A love of research and writing, and an abiding interest in the history of her hometown, led Virginia Henry to Chicago in fall 2009 to participate in the ACM program at the Newberry Library.
The Newberry Seminar and Henry, an English major at the College of Wooster, turned out to be a perfect match. How perfect? This past weekend, she was back in Chicago to receive the Award for Outstanding Research on an ACM Program – recognition of the high level of the work she did on the Newberry Seminar – and to give a presentation about her Newberry project at the ACM Student Symposium on Off-Campus Study.
As she wraps up her college career, Henry has moved in a different direction with her writing, but the influence of her semester at the Newberry continues.
Primary sources and the opportunity to be a scholar
“I knew that I was interested in a lot of writing and research that was more open, that wasn’t just fact, but was more thought and exploration,” Henry said, describing her reasons for participating in the fall semester ACM Newberry Seminar: Research in the Humanities. Living in Chicago was also attractive, plus “the Newberry has such a good reputation as a library, but also as being really friendly and helpful to undergraduate students,” she noted.
The main entrance to the Newberry Library.
The Newberry Library, which hosts the ACM program at its location on Chicago’s Near North Side, is one of the world’s foremost independent research libraries in the humanities. Its collections encompass the literature and history of Europe and the Americas over the past five centuries.
The seminar has an interdisciplinary theme each fall and is taught by a pair of visiting professors from ACM or GLCA (Great Lakes Colleges Association) colleges. During the first part of the semester, the students receive an orientation to the Newberry and its resources, engage in discussions on a set of readings, and begin the process of choosing a topic for their independent research project – the focal point of the program.
Henry’s independent project, “Reading the Faces: Portraiture as a Means to Investigate Representational Containment of Native Americans,” was at the intersection of two of her particular interests. “There’s a lot of Native American history and Native American language around where I’m from originally [in Chattanooga, Tennessee],” she explained, “so it’s always something I’ve been interested in, but never have been able to study in school.” And although she’s majoring in English, Henry initially took a lot of art classes at Wooster, with an eye toward a major in that department. The library’s collections were a good fit on both scores.
“The Newberry has a lot of primary sources,” Henry noted. “That’s the real draw, at least for me, as someone interested in research. They have tons and tons of old newspapers and old magazines and those sorts of things, and in my case a lot of art. It’s like a mini art gallery. What I found really great was they would have the work [of art] and then they would have an artist’s statement about it. You’re just presented with the material, and then you go from there.”
Newberry Seminar participants, including Virginia Henry (2nd from right), on a program field trip to the Pullman neighborhood on Chicago’s Southside.
The seminar’s professors, as well as the librarians who help the students find and use the Newberry’s materials, treat the students as members of the library’s scholarly community. It was an atmosphere in which Henry thrived.
“What’s so great about being an undergraduate there is that it assumes that you will make your own decisions about [sources] and your own arguments,” said Henry. “At the Newberry, you have the material and you get to say ‘This is what I think is going on, and this is what I think is important.’ There are a lot of value judgments that you start making as a researcher and as a scholar that were kind of new to me, and, I think, to the other students, as well.”
While independent research in a library, with everyone on the program digging deeply into a different topic, might sound like a solitary task, Henry recalled a lot of camaraderie among the participants.
“We laughed, we called it ‘nerd camp,’ because everyone there was, like, ‘Oh, I love reading and writing,'” she said. “But it’s really nice to be around that…. I felt like I learned a lot that semester just by being around people and talking and listening, which is a nice variation from sitting in a classroom.”
Writing with “remarkable poise and clarity”
Henry returned to Wooster, and, over the next 15 months, the wheels that would bring her back to Chicago to receive the award began to turn.
At the 2011 ACM Student Symposium on Off-Campus Study.
This was the inaugural year for the Award for Outstanding Research on an ACM Program, which was created to highlight the substantial independent research projects that students conduct on ACM programs in Botswana, Costa Rica, India, Tanzania, and at the Newberry Library. Students are nominated for the consideration by their program directors based on the originality of the student’s project, research design and methodology, and the final product. A committee including faculty and staff drawn from the ACM colleges selects the recipient.
Macalester College professors Lynn Hudson and Jane Rhodes, who led the Newberry Seminar in 2009, nominated Henry for the award. The citation for her project, prepared by a member of the selection committee, described the reasons her research paper was chosen for the award:
At its heart “Reading the Faces” is a demonstration project, arguing (and demonstrating) that “portraits of Indians help to illustrate and code Euro-American/Native relations and native identity.” It does this with remarkable poise and clarity. It is extensively researched, making excellent use of the Newberry collection but going beyond those materials. The student integrates her written sources gracefully and chooses and uses her visual sources effectively. She moves with sophistication from necessary background (i.e. her exposition on “containment”) to the considerable evidence she has amassed, demonstrating along the way her comfort with the discourse of the field (but magically avoiding sounding jargony). She sustains her argument over 47 pages. She negotiates some very tricky territory, sensitively exploring issues of “native” and “individual” identity. She makes wonderful observations about collections (such as the one held by the Newberry) and collecting. She introduces us to talented contemporary native artists in ways that made me want to run out and see more of their work.
In her presentation at the Student Symposium, Henry gave an overview of her project, showing the audience some of the images that she used in her research. The video of her presentation is available on the 2011 Student Symposium webpage.
Moving into creative writing
A couple of weeks before the ACM Student Symposium, Henry was busy putting the finishing touches on her Independent Study (I.S.) at Wooster – the demanding, year-long project that stands at the center of the college’s curriculum. Her I.S. is related to her Newberry project, in a way, and once again melds her interests in writing and history. While her own interpretation was an important element in “Reading the Faces,” Henry’s voice is absolutely front and center in her senior project.
At Wooster, Virginia Henry reading poems from her senior Independent Study.
“It does grow out of what I did at the Newberry, but not directly,” she explained. “I’ve written a poetry collection. I did all my research at the Newberry, and I’m doing all creative writing for my senior thesis. All the poems are focused on my hometown, so there’s a section that deals with the history of Chattanooga. There were a lot of Civil War battles fought around the area and right in the city, and then the Trail of Tears started right outside of Chattanooga. So there’s a lot of history and social justice history in the area.”
“There’s another section of the work that deals with my personal heritage and my family and our roots in the land,” she continued, noting that her family has lived in Chattanooga at least back to her great great grandparents. “The history section deals a lot with questioning and exploring the implications of how this was very much Cherokee land. Where my house is, I’m sure Cherokees lived…. As I’ve gotten older and as I did work at the Newberry, I started thinking, ‘Where do I live? What are the implications of that?'”
“Definitely, what I did at the Newberry influenced my thinking, and gave me a lot of places to look for personal education and ideas,” Henry noted, “but because it’s creative writing and it’s not research at all, it’s a little different.”
Although she continues to write research papers for classes and coaches other students on their papers – both formally at Wooster’s writing center and informally with friends – Henry has focused on her creative writing during the past three semesters. Along with taking classes, she’s also attended writing conferences – including one this spring in Mexico where she met the writer Sandra Cisneros – and plans to pursue an MFA in poetry at some point.
“That’s kind of the direction my life is moving right now,” Henry said. “Personally, the poetry is my one true love, but I really like to research and I like that type of writing, too.”