This article was written by Upper School faculty member Chris Meatto.
On a recent sunny Friday afternoon, the Advanced Inquiry: History Research (AIHR) class packed into a GFA bus--thanks for the lift, Jairo!--and visited the Pequot Library in nearby Southport. The course trains 12th-grade history students to see themselves as burgeoning scholars and to think archivally by working with primary source materials. Throughout the year, students develop and refine questions on topics of interest, research their subjects by exploring archival collections and scholarly literature, and produce a substantial thesis paper which they present at GFA's annual Symposium in the spring.
At Pequot, we met up with our guide, Special Collections Librarian Cecily Dyer. She showed us an exhibit she curated in the library's main hall about plants, food, and medicine bringing together works from the entire collection. We looked at an indigenous codex, pamphlets and posters, recipe books, diaries, and even shipping receipts. To the casual onlooker, these might just seem like interesting artifacts; for this group, however, they were windows into bygone eras that might help us better understand our own place in the world. Peering through display cases and leaning in to read centuries-old handwriting, we shared questions and observations and started to imagine the stories behind what we saw.
Next, we went up to the 2nd-floor Special Collections department where we had a chance to handle and examine rare works in the library's climate-controlled reading room. We learned best practices for paging through printed matter from the 18th century; got a primer in what writing implements are allowed for taking notes in rare book rooms (yes pencils, no pens; always on separate sheets of paper); and considered one of the driving questions for our class in a new context: How do archives both amplify and obscure stories? As we chatted and leafed through these works, Cecily explained that a fair amount of Pequot's manuscripts, rare and circulating books, ephemera, and other materials actually come from local residents donating private and family collections.
On our way out, Cecily led us past stained glass windows by renowned designer Louis Comfort Tiffany and showed us two standouts from the Pequot's collection: a Shakespeare folio and a "double elephant folio" edition of Audubon's Birds of America. We marveled at the details--and at the staggering value--of each of these beautiful books. On the drive back to GFA, we talked about our projects and our good fortune to have a library like the Pequot a few miles down the road from campus.
At this stage in the writing process, AIHR students have drafted the first two sections of their thesis: the Introduction, which lays out their principle questions and topics of study; and the Archival Profile, which establishes the collections they will explore to do their research. Now, students are hard at work on the next section, the Literature Review, in which they will survey scholarly writing on their topics and identify their own theoretical frameworks. This is an exciting and important moment in the research process: when these historians articulate how their own research will contribute to the wider scholarly conversation about their subjects. By the end of the semester, they will outline their methodological approaches and submit a research proposal. Once students set up their projects in the fall semester, they'll spend the spring conducting their research and getting ready for Symposium.
Along with Global Thesis, AIHR represents the highest level of course offered in the History & Global Studies Department and is a great example of GFA's approach to inquiry-based learning. To spend an entire year with a research cohort holding one's work up to the light, critiquing it from different perspectives, and joining the scholarly community around subjects that they care about--what more could a student ask for?
Thank you to the Pequot Library and Cecily Dyer for hosting us; the GFA Upper School and History & Global Studies Department for the support; and to former GFA Trustee and Associate Head of School (and current Pequot volunteer) Lynne Laukhuf for connecting our research program with this terrific local resource. We hope to return soon!