking questions and knowing where to guide the individual for the information we needed.”
Their quest also led them to less traditional resources, like Facebook.
Mary Bridget Lee, a history major who graduated in May, worked on the anti-sweatshop exhibit team, studying student activists on campus in the 2000s. “We found the Facebook group the members had created—that gave us a lot of contacts and some insight into group dynamics that is usually impossible to find,” Lee said.
In some cases, the stories had never seen the light of day. Students working on the anti-apartheid exhibit developed one of the first scholarly considerations of the campus movement to pressure universities to divest from corporations that did business with the South African government. “The campus anti-apartheid movement is one of the most consequential but least visible mass social movements of the modern era,” said Lassiter. “Now, it’s available in an online exhibit, accessible to scholars, students, and the general public.”
The exhibits are accessible on the Michigan in the World website, where new content will be added several times per year.
In June, the students working in the anti-apartheid and anti-Vietnam War teams learned they had won first and second place (respectively) in their category for the 5th Annual U-M Library Undergraduate Research Award.
Said Lassiter, “This was one of the most meaningful and important teaching experiences of my career.”