English Goes to the Archives

Guest Post by Chris Warnick, Allyson Plessner, and Ayre Wilson

special-collectionsIn ENGL 466: Seminar in Writing, Rhetoric, and Language, students examined the history of English studies at the College of Charleston. Although students learned about and conducted extensive archival research, the most important goal of the course was for students to get advanced practice in writing for specific purposes, audiences, and genres, with the hope that they would compose projects that could be used for a professional portfolio or graduate school application. Students more than rose to the occasion, creating blogs, video essays, short stories, conference presentations, magazine articles, and other genres exploring the development of the English curriculum, student publications such as The Meteor, the introduction of digital writing technologies at the College, and the College’s Student Military Program during World War I.

To learn more about genre, students analyzed Folio and wrote articles addressing the purposes and audiences of the newsletter. Featured here are articles written by Allyson Plessner and Ayre Wilson. Plessner writes about documents she uncovered researching the College and department during the Vietnam War, drawing on her experience to reflect on the current political atmosphere and to argue for interdisciplinary courses that, in her words, “encourage students to take advantage of the opportunities for diversity that are afforded to them, to foster connections between seemingly unrelated ideas and subjects, and to create diversity where it may not yet exist.” Wilson presents her findings researching a 50-year run of The College of Charleston Magazine, when it was a student-run publication. In the piece published here, Wilson explains what the magazine’s history reveals about literary culture at the College both then and now, suggesting that, as she puts it, “our predecessors…seemed to be slightly more attached to the importance of literature.” As Plessner’s and Wilson’s pieces demonstrate, the writing and research conducted by students in ENGL 466 this semester effectively draw on the past to help us rethink our futures.

Allyson Plessner, “A Complex History and What it Means for CofC Today”

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Allyson Plessner

My major has given me the writing and analytical skills necessary to deal with the diversity of my academic interests, to be successful in an interdisciplinary setting. Moving forward, I think it is important that the classes being offered and the ways in which they are approached increasingly seek to move beyond strictly literary approaches and encourage students to take advantage of the opportunities for diversity that are afforded to them, to foster connections between seemingly unrelated ideas and subjects, and to create diversity where it may not yet exist.

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From CofC Special Collections

Attention White Americans,” reads the headline of an “informational” leaflet for those interested in joining an organization by the name of The National Socialist White People’s Party, later renamed the American Nazi Party. The one page document is printed onto blue paper, and obviously written using a typewriter. It is surprising in its simplicity, for the simple fact that what we now recognize as hate speech would be freely circulated. The leaflet promotes an unsettling and perverted sense of the idea of socialism, one which encourages a type of division and fear which is eerily similar to that which the United States is now experiencing under the influence of President-elect Trump. The similarities between the political atmosphere of today and that of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War era, from which this leaflet stems, are surprising and often upsetting.The incredibly long first sentence–in fact the first of only two sentences in the opening paragraph–of this particular leaflet offers a drastic vision of an all-white America devoid of the very diversity on which the country was founded: “Burning American towns and cities set aflame by blood-crazed Black militants, a completely wrecked public educational system burdened down with millions of illiterate Negro ‘students’ whose favorite pastimes include peddling narcotics in the school corridors, extorting lunch money from terrorized White students, and beating up or raping the teacher, the disappearance of untold millions of dollars from Welfare and Relief agencies (all pilfered from productive White taxpayers to support racial minorities who consider themselves too proud to work for a living), and the fact that White Americans are unable to traverse the streets, and parks or ride in the subways of their own cities without fear of being mugged, sexually assaulted, or murdered—ALL THIS PORTRAYS A PICTURE OF THE UNITED STATES TODAY!” That is a very real, poorly written, run-on sentence from a group whose influence was likely felt here at the college, and whose teachings can be found in Addlestone library. I hope you are as disturbed reading it as I am typing it.

The Vietnam War era was marked by a heightened fear of communist expansion that only added to the racist tensions that the Civil Rights Movement attempted to confront. America was a nation divided, and in this weakened state, groups such as the American Nazi Party took hold. Their ideas, as disturbing as they may be, gained momentum and fostered a period of dangerous division throughout the nation that led to violent riots and a country that found itself struggling with its own sense of identity. Sound familiar?

As troubling as it may be, this group and its goals are a part of our nation’s history. There is a reason that leaflets such as this are, and should be, able to be found in the campus library, and yet it remains somewhat of a forgotten history. I’ve spent a lot of time in the archives of the CofC library over this past semester for my Senior Seminar in Writing, Rhetoric, and Language taught by Dr. Chris Warnick. I have been researching the effects of the Vietnam War at the College and publishing my findings on a class blog. This experience has been unique in its interdisciplinary nature, for the fact that I am able to study a more explicitly political topic using analytical and research skills I have developed in my English courses.

My project has given me the opportunity to combine my interest in political science with what I’ve learned about racism and class struggle by reading and analyzing historical literature. During my time at the college, I’ve taken number of literature courses focusing on both European and American authors. I even took a class in London, England relating to British Children’s Literature. The skills that I have learned from my literary explorations have carried over into Spanish literature courses that I’ve taken both here in the states and during a semester that I spent abroad in Bilbao, Spain, and have also given me the tools necessary to complete a year-long Bachelor’s Essay.

My Bachelor’s Essay began because of my interest in an honors Political Science Interdisciplinary course that I took, and has since evolved into a study of superhero films and their relation to American exceptionalism in the Vietnam War and today.  The film-studies techniques which I have gained through my English major have been specifically helpful with this. In this way, the major has helped me be prepared for the kinds of interdisciplinary work I’ve undertaken in this senior seminar project, and it has also helped me to understand the importance of this kind of work and recognize the need for it within the major. My English major has taught me to be a far more effective writer, and it has prepared me to be able to make sense of a number of different topics. What I notice a lack of is the opportunity to put these skills into action, to conduct original archival research, for example, or to write more in digital environments as I have done in my blog about the Vietnam War. I hope to see more classes and more projects moving forward that give me the same opportunity that I’ve had with this research, because I believe that interdisciplinary education is essential to fostering well-rounded and culturally aware students.

This class has allowed me to introspectively realize the skills that my English major has afforded me, but what I’ve also realized during my time in that archives is that the racist prejudices that made their way across campuses nation-wide in the mid-1960s and 70s are certainly not the only part of the college’s history that we fail to deal with. More students should know and understand the side of history that this institution has been on such as the recent controversy of the removal of the confederate flag from state grounds, a symbol with a reputation mixed between pride and divisiveness which the College’s own president fought to have placed and subsequently removed. There has also been much debate about the racist history which is a foundation of the city and the school, extending to street names and architecture such as the giant statue of John C. Calhoun, a strong historical proponent of slavery, which can be found in Marion Square. The racism that dominated the Civil Rights Movement is an intricate part of our history, but to celebrate it so freely is to perhaps forget the pain that it causes for many. There exists an uneasy balance between pride and empathy with others who are more ashamed by our history than proud of it, an uneasy balance that is embodied by the dual meanings of the confederate flag, which, for some, represents pride; for others, hate.

Reconciliation of these issues can only come after recognition. It’s admittedly difficult to recognize all the finer details of a history that, for the college alone spans over two centuries. However, denying history and, in fact, controversy is in itself controversial. As we continue to come to terms with complicated histories such as the ones which inform the symbolism behind the confederate flag, as we move, seemingly backwards, into a period of intense political division and heightened racial tensions, it becomes the role of education to give students the opportunity to be informed and to avoid apathy. Diversifying the curriculum is one way that the English department in particular can do its part to deal with this, and it is a step that has already begun to be taken. Students have a right, and perhaps more importantly a desire, to be informed, and the college has a duty to promote a comprehensive education that starts with confronting its own demon–including the tendencies towards white supremacy that we are unfortunately learning still exist today.

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From CofC Special Collections

The majority of my current research deals with the ways in which the college handled the Vietnam War, a war that caused controversy throughout the U.S. and, importantly, throughout American universities. One of the more interesting sources that I have come across is titled The Vietnam War, 25 Years After: A Retrospective Presented by the College of Charleston Reflecting on the Ideas, Images, and Legacies of the Era, which was compiled by Sylvia H. Gamboa, a former College of Charleston English professor. This source includes comprehensive timelines of the Vietnam era as well as transcriptions of song lyrics dealing with the war and flyers of events held at the College that address Vietnam, its history, and its effects.

Perhaps more importantly than the background that Gamboa provides in this source is the inclusion of student essays in which the writers address their own thoughts on the war and attempt to come to terms with the complexities that it wrought throughout the nation, of which the racial teachings of the American Nazi Party are one. The source also documents a number of curricular changes that took place at the college back in the spring of 2000 in an effort to deal with the history and effects of the Vietnam War. The changes effected subjects across the board from Political Science to English, and demonstrated an ability for the various majors offered by the College to diversify their course offerings. What’s important about this source is that it shows a far more politically aware college campus than the College of Charleston seemed to promote only twenty-five years earlier. Students were brought face to face with an incredibly poignant and emotional piece of American history, and not only that, they were asked to reflect and form opinions on this history, to reconcile their emotions with the ways in which they understood what had happened and how it had changed the course of American history. The changes that took place during this semester send a powerful message about the value of education, one which perhaps resonates most clearly today as our country is once again faced with a myriad of complexities and troubling moments that will one day join Vietnam as an essential point in our history that will require a change in the way we think about, understand, and act upon the world around us.

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From CofC Special Collections

Since the end of the Vietnam War, the United States has been involved in a number of wars, experienced the first major terrorist attack on U.S. soil, and gone through eleven presidential elections. Education has an important role to play in these conflicts, and as an English major, I strive to use the more literary focus of my degree to expand my political awareness. The English major has certainly provided me with the tools necessary to make sense of historical events such as these, but where I feel my education could be improved is with practical experience. My own time at university has been unconventional in that I am pursuing separate degrees in English and Spanish with a minor in Linguistics and completing a Bachelor’s Essay in Political Science. It has been a challenge for me to find a connection between these subjects, but it does exist, and the work that I’ve done in the archives has made me realize that there is something interesting and, in fact, important about studying the Vietnam War from an English perspective. Interdisciplinary education such as this prepares students to deal with modern world events from a point of view that is most suitable to them. In my case, it’s English. Our history as a nation and a College is important, and who’s to say that an English major can’t be informed on this type of material? My major has given me the writing and analytical skills necessary to deal with the diversity of my academic interests, to be successful in an interdisciplinary setting. Moving forward, I think it is important that the classes being offered and the ways in which they are approached increasingly seek to move beyond strictly literary approaches and encourage students to take advantage of the opportunities for diversity that are afforded to them, to foster connections between seemingly unrelated ideas and subjects, and to create diversity where it may not yet exist.

 

Ayre Wilson, The Importance of Literature

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Ayre Wilson

Fortunately, I attend a college that understands that literature is more than musty old British books. We have professors that teach young adult novels, women writers, film studies, and, hopefully with the addition of Dr. Craig to the staff, we’ll see more technology based English courses in the future. Our English Department also offers courses not associated with literature. The course I’m doing this research for is a course where students engage with primary sources that aren’t necessarily literary in nature.

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For my Senior Seminar I was able to pursue self-designed research project based around something I could find in the College of Charleston Special Collections. I took it as an excuse to look at student publications throughout the College’s history. In my search I discovered a nearly complete 50-year run of a student literary publication called the College of Charleston Magazine. This magazine was created by the Chrestomathic society, a literary society, in 1898 and continued publication until 1947. The purpose of creating the magazine seems to be simply to brag or to demonstrate the College’s literary skills to other universities. The magazine was published monthly, while school was in session, resulting in at least two but usually eight issues a year. A magazine with the same name still exists today, in a more modern format, published and edited by college staff.

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From the Low Country Digital Archive

The early version of this publication that I explored had a set and dedicated focus throughout the entirety of its run. It was, primarily, a literary magazine that was going to other universities. It published literature written by College of Charleston Students, and occasionally alumni. The magazine often had non-literary sections but discontinued or changed those sections at whim. Throughout its nearly 50 years the magazine never failed to print literature. At first, this might not seem too particularly impressive, but think about it. Our students publish Miscellany, a collective of student writing, once a year. College of Charleston Magazine published eight times a year for most of its existence but at least twice a year when it was struggling. We also have upwards of 12,000 students able to submit content to Miscellany. In 1911, The College had 70 students total, and no English department. Don’t get me wrong, Miscellany is a wonderful magazine containing more and better content than any issue of The College of Charleston Magazine, our predecessors just seemed to be slightly more attached to the importance of literature.

That brings up a good question. Why is literature important? My initial thought is that literature offers new experiences or an escape. I’ve always read to become lost in a world and to make new, lifelong, friends from literary characters. Many people find the same escape in film or video games, but who says those aren’t literature as well? Films are often made from books, telling the same stories in a different way or, if not inspired by a book, they can often tell amazing stories all their own. The same concept applies to video games, some of the most comprehensive and rich stories I’ve experienced though hundreds of hours in my favorite RPG. Fortunately, I attend a college that understands that literature is more than musty old British books. We have professors that teach young adult novels, women writers, film studies, and, hopefully with the addition of Dr. Craig to the staff, we’ll see more technology based English courses in the future. Our English Department also offers courses not associated with literature. The course I’m doing this research for is a course where students engage with primary sources that aren’t necessarily literary in nature. I’ve also heard rumors of a Writing Studies program in the early stages of development.

As an English Major, my degree isn’t solely focused on literature. English is the most spoken language in the world on a professional level. Being able to write and speak clearly in English is an often sought after skill in the job market. In addition to basic skills, our English department emphasizes theory, a skill that teaches students to look at things from different perspectives. That skill is important in any job that requires the slightest amount of creativity.

Ultimately, the literary-minded College of Charleston Magazine failed. The intense focus students of the early 20th century placed on the ability to write eventually faded. Change is necessary for advancement and many student-run publications have replaced the magazine over the years. Most likely, the magazine simply never recovered in popularity after World War II. The student body’s focus simply moved from the importance of literature to something else. But, we can use our imaginations, grown strong from our years of reading the wonderful literature that inspired us to seek English degrees, to guess at what the magazine could have become had it survived.

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