Crossing Boundaries

Student Digital Research and Writing on Slavery

Alisea Williams McLeod

In Holly Springs, Mississippi, where Rust College (where I teach) is located, there are intact former slave dwellings still situated behind their respective “big houses.”[1] For the last three years, I have invited students taking my Composition II (research and writing) course to go on a walking tour of the town. We have walked through both antebellum mansions and slave dwellings. Were it not for the tour, the students might not even know of the existence of these remnants of slavery. The students seldom find reason to venture into the town’s old neighborhoods. The experiential study of history is part of an introduction I provide to the study of American slavery and African American Civil War experience, an ongoing research focus for the course. Students can choose to study this history as their course project or propose other topics. In the two years that I have offered the historical research option, about twenty percent of my students have elected it.  When they do choose to participate, they become involved as student-researchers in the Eaton-Bailey-Williams Freedpeople’s Transcription Project (hereafter referred to as the Freedpeople’s Transcription Project or FTP). The project is named for John Eaton, Jr., General Superintendent of Freedmen. Two former slaves, Africa Bailey and Daniel Williams, were enlisted in Eaton’s army unit. The families of Bailey and Williams lived at a “contraband” or refugee camp during the war; the names of their family members are included in the Register of Freedmen (ROF), the Civil War camp log upon which FTP is based.

FTP is my own research project, centered upon transcription and analysis of the ROF. This 1864 record includes names of more than 2,100 formerly enslaved persons living at Camp Shiloh in Memphis and the names of several hundred former masters. Since 2010, the transcribed ROF has been available online.[2] In the first year of student involvement, 2012, these emerging researchers were assigned to study slaveholders from Marshall County, where the college is located, as well as planters from two nearby Tennessee counties: Shelby and Fayette. The objective of this second phase of FTP, following transcription, was to abstract, from eight to ten-page research papers, short (100 to 250-word) biographies to be freely published on a project wiki.[3] A collection of student-authored biographies, published at (but not written at) the project wiki, Digisense, would complement the transcribed and published ROF.[4] The biographies are transferred to the site rather than composed there. Most of the writing instruction students received was for the purposes of the longer, traditional paper; however, students were also given instruction and directives on authoring and publishing on the project site.[5] Because many of our students come from areas represented in the ROF, I considered the possibility that some might discover personal connections. This was a pedagogical goal that seemed in keeping with the main goals of FTP: giving history new dimension and reconnecting descendants, including student-researchers, to the past. Connections have occurred in both expected and unexpected ways. In theory, WikiSpaces are powerful platforms for disseminating knowledge of lost or obscure histories, but recovery and commitment to its lengthy process require buy-in from would-be student authors who may not be prepared to engage a cosmology and an epistemology of the past.[6]

Click to open: The Digisense Wikispace.

Click to open: The Digisense Wikispace.

Click to open: The Digisense Wikispace.

The Digisense Wikispace.

From the outset of this initiative I have been hyper-conscious of the ethics of merging teaching and learning within a college setting with what could be fairly viewed as social, digital activism. I find some justification for the merger in the pedagogy of service learning (SL). Still, I realize that unlike with perhaps other SL projects, even if a majority of my students do not discover a personal connection to the ROF, I am nudging them into a past they might—for conscious or unconscious reasons—rather not enter. Students electing not to do slavery research undoubtedly make such a choice for all kinds of reasons including simply having greater interests in other topics. However, it is plausible to suggest that they also, through such choice, exercise control over their own temporal constructions. Their choices and acts of temporal construction have a relationship to society, so it may be reasonable to expect that the level of interest students have in the topic of slavery may be influenced by the degree to which the larger society engages history. Other influences may include students’ families and the professor’s valuations of history communicated to students both knowingly and unknowingly.[7] My students’ historical scholarship assists reconstruction of American and African American history while potentially reconstructing their own senses of time. I have no better proof of possible effects of the work of FTP on some students than from post-research survey comments and in conversations after the course had ended. The comments ranged from changed, more positive, attitudes about history, slavery, and the research process, to personal stories of mystical experiences. Of the twelve students involved the first year, half shared views and experiences that suggest they had become more deeply involved in the work than they had expected. However, disappointingly, of these six students, a majority chose to end involvement in the work after the course was over while two, who seemed from the beginning to have deep interest in and commitment to our subject, chose to continue working without course credit. While I feel confident in stating that these two students (as well as the others) exercised a right of choice in determining their focus for the course, I believe that an imminent infusion of history into American culture—through digitization and through social media as purveyor—may before long raise an issue of a students’ right to his or her own temporality as we increase exposure to controversial, historical documents. Electing not to be an active purveyor of history through web writing/digitization may be a choice that appears quite rational in both modern and postmodern milieus, an allowance that Sara Ahmed gets at when she suggests that we are happily oriented toward certain objects and unhappily oriented toward others.[8] It is not difficult to believe that some students, if not all of them, are not happily oriented toward slavery, in which case moving them toward activism in this area may be a challenge from the outset.[9]

A significant factor preventing greater student involvement in FTP is their hesitance to buy into the idea of membership in the Digisense site, reluctance that has translated into most of them not uploading the biographies of the slaveholders assigned them. In fact, of the first group of student-researchers, only one uploaded his writing. With student permission obtained, I uploaded and published the work of some of the other students. The biographies were abstracted from the “Findings” section of the I-Search paper, which was due very near the end of the course. The longer paper was in fact the main work of the class, making up the bulk of the students’ grades, and it included several steps (a bibliography and an annotated bibliography, for instance) and drafts. By comparison, the biography was worth only five percent of the grade, equal to a required PowerPoint presentation. Clearly, practical matters such as completing the various course assignments and consideration of incentives for performing well on one type of work versus another played a part in the low-level of participation by the students in the project wiki. When the course ended, I quickly realized that student buy-in could undoubtedly have been improved by weighting the wiki participation more heavily, placing it at the center of the course, and having it take the place of the PowerPoint. Issues of timing and student evaluation of requirements would be easy to fix. However, without department approval, I cannot substitute digital publication of the short biographies for the traditional paper (its structure, length, and purpose), radically moving the biographies from a placement, which may have felt to the students like an afterthought, to the center of our course activities. Changing student views of digital publication might be achieved through intense moral suasion—stronger statements by me concerning the potential value of our work to the public and also through conversation among colleagues about new formats for academic publication.

In a post-research survey, several students offered a somewhat surprising evaluation of the work of the course even without their own active participation in final digital publication.[10] One student, Larance, a social work major, wrote concerning a paucity of information currently available on American slave owners:

Certain information should be available, and because slavery was such a big part of American history, the biography of a slave-owner should be one of those things. Such records should be kept accurate and able to be easily accessed by anyone, but in particular, African Americans.[11]

Larance’s sense of “historical accountability” comes through in his statement, yet his expressed concern does not include a suggestion that persons like himself—students, African Americans, or private individuals—might become providers of the desired information.[12] Larance was one of several students who did not publish his research, and he was no longer involved in FTP after the course despite his having indicated on his survey that he would likely continue such research. I did not speak further with him about his decisions. While I would continue to see him around campus, he never again mentioned the topic of slavery. For most of his peers as well, involvement in the project and even conversation about it ended with the course.

However, two other students, Naomi and Joshua, both English majors, immediately expressed interest in continuing the work once the course ended. For Naomi, investigations into the life of Ebenezer Nelms Davis, one of the largest slave owners in Marshall County, had become political. She had been outraged to learn that Davis had owned a second plantation in Alabama. After finding that he had “refugeed” in Alabama during the war, she concluded that as war had approached, he had become even more committed to the institution. Before our course ended, she and another student, Terry—who was researching Mississippi Governor Joseph Matthews—engaged in several heated debates after class on the question of whether slave owners and slave holding were humane. A month after the end of the course, Naomi revised her initial paper for an upcoming undergraduate research conference; this time framing it around the central question of slavery and (in)humanity. Her biography of Davis would eventually be published at Digisense, but–like her other classmates–she expressed little interest in helping to develop the wiki. Rather, she seemed especially motivated by more traditional formats and publication. Joshua likewise prepared a paper for the conference.  His strong interest in Internet research seemed to lead naturally to active involvement in the project wiki. He was the only student to publish his work there without my nudging or assistance.

The level of student participation in our project wiki should not be the sole standard by which I judge the success either of Digisense or FTP.  I had hoped to get this work underway at Rust because of the college’s history and mission, its location, and the demographics of its student population. Despite not achieving the level of participation I had hoped for, I nevertheless revel in the fact that Naomi and Joshua have continued the research, even working on related papers in the summer of 2013 while studying as fellows at Emory. I see their conventional work as parallel with writings published at Digisense. This prompted me to consider whether more traditional forms of writing and publication better fit student purposes—a focus on course completion—and if more traditional writing assignments, because they have a clear beginning and ending and because they usually remain private, also are a buffer between the student and the public on the one hand and the student and uncertain elements (figurative or literal ghosts of the past) on the other hand. Simply put, I thought maybe students are reticent about allowing the public to read their writing even when it is offered anonymously. Entry into the public realm of the Internet may, in the minds of these students, decrease their sense of control over their work—who gets to view, comment, and evaluate it, as well as their active and serious participation in the universe of the Internet. Larance’s comments, for instance, might be described as pre-activist in that he sees an injustice in need of redress, but he has not yet imagined himself as a public researcher or writer. His hesitance may involve several issues that include the difficulty of the topic of slavery. Additionally, there may be some concern not solely for protecting privacy but for protecting one’s sense of self in history. While on the surface of things this possibility seems not to have been a concern for Joshua (who in fact has continually sought engagement with the public about our work), Naomi’s view of public interest in her research is expressed in a description of her experience visiting one of the town’s antebellum homes. In her conference paper, she wrote that she felt “swarmed” by Holly Springs’ elite matrons and gentleman, who held her captive to their entreaties concerning the “better” sides of slavery and the benevolence of their ancestors.[13] Long after the visit, Naomi’s experience as a researcher of slavery continued to be characterized by this same sense of being swarmed or overwhelmed if not by actual persons then by subconscious thoughts expressed mostly in her dreams. Joshua too indicated that the theme of slavery was surfacing in his dreams.

In the fall of 2012, Naomi and I were selected as William Winter Fellows. We later attended the 2013 Natchez Film and Literary Festival whose theme for the year was the Civil War in Film. At this point, Naomi continued experiencing a heightened sense of the past. As we traveled even deeper into the South, her feelings grew even more intense and she implored me to explain to future students who might become involved in FTP what she felt was a spiritual or mystical aspect of the work. I promised her that I would. I also explained that my neglect in doing so with her cohort was due to an assumed inappropriateness in bridging the spiritual and the academic, especially in a traditional research course involving mostly conventional methodology. It was not so much that I doubted students would disassociate themselves from anything “ghostly,” but I doubted that the modern field of composition studies lacked a contemporary discourse for even broaching the topic of the spiritual in writing and research. Even while Naomi was attending and I was teaching at a private, religious-affiliated institution, I had found no easy way to suggest that taking, as Larance put it, “steps back into history,” might in fact engage a cosmology and an epistemology more in keeping with my students’ African ancestors than with the perspectives of their living elders or with the teaching practices of most of the professors at Rust. How might I reasonably suggest and defend a step back as a spiritual crossing of a delicate line between The Good Red Road of the living and the blue or black roads that are “the worlds of the grandfathers and grandmothers?”[14] Despite the fact that Rust is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, students at the college who profess a Christian faith do not appear to consider their own prayers to Spirit or their belief in Christ’s transcendence of time and space as being related to academic work in which they might summon and engage ancestral spirits. The idea that writers and researchers might experience visitation or assistance from the spirit world might resonate with creative writers who insist on the reality of the muse, but how might one explain such experience as a part of “objective” research? Both in his paper and in subsequent conversations, Joshua suggested that we were indeed awakening sleeping dogs, an act about which his family had forewarned him. Although he expressed the deepest commitment to the work, he saw journeying into the past both as a movement back and as a reopening.[15]

One could certainly argue that engagement of the spiritual is a decentering of the subject or researcher. For many years, I have been intrigued by the research theory and practice of anthropologist Paul Stoller, who has suggested not that the ethnographer is merely decentered but that she is consumed.[16] Offering a sensual and embodied scholarship that challenges Cartesianism, Stoller goes beyond resurrection of the human body—as text—to an acceptance of the body as receiver of spirits. He writes, “. . . I argue that embodiment is not primarily textual; rather, the sentient body is culturally consumed by a world filled with forces, smells, textures, sights, sounds, and tastes, all of which trigger cultural memories.”[17] Might it be appropriate to ask if the kind of information found in the ROF, as well as findings of my student-researchers concerning former slave owners, is experienced through the bodies of these students if not through their whole beings? And could this be the reason that a majority of them chose to limit their involvement in slavery research to the confines of our course? The challenger to Naomi’s thesis concerning slavery and inhumanity, Terry, resurrecting Gov. Matthews, wrote of his own experience:

It was almost as if I was living out his life through third person just by reading, and trying to imagine the things he had been through or seen. . . I couldn’t put the book down or turn off my computer while doing research. However, I was still far from done with my journey traveling through this gentleman’s life.[18]

As with Larance, Terry, a biology major, did not choose to continue his involvement in FTP despite or perhaps because of feeling, as Stoller suggests, consumed. In conversation with me, Terry expressed trouble with sleeping during his research experience. Focus and extra energy, their source or sources unclear, had kept him late into the night working on recovering the life of Gov. Matthews. During the course, Terry seemed to have given over control of his own habits of structuring time.

In the field of Rhetoric and Composition, scholars have renewed considerations of the once abstract concept of time and its potential role in the teaching of writing. Deborah Mutnick, arguing for a reconfiguration of a cultural polarity of academic writing and personal writing, suggests that Bakhtin’s chronotope, or time and space, might be a way to invite young writers to engage “the personal” in the writing classroom.[19] Mutnick’s appeal is part of ongoing debate of the place of the personal within composition, and in her approach to this question, a turn toward investigation of time and space in the lives of students, she perhaps unwittingly expands the universe of the classroom as she nudges students to go where they have perhaps not thought to or been encouraged to go before. On the one hand, this turn brings the political as well into the classroom in a new way since, as Mutnick explains, “worldviews and social realities are forged by the interaction of space and time, history and location, content and form.”[20] Because students, like their instructors, are situated within certain temporalities, both constructed and acculturated, they cannot be said to be innocent of the implications of the worldviews and social realities that rely on the temporal and spatial constructions. Does this mean that neither I nor my student-researchers can claim innocence as some of them seek to keep history at bay and as I, at the same time, gently push them to engage it? Mutnick’s sense of the value of the chronotope may be more worldly than spiritual; however, I think she would agree both that student writing about “the personal” might invite the spiritual and that teaching that suppresses the supernatural constructs time and space for students and perhaps teachers alike. It may be that most, if not all, of my students have accepted this order of things: an efficient world that leaves the pasts of those who were enslaved, as well as those who enslaved, unexplored. However, while Rust students taking my Composition II course may have had the option not to engage the topic of slavery, or to shy away from playing an active role in disseminating information on the subject within the digital sphere, ongoing digitization of historic records like the ROF make it all but inevitable that they, and the entire world, will soon have to confront problems and possibilities that come from widespread re-infusion of the historical. In his theorization of the work of archivists, James O’Toole writes that historians are just beginning to use records to understand the slave’s point of view.[21] He is correct, and the digital universe promises that such use will multiply exponentially in the next few years and that the democratization of access to records is also likely to increase continually. Political, theological, and pedagogical implications of these two facts cannot be ignored if we intend our students to be digitally active.

About the author: Alisea Williams McLeod is an assistant professor in the Humanities/English Division at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi. She specializes in critical literacy and is especially interested in the ways that students and others construct time and space.

How to cite:

Alisea Williams McLeod, “Student Digital Research and Writing on Slavery,” in Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning, ed. Jack Dougherty and Tennyson O’Donnell (University of Michigan Press/Trinity College ePress edition, 2014), http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/chapter/mcleod.

See an earlier version of this essay with open peer review comments.[22]


  1. Author's photos of Holly Springs, MS, Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/peeling_paint/sets/72157629276541881.
  2. "Register of Freedmen," Camp Shiloh, Memphis, Tennessee, circa 1864, Last Road to Freedom website, http://www.lastroadtofreedom.com/uploads/3/1/1/7/3117447/register_of_freedmen_ii.pdf.
  3. McLeod, English 136 "Module Project: Researching and Remembering," Google Document, Rust College, Spring 2012, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1RP-I3SD7Gu319HQ-VRt8gBcxBRXJSrEmE3ksy2O9tAY/pub. This project also used Wikispaces, which are not edited by organizational editors or by the public without permission from the wiki owner (in this case, me).
  4. "Marshall County, Mississippi, Slave Owners in the 1864 Register of Freedmen, Digisense wiki, http://digisense.wikispaces.com/Marshall%20County%20Mississippi%20Slave%20owners.
  5. McLeod, "Authoring at WikiSpaces: Directions for Preparing Your Abstracted Biography," Google Document, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ysOKwmS4RaLL9Xyq1F77OT_i32q0oHbdAD7DCNMrsYE/pub.
  6. For more on this issue, read McLeod, "Structural Constraints," Google Document, https://docs.google.com/document/d/17Z-o0_TMQh7prTpRLLrkY0Y9GXo9HLnL2P5V6fkwI-c/pub.
  7. McLeod, "Moving and Maybe Hoarding History," HASTAC blog, February 19, 2012, http://www.hastac.org/blogs/amcleod/2012/02/19/moving-and-maybe-hoarding-history.
  8. Sara Ahmed, "Happy Objects," in The Affect Theory Reader, edited by Melissa Greg and Gregory J. Seigworth, 29-51 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).
  9. McLeod, "Barriers vs. Pathways to Student Digital Activism," HASTAC blog, May 15, 2014, http://www.hastac.org/blogs/amcleod/2014/05/15/barriers-vs-pathways-student-digital-activism.
  10. Fifty-two percent of students enrolled in the course returned one of two separate surveys (based on research topic). Fifty percent of students conducting slavery research returned surveys, three choosing to respond anonymously.
  11. This student and others gave permission for their names, survey responses, and papers to be used in this essay. Larance Carter, “The Life and Lineage of Matthew Lacy." Unpublished paper, Rust College, Holly Springs, Mississippi, April 18, 2012.
  12. I borrow this term from James O’Toole, “Archives and Historical Accountability: Toward a Moral Theology,” Archavaria 58 (Fall 2004): 4.
  13. During the town's annual Pilgrimage, in which several antebellum mansions are opened to the public, Naomi and Joshua both visited Burton Place, owned by local attorney David Person, whose relatives held a slave by the name of Henry Totten. Naomi Rahn, “’To Treat the Slaves as Kindly as Their Conduct Will Allow’: A Question of Humanity or Inhumanity." Unpublished paper presented at the Mid-South Undergraduate Research Conference, Southern Arkansas University, Magnolia, Arkansas, October 3-5, 2012. The title of Naomi’s conference paper is taken from a contract between Ebenezer Davis and an overseer, which appears in the Audubon Mississippi/Strawberry Plains Finley Collection, MUM01701, Series II, Department of Archives and Special Collections, University of Mississippi, http://www.flickr.com/photos/peeling_paint/14181934364.
  14. Jamie Sams and David Carson, Medicine Cards (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 13, 22.
  15. Joshua Stampley Gardner, untitled, unpublished paper, Rust College, Holly Springs, Mississippi, April 18, 2012, 2.
  16. Paul Stoller, Sensuous Scholarship (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), 55.
  17. Ibid, 55.
  18. Terry Dent, “Is There a Good or Bad Slave Owner: A Questioning of Slave Owners." Unpublished paper, Rust College, Holly Springs, Mississippi, April 18, 2012, 5-6.
  19. Deborah Mutnick, “Time and Space in Composition Studies: ‘Through the Gates of the Chronotope’,” Rhetoric Review 25 (2006).
  20. Ibid, 43.
  21. O’Toole, 13.
  22. McLeod, "Student Digital Research and Writing on Slavery," in Web Writing (Open peer review edition, Fall 2013), http://webwriting2013.trincoll.edu/crossing-boundaries/mcleod-2013/.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *