Prizefighters, Mediums, and Slave Auctioneers: Creating World Experts at Eagle Hill School presents excerpts from 25 papers completed by students at Eagle Hill School in Hardwick, Massachusetts for Nym Cooke's history course, World Expert. Making the compendium was World Expert student Will Duncan’s idea, and Will and Nym worked as equal collaborators throughout the project. Together they chose the papers and passages to include, sometimes after heated discussion; they divvied up the introductions that had to be written for each paper; they located and selected all the illustrations; and each of them wrote a foreword.
One of the joys of teaching at Eagle Hill School, according to Nym, is that you can propose a course in any subject you’re passionate about, and given adequate student interest, it’ll fly. Nym's own interests vary widely, so for some time now he's been teaching courses in five different departments: performing arts, history, English, pragmatics, and social justice. And in 9.5 cases out of ten, he's been free to develop his own courses. Most of these have no textbook, and several involve activities off-campus—getting out there in the “real world”—as a crucial element.
Back in 2011, realizing how (relatively) easy it had been for him to become an authority in a fairly obscure corner of American music history, Nym thought how rewarding it could be for Eagle Hill students to find topics that interested them and that had never been researched before, to research and write about those topics, to get their work out there where others could use it, and thereby to become the recognized authorities—the world experts, in fact—on their respective topics. At first he considered every field to be fair game for the development and establishment of a student’s world expertise. Surely there were very specific topics in the sciences that had never been researched…? But accurately identifying such topics, and finding the requisite source material, posed problems.
Then Nym thought of the American Antiquarian Society. Thirty-five minutes’ drive from Eagle Hill School, this remarkable institution, founded in 1812 by patriot printer and book collector (not basketball player) Isaiah Thomas, has the most extensive holdings of early American printed materials in the world; their collection of 17th- and 18th-century materials far outstrips that of the Library of Congress. Their 25 miles of shelves contain over four million items, including not only books and pamphlets and newspapers but maps, sheet music, games, valentines, menus, election ballots, money, playbills, broadsides, all kinds of graphic arts, and on and on. The Society’s aim is to collect one copy of everything printed in what was once British North America before 1877; and they’re making impressive progress towards realizing that goal, especially in the period through 1820.
Equally important, the staff at the AAS is exceptionally knowledgeable about the library’s collections, and exceptionally friendly—ready to help any scholar, whether it be David McCullough (author of Pulitzer Prize-winning books on Presidents Harry Truman and John Adams, among many other publications) or Caroline Curtis (EHS 2014, author of a paper excerpted in the World Expert book). Given how valuable many of its holdings are, this is a remarkably welcoming, hospitable place; and it is deeply nurturing of scholars at all stages in their careers. Nym realized that if the purview of his World Expert course were early American history and culture, the AAS would be the perfect repository in which his students could find their sources—and their topics.
The first group of World Experts-to-be visited the American Antiquarian Society for two successive days of research in early 2012; since then, a total of 67 EHS students have taken the course. Over time, their visits have been concentrated into a single day, but the sequence of activities remains the same. After being photographed and having copies of their IDs made (the Society, after all, contains many millions of dollars’ worth of rare imprints, including a copy of the first book printed in the American colonies, the “Bay Psalm Book” of 1640; Google it), the students are given a thorough tour of the library, including the stacks, which regular readers never see. This tour lasts about an hour and a half. Then comes the crucial part of the visit: an intensive session with Curator of Books Elizabeth Watts Pope, who excels in her ability to match up student interests (crime, sports, the supernatural, animals, early photography, you name it) with actual sources in the library that have never been researched. This session is wearing, but also rewarding and even exciting. By the time the students and their teacher stagger off to lunch at Blue Jeans Pizza, a five-minutes’ drive down Park Avenue from the Society, every student has a source to work with—and a topic that they will become the world expert on.
When students and teacher return from lunch, the students request their main sources and any auxiliary sources they may need to consult while they’re at the library (for example, town or organization histories, or genealogies). The books are brought to them at felt-covered tables, placed in “book cradles” to protect their old spines, and—ta-daaaa—student meets source! The students fill out forms Nym has given them, recording their source’s call number, record ID, exact measurements, and pagination, carefully and thoroughly transcribing title pages and any handwritten inscriptions, and describing important visual and bibliographical features. Then they spend some time just getting to know the source (this will be the only time they get to work with it “in the flesh,” as it were), and also doing any related research that needs to be completed before they leave the library. The visit ends with the students requesting PDFs of any source that’s not already electronically available. The PDFs are emailed to the appropriate student, most often within twenty-four hours—and at no cost!
The remainder of the course unfolds in Nym's classroom at EHS, with the students taking notes on their sources, doing all necessary related internet research, and getting back to AAS librarians with further queries as necessary. They then write the paper that will be the sole determinant of their course grade, and if there’s time, they edit it intensively with Nym. Papers have ranged from four to twenty-three pages in length. Once the course is over, Nym completes whatever editing remains to be done, then sends the edited papers to the students for their approval, or any suggestions for further improvement. When he's heard back from each student, the new crop of papers is sent to the American Antiquarian Society, where it will be added to a box in the Society’s collections, catalogued, and made available to any scholar interested in the same topic, or something related.
Perhaps the most valuable aspect of this course is that the high-school student, as a beginning historian, gets to participate in the process of writing real history, history that’s never been written before, history based on the student’s work with a “real, live” primary source. These young people also get to participate in the community of American historians—working side by side with dedicated practitioners of the historian’s craft at the AAS, sending inquiries to established scholars in their topic area if that proves necessary (they’ve received some wonderful help from seasoned historians via email), and having their own work made available in perpetuity at a world-class research library.
And it probably doesn't hurt to be able to say in a college interview, “Oh, and I’m the world expert on four nineteenth-century versions of Cinderella.”
The World Expert course is special in its ability to provoke excitement in young people about doing archival research. Our motivation in putting together an anthology of World Expert papers was the desire to spread knowledge about the course and its ability to galvanize high school and college students into becoming active historians. Your contribution will help us rekindle young Americans' interest in the study of the past.