Sigman Does Summer Research in African History

Over the summer, Professor Sarah Hardin took on Becky Sigman ’19 as a research assistant. We asked Sigman, who majors in Peace and Justice while minoring in French, to tell One Thing after Another something about her experience. Starting this fall, the History Department will be making much greater use of research assistants than in the past, so you might want to read about what Sigman thought of her summer work.

Last year, I took Professor Hardin’s course, History 391: History of Southern Africa. After speaking with her several times about her area of expertise—the role of agriculture in the lives of West Africans—I decided that I wanted to learn more. The idea of doing research with a professor appealed to me because I thought it would be a great way to learn about academic research, increase my knowledge about an issue that I was interested in, and develop a closer relationship with a great mentor in the field. Professor Hardin needed a research assistant, so together we identified our plan of action. Lucky for me, I learned that one of my research responsibilities would consist of translating documents from French into English, which allowed me to expand my French vocabulary and increase my fluency. We started applying for funding, and through the generosity of the Dean’s Office, I was able to assist Professor Hardin in her research for four weeks over the summer.

Throughout those four weeks, I was responsible for translating, summarizing, and analyzing reports from France and francophone African countries. For years, Professor Hardin has been collecting documents to investigate the repercussions of pesticides and herbicides used for cotton production in West Africa between the 1950s and 1980s. She wants to learn what agricultural agents knew about the dangers of the chemicals they used (and when they knew it). She gave me reports and transcripts of meetings in which agents discussed the issues they encountered. Below is an advertisement from the trade journal Coton et Fibres Tropicales which is dated 1970:

Gésaten: yields are assured with this cotton herbicide
A Geigy treatment is appropriate for all of your problems
Widespread applicability: Gesaten eliminates the first sprouting of grass and dicotyledons
Easy to use: Gesaten can be applied through simple spraying techniques or through a spraying with sand without burying the product
Safety: Used in prescribed conditions, Geasaten will not harm your cotton crop and does not present any toxic risk for humans
Geigy société anonyme, 43 rue Vineuse, 75-Paris 16e

Professor Hardin was extremely insightful and patient throughout the process, meeting with me a few times each week to give me feedback on the work I’d completed and helping me through confusing vocabulary or concepts. What I found the most helpful is that she would continuously draw connections between specific documents and the larger goal of her thesis, which made me feel like the work I was doing was valuable. In the transcripts, we found that in the 1950s some chemicals accidentally killed goats, birds, dogs, and fish, and harmed humans, but that the agents seemed to take human labor for granted and only advised that people follow instructions carefully. In the 1970s, however, the agents began to express more concern about environmental damages and human health over the long term. Professor Hardin proposes that economic and political factors contributed to this change.

I would highly recommend doing research with a professor whose area of interest lines up with yours if you are interested in improving your writing and analysis skills, gaining a better understanding of how the academic research process works, or generally expanding your knowledge about a specific topic.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.


Professor Hardin’s Research Trip to Senegal

Hardin in Senegal 2016

NOTE: To see the photos referred to in this post, go here.

Professor Hardin’s recent four-week research trip to Senegal was productive.  She interviewed twenty-two individuals in six municipalities about the history of the southeastern region of the country, particularly how people there cultivated cotton in the 1970s (see photos 407, 421 and 422).  Cotton production was remarkably profitable, but it required the use of strong pesticides. Interviewees discussed the ways they dealt with the toxic chemicals and why they found the work worthwhile at the time, but that now they would appreciate less dangerous and more lucrative economic opportunities.  Interviewees cultivated cotton and other crops with and for their families. Individuals of both noble and slave descent gained and lost with cotton production as the industry ebbed and flowed.

Professor Hardin also interviewed a bambaaɗo (a griot or traditional oral historian) about the nineteenth-century history of the region as well as a few traditional healers about their work. These men and women, including Professor Hardin’s interpreter, Aminata Kaba (see photos 456 and 464), continue to treat patients using plants and other means.  This research will inform Professor Hardin’s course on the history of African health and healing.

The timing of Professor Hardin’s trip was fortuitous. The National Archives of Senegal had been closed for the last two years for building renovations. A few days before she was scheduled to depart the country, however, the archives reopened in a new location in Dakar, and she was able to see a few documents (see photos 620-622).

From the hustle and bustle of the capital city to the pressing urgency to prepare fields for the coming rains in the countryside, Professor Hardin witnessed the range of Senegalese life. In the heat of late May and early June, young people were preparing for final exams despite their teachers’ strike. Teachers are asking the government to respect their contracts though the government has threatened to dismiss them. Teachers debated whether they should continue to go without their contracted salaries for the sake of the nation’s children or whether they should press the government to decrease the number of ministers making large sums. See this opinion piece published in Le Quotidien by Professor Hardin’s friend, Cheikh Kaling, who also holds a doctorate in history and trains some of Senegal’s history and geography teachers at the College of the Science and Technology of Education and Training  [Faculté des Sciences et Technologies de l’Education et de la Formation (FASTEF)] at the University of Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar:

While education remains a long-contested sector, so too is agriculture. In May the director of the Company for Development and Textile Fibers (Société de Développement et des Fibres Textiles or SODEFITEX) visited remote towns to drum up enthusiasm for the impending cotton campaign, as well as for the production of corn, millet, sunflowers, hibiscus, rice, and sesame. Such outreach is necessary given that agriculture has not paid much for over a decade, many farmers are deeply indebted financially, rains have not been regular, and labor is scarce.  Some tractors are currently being brought in, but some people are skeptical of the economic impact the technology will ultimately have.

Almost every family has someone living in Dakar and/or abroad who sends money back from as far away as Congo-Brazzaville, North Africa, Saudi Arabia, Europe, and the USA . Since the 1970s, remittances have been one of the largest sources of revenue for the area.  But migration is dangerous and people sometimes die trying to get to Europe. See this article on Tambacounda which is on the way to Vélingara:

See also photo 404 from Professor Hardin’s host family’s home in Vélingara. It’s of a blackboard for the private tutorial of the eleven-year-old nephew.  It’s a dictation on “a stowaway” which teaches not only the French language but also the dangers of migration.

Traveling through Tambacounda to and from Vélingara in the Upper Casamance region of southeastern Senegal in late May, Professor Hardin saw fields being cleared by controlled burns. The remaining ash makes good fertilizer (see photos 410, 411, and 384). The burns were just in time too, since it rained in Vélingara for the first time for the season on the night of Friday May 27, 2016.

Vélingara is a town of over 25,000 people that feels like, in the words of someone born there, a “giant neighborhood.” Everyone knows everyone, people visit each other’s houses regularly and kids play in the streets.  The vast majority of buildings are one-story; there is one gas station, one bus station, one bank (along with several money transfer offices where people pickup remittances), one post office, one large market, a cotton gin factory, one tourist motel and now two paved roads.  Daily life centers around the market, the schools, the mosques, the bus station, and the health clinic. Common ailments for children are malaria and diarrhea while older adults suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes, glaucoma, and respiratory infections.

Hope springs eternal due to the recently paved road in town, dubbed the “road of Macky Sall” (the new president). The Compaganie Sahélienne d’Entreprises (CSE) which is paving the roads between Vélingara and other major cities is hiring some men locally, another cause for optimism.  From Vélingara, Professor Hardin took the paved road to Médina Gounass and Linkéring, and took a dirt road to Wassadou, to do interviews. Each trip took over an hour but on the way to Wassadou Professor Hardin was able to stop and take pictures of the industrial rice field and the anti-AIDS sign near the border with Guinea-Bissau (see photos 442, 444, and 426—on the road to Wassadou. Agence de Gestion des Routes or AGEROUTE: “Let’s open the roads for development, but bar the road to AIDS.”) Cross-border trade is long-standing and essential to the region’s economy, but prostitution at the major market towns increases the rates of STDs.  Despite these dangers, the state of health and health care in Senegal is better than in some of its neighboring countries.

Professor Hardin’s trip ended during the first week of Ramadan. Before it started, she saw on T.V. Arabic music videos and commercials celebrating the season. The day people began fasting in Senegal depended on whether they chose to start with people in Saudi Arabia or follow local clerics who decided based on how they saw the moon there. The daily schedule then changed with some people rising earlier than usual to drink water and eat a few dates before the sun rose at 7:00 AM; they would not eat or drink water until the sun set at 7:40 PM, at which point they would have their breakfast of coffee, a sandwich, and dates, followed by dinner at 9:30 PM, followed in turn by ataya, sugared gunpowder tea.  Of course these meals and the day was interspersed by prayers at 6:00 AM, 2:00 PM, 4:30 PM, 7:30 PM, and 9:00 PM.  Since people tended to go to bed late and get up early, those who could take a nap in the late afternoon did. Children, the elderly, the ill, and Professor Hardin, however, ate breakfast and lunch at regular hours.

In Senegal’s cities and towns, one hears the calls to prayer from mosques; the sounds of cows, donkeys, dogs and chickens; the honks of horns from trucks and cars; and most often people greeting one another. Salaam alaikum!

History 359 Discovers the History of Women

History 359 Class

This semester Professor Beth Salerno’s American Women’s History class took part in a national research project. Each student chose a militant suffragist from a newly created database of 400 white women mentioned in the National Woman’s Party newspaper The Suffragist. The students’ biographical sketches and research notes will be published in the Women and Social Movements Database to which hundreds of academic libraries subscribe. One Thing After Another asked the students to reflect on their research experience for this blog entry.

At the beginning of the project, each student or team of two chose a militant suffragist from the database. These were women who picketed the White House during World War I, were arrested in demonstrations, donated to or worked for the cause, or served as a state officer for the National Woman’s Party. Despite starting out with nothing but a name, a home state, and perhaps a word or two describing the woman’s involvement, most students assumed this would be an easy task. As junior history major Eric Soucy said, “I have done many research projects before in the past. . . . None of the research [for those projects] was . . . very hard to find. A simple WorldCat or JSTOR search . . . almost always resulted in a couple hundred relevant articles.”

HI 359 Olzendam

Eric Soucy and Chris Griebel did research on Miss Therese Olzendam who is pictured here.  

However, the students rapidly discovered that they were the first researchers ever to study most of these women. Junior history major Whitney Hammond gave humorous expression to her shock: “I did not understand how I could possibly write a report about someone who did not have at least a Wikipedia page.” Even women who were famous in their time, socializing with Governors and testifying before Senators, seemed completely unknown today. As junior history and politics major Emily Rice wrote, “It was enlightening . . . to learn how quickly a woman can fall through the cracks of history.” Junior politics major Chris Cardona summed up the feelings of the group when he stated, “Researching a historically important figure may seem like a click away on Google, but nothing could be further from the truth.”

HI 359 mackaye loc

Marisa Feijoo and Lily-Gre Hitchen did research on Mrs. Jessie Belle Hardy Stubbs MacKaye who is pictured here. 

Because the students have been studying women’s history all semester, they had a good sense that certain topics and groups of citizens are far less present in history books than others. But this project brought that point home more clearly than any lecture or book. As first year student Tessa Sances noted, “Women suffragists were not often documented and the work they did was not seen as worthy.” Even websites and textbooks that discuss the extension of voting to women often do so very generally, not providing information on the diverse women who took real risks by advocating such an unpopular cause. As she struggled to find information on her person, Senior English major Hannah Galluci found herself getting angry “at how easily a person’s life can be forgotten or glossed over just because they were active in something that was not deemed acceptable.”  Hannah also learned how even objective facts can be shaped by social expectations. Her person held multiple offices in suffrage organizations and even went on a speaking tour. However her census record listed “no occupation” since suffrage “work” was rarely paid.

Every student noted that the dearth of information greatly improved their research skills. As junior history major Ryan Parenteau wrote, “This project forced me to dig much deeper and find sources I would not normally use like birth and death records.” Sophomore history major Erika Ellis noted that her group had to sort out Sally and Sallie Hovey, who were two different women. Senior English major Kelsey Fair struggled with a woman who was mentioned only once in the suffragist newspaper. She turned out to have “impacted tens of thousands of lives [through] her involvement in the Children’s Year campaign and in her thirty-year term as a headmistress.” Her suffrage activity ended up being a minor part of her life.

History 359 bliss finley pic

Alexis LaBrie and Whitney Hammond did research on Miss Bliss Finley who is pictured here. 

Multiple students suddenly became aware how marriage might make researching women particularly difficult. Senior English major Marisa Feijoo and sophomore history major Lily-Gre Hitchen chose Mrs. Benton MacKaye from the database. It took weeks to piece together that Mrs. Benton MacKaye had been Miss Jessie Belle Hardy, then Mrs. Jessie Hardy Stubbs, and only late in life Mrs. Benton MacKaye. Lily-Gre noted that prior to this project she had been “a little intimidated by the multiple library databases.” After doing multiple searches on each of Jessie Belle Hardy Stubbs MacKaye’s names, it is not surprising that she reported “I will be able to use them confidently in the future.”

Many of the students learned to love geneaology as part of this project, as senior history major Chris Griebel did. “I took great pleasure in researching her family’s past.” Almost every student could find more information on husbands, brothers, and sons, than on the women they were studying. Class discussions made clear that some groups were having far more luck than others in tracing genealogies, which had to do with economic class. Upper and middle class women were far more likely to have published family records or business records of prominent family enterprises.

But genealogies also turned up three research problems for students. As first year history major Sarah Hummel noted, “Our woman’s daughter possessed the same exact name as our militant suffragist. Thus actions . . . could have just as easily referred to daughter as the mother.” Hannah Galluci found conflicting sources, some of which listed two women as sisters, others of which did not. Sophomore psychology major Lisette Labbé found the hardest part of geneaological research was “not to get too distracted by little rabbit trails . . . it was difficult to stay on task at some points [when there was so much more to know.]”

Many students found that doing such intense research really made them invested in the project. Senior Communication major Jane Bunn came to feel a real sense of historical duty: “I felt this burden of responsibility to get everything right, to leave no stone unturned, and to record [my person’s] triumphs with the diligence they deserved.” Junior history major Alexis LaBrie hoped “we did [our person’s] memory justice.” First year student Lauren Batchelder shared a last name with her subject and became quite attached to her: “I see her as someone I want to be; she is almost an accidental role model.” Many students have unanswered questions. First year students Caitlin Williamson and Haley Zahn still have no idea when or where their subject died. Perhaps a second marriage caused a name change they have not yet been able to trace?

The collaborative research process, usually done in pairs, led many students to find new value in “group work” which many of them had previously avoided. As first year student Tessa Sances summed up, working collaboratively “helped me learn how to deal with miscommunications and differences . . . I learned a lot about myself and how I work with others.” Jane Bunn thought working in a group was “the second best part of the project.” Haley Zahn was grateful to have someone “to ask questions, compare my work to, and…understand the difficulties this project entailed.”

HI 359 Shaw

Sarah Hummel and Lisette Labbe did research on Mrs. Lois Warren Shaw who is pictured here. 

Being responsible to someone else, to the historical record, and to the organization publishing the project all pushed students to do their best work. Ryan Parenteau spoken for many when he said he enjoyed doing research that “might actually matter.” Lily-Gre Hitchen is “interested to see if a historian picks up where we left off, and writes more about [these women].”

We list here the names of the women we studied for the historical record: Miss Bliss Finley, Mrs. Jessie Belle Hardy Stubbs MacKaye, Mrs. Elizabeth Darrow O’Neil, Mrs. Mary Darrow Weible, Miss Harriet L. Hunt, Mrs. Beatrice Castleton, Marie (Minna) Shein Bodenheim, Mrs. Lois Warren Shaw, Miss Ann Batchelder, Miss Sallie V. Hovey, Miss Therese Olzendam.

History 359 Class Celebrating

History 359 celebrates completion of the project.