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2019
Suzanne McCormack

Sabbatical's End

Posted by Suzanne McCormack Expert Jun 26, 2019

My semester-long sabbatical ended abruptly with the start of summer session at my college so it’s the perfect time to reflect on five months of research. The goal of this project at the outset was to study the care of women categorized as mentally ill (today’s terminology) in the period 1870 to 1920 in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. As with any project, I’ve met with some success and some failure while being introduced to questions that I did not know I needed to answer. 

 

My research at the Rhode Island State Archives, for example, has proved more fruitful than I expected. Not only have I been able to learn a lot about the state’s efforts to care for mentally ill women, I’ve also been introduced to the challenges of basic health care for poor women in a way I had not anticipated. Looking specifically at conditions and challenges in our nation’s smallest state has been alarming. Sick women often arrived at the RI State Almshouse with children-in-tow. Sometimes those children were healthy and other times they were even sicker than their mothers. In all cases, however, the Almshouse -- one of the only safety nets for poor women in this era -- was the last resort as care at private hospitals was financially out of reach.  

 

Learning more about the history of the US healthcare system has been a goal of this project from the start. In an earlier blog, “Making Connections: History & Medicine”  I mentioned my interest in helping students at the community college where I teach develop an understanding of healthcare historically. In a future semester I’m hopeful that I can offer a  course designed specifically for our nursing and health-care focused students. Secondary readings toward that end are my focus for the remainder of the summer. 

 

Finally, the greatest challenge I have faced during this sabbatical is access to sources. Access to patients’ records and/or doctors’ notes that could shed light on illnesses and treatments has been inconsistent. Historians have published several narrative histories utilizing 19th-century patients’ records in states such as New York and Virginia -- sometimes changing patients’ names and other times publishing doctors’ notes verbatim. In New England, however, I have been challenged by the inconsistency of repositories’ policies on access. While some libraries allow review of patients’ records after a waiting period of 70 years (from the document’s creation), others have closed patients’ records entirely by citing modern-day state laws regarding patient privacy. I continue to engage in discussions with these libraries about the importance of medical records as historical sources. While I certainly understand concerns about privacy I also believe that being one-hundred years removed from the time period is a significant buffer, especially when coupled with the promise of patient anonymity. 

 

I’m excited to continue this research. Taking a few months away from the classroom to focus on a project that is entirely my own has reinvigorated my academic interests and my desire to find new topics to share with students. I’m inspired to better manage my teaching/preparation time so that all of this amazing research I’ve done does not collect dust. Suggestions welcome.  

 

Happy Summer! 

 

   

 

  

The Fourth of July is a celebration that harkens images of backyard barbecues, apple pie, fireworks, and maybe even the hit Broadway musical Hamilton. The traditions surrounding the Fourth of July are just as important to the American experience as the actual event itself. However, how did this come to be? 

 

The History

 

  • While the 4th of July celebrates American independence from Great Britain in 1776,  it wasn’t declared a national holiday until 1870, almost 100 years after the original signing of the Declaration of Independence. 
  • Fireworks being associated with Independence Day actually predates it becoming a federal holiday. John Adams, after signing, had written to his wife: It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
  • No one is completely sure how “as American as apple pie” came to be, considering that apples are native to Asia and the first recorded apple pie recipe was from England. An ad in the Gettysburg Times promotes “New Lestz Suits that are as American as apple pie,” which is where the expression may have originated. However it started, apple pies are intertwined in American culture, so they’re worth eating on the most patriotic day of the year!

 

Want to explore more American history? Nancy Hewitt’s Thinking Through Sources for Exploring American Histories Volume 1 gives a firsthand look into the American Revolution and much more!

 

What’s your favorite 4th of July tradition?

Before the horrific events of the Pulse nightclub shooting, the UpStairs Lounge arson attack was one of the deadliest assaults on the LGBQT community-- except hardly anyone heard about it. In honor of #PrideMonth, read into why this deadly attack is completely unknown to so many.  Read more here: https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2019/05/06/upstairs-lounge-fire

 

In topical classes on gay and lesbian history, everyone covers Stonewall, but is this covered? What are you covering in your courses?

Teaching our students to properly cite sources is an essential component of college-level history courses. In a previous blog I mentioned that last summer I started requiring a rough-draft of the Works Cited page in the earliest stages of my students’ research. This week I will share that brief assignment and the reasons I have found it effective.

 

Open my assignment here.

 

Requiring (and grading) a draft Works Cited page has proved useful for a number of reasons.

 

First and foremost, this assignment forces my students to get to work locating sources immediately. My assignment starts with students submitting a research topic. In my experience this step should be completed through Google Docs, the Blackboard “Journal,” or some other tool that enables feedback directly to the student. I respond to the students as the topics are submitted and encourage them to ask questions before they begin searching for sources. Once they have an approved topic the students have one week to submit their draft Works Cited page. I employ this quick turnaround period to discourage students from putting the assignment aside once the topic is approved and forgetting about it until the week before the due date.

 

Second, the draft Works Cited page enables me to stop bad research in its tracks. It is not uncommon, for example, for students to ignore my instructions about the required library databases and instead conduct a web search (ie, “Google” their topic). I’ve also had students submit draft Works Cited pages that will not lead them to detailed research materials because the sources they have chosen are too general. Or, students will sometimes use the wrong databases in spite of my link to history-specific materials. A philosophical or literary evaluation of Martin Luther King, Jr’s, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is not the same as a historian’s examination of what was happening in Birmingham when King was jailed. Catching these problems in the drafting phase is critical.

 

Finally, I have found that when I place the Works Cited front and center the students view it as more than an afterthought. For years I inadvertently allowed students to throw together their Works Cited pages as they completed their projects only to be surprised by their poor quality. No doubt many of those Works Cited pages were pieced together in the middle of the night!  Asking students to consider this critical component of their work in the earliest stages of research has heightened their view of its importance, and ultimately increased their understanding of why sources matter.

 

What do you do to help students understand the value of quality sources and citations? Please share!