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Case Study as Common Text: Collaborating in and Broadening the Reach of History of Education

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 January 2017

Ansley T. Erickson*
History and Education, Teachers College, Columbia University (
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A graduate school of education contains a wide range of disciplinary models for the training of scholars and practitioners. I encounter these models as they come up in conversation with colleagues and students, or I confront them more directly as I pass a clinical psychology laboratory space each morning on the way to my office. I often see small groups of doctoral students at work, huddled around a computer monitor or deep in discussion. As my psychology colleagues are more likely to research and write in teams rather than individually, I read this scene as a sign of collaboration built into graduate training. It also contrasts with my experience of collaboration, or the lack thereof, in my own graduate training in history. In my own education, the most collaborative spaces—in which people come together around a common text and problem—existed in the earliest phases of graduate school. A few students and a professor gathered around a seminar table to analyze a book or article. But later, as students developed their own research agendas and proceeded into the archives, they researched and wrote largely in isolation. Writing groups and other venues for sharing work were sustaining, but the content of research remained an individual affair. (There were hints, though, of new spaces for collaboration—as in the History of Education Society's research mentoring sessions begun in 2009—and likely others existed, but were unknown to me as a graduate student.) Once in a faculty position, reflecting on my graduate training and juxtaposed with what I perceived at the psychology laboratory led me to ask where collaboration fits and how it might matter in graduate training in the history of education.

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2 Initially taught as Harlem Digital Research Collaborative, I regularized the class as Harlem Stories. The courses are cumulative to a degree, but students can choose to take one or both semesters. This flexibility is important for drawing students from other programs, especially in teacher education, where students often have limited space for elective offerings.Google Scholar

3 We used the Omeka platform,, with the Neatline mapping plugin, Space limits prevent a full discussion, but it is worth noting that the case-study structure opens opportunities for digitally sharing historical research. Also, the potential for student work to be publicly visible on the Internet raised the stakes of our collaborative work. It strengthened a sense of collective need to make ethical choices, and it moved questions of audience, interpretive authority, and voice from the abstract to the concrete. For examples of student work, see Scholar

4 Baldwin, James, Go Tell It On the Mountain (New York: Dial Press, 1963); Baldwin, James, The Fire Next Time (New York: Dial Press, 1963); Myers, Walter Dean, Bad Boy: A Memoir (New York: HarperCollins, 2001); and Brown, Claude, Manchild in the Promised Land (New York: Macmillan, 1965); assigned alongside a critical essay from Rotella, Carlo, October Cities: The Redevelopment of Urban Literature [Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998], 269–92).Google Scholar

5 Ransby, Barbara, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); Biondi, Martha, The Black Revolution on Campus (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012); and Markowitz, Gerald E. and Rosner, David, Children, Race, and Power: Kenneth and Mamie Clark's Northside Center (New York: Routledge, 2000).Google Scholar

6 For oral histories from Markowitz and Rosner's research, see the Columbia Center for Oral History, Scholar

7 On oral history method, see Perks, Robert and Thomson, Alistair, The Oral History Reader (New York: Routledge, 2006). On archives, see Cook, Terry and Schwartz, Joan M., “Archives, Records, and Power: From (postmodern) theory to (archival) performance,” Archival Science 2, no. 1–2 (2002), 171–85; Stoler, Ann Laura, “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance,” Archival Science 2, no. 1–2 (2002), 87–109; and Theimer, Kate, “Archives in Context and as Context” Journal of Digital Humanities 1, no. 2 (Spring 2012),–2/archives-in-context-and-as-context-by-kate-theimer/.Google Scholar

8 For more on this latter point, see Lewis's, Heather essay in this forum.Google Scholar

9 Wineburg, Sam, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2001).Google Scholar

10 Recognizing that this would be a challenging setting for the interviewee, I invited a participant who was an experienced public speaker and who expressed confidence that he had stories that needed to be recorded.Google Scholar

11 For another example, see Browder, Laura and Herrera, Patricia, “Civil Rights and Education in Richmond, Virginia: A Documentary Theater Project,” Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Scholarship and Pedagogy 23, no. 1 (Spring 2012), 1536, 158–59.Google Scholar

12 We worked with material from three collections: Annie Stein Papers and Union Settlement Association Papers, Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and Morningside Area Alliance, Columbia University Archives.Google Scholar

13 A collection of materials from Wadleigh are held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a research unit of the New York Public Library system, and the school has an organized alumni network.Google Scholar