I had the pleasure of spending several hours last Tuesday afternoon with 25 teachers attending David Blight’s Slave Narratives in American Literature summer teacher seminar, sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, & Abolition at Yale University. They worked intensively with documents relating to slavery and abolition in the collections of Manuscripts and Archives, and also saw two first editions of slave narratives from the collections of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
One of the great benefits I get out of working with students and others using our collections is that I learn so much about the materials and how people think about using them. One pedagogical example from this past Tuesday’s teacher session that really stuck with me came in the short presentations, given by teachers working in pairs, about how they might use a specific document with their classes (mostly middle and high school).
We have two fascinating letters in the Norse Family Papers written in 1836 to James Nourse (1805-1854) by his sister (the first dated 10 February and the second 21 September). We don’t have James’s letters intervening letter(s) to her in the collection. In the first letter from his sister (identified only by the first initial R.) she sympathizes with his views on temperance, but absolutely disagrees with his ardent abolitionist sentiments, warning him not to try and proselytize her and to avoid the topic in discussions with other family members. By the second letter James has obviously unleashed significant tension within the family over his views and his sister writes what is basically an “I told you so” letter to him. The Nourse family resided in the Washington, D.C., area, while James served as a minister in Mifflin County, Pennsylvania.
One of the teachers who presented on these two letters was eager to do a “write what’s missing” exercise with her students. She would work with them as a group to read and understand the two letters from his sister to James, especially in the context of abolitionism during the time, and then ask her students to write the letter from James to his sister that came between her two letters. This seems like a great exercise, and one that I think would also work well with first-year university students. I hope I get to work with a Yale faculty member willing to try it out sometime!