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Dartmouth College encourages students to research its own sometimes-ugly history

  • Dartmouth senior Faydra Richardson, of Tallahassee, Flal., reads archival notes from the 1970's while working as a fellow in the Historical Accountability Student Research Program at Dartmouth. She is spending the summer researching sexual assault at the college and its efforts at reform in Hanover, N.H., on Friday, July, 26, 2019. (Rick Russell photograph)

  • A banner donated to the college by an alumni is one of several artifacts unearthed by student Fellows investigating under-reported facets of Dartmouth College history, "They might have sold them at the Co-op for all I know," said Faydra Richardson of the banner. (Rick Russell photograph)

  • Research fellow Faydra Richardson of Tallahassee, Fla., looks for the April 28, 1995 edition of the "Dartmouth" school newspaper in the Rauner Special Collections Library while investigating sexual assault for her project in the Historical Accountability Student Research Program, in Hanover, N.H. on Friday, July, 26, 2019. (Rick Russell photograph)

  • While combing through boxes of archival notes, research fellow Faydra D. Richardson, of Tallahassee, Fla., discovered this anonymous self- described "rant letter" written in response to a 1970 survey about introducing coeducation done by the Department of Sociology, in Hanover, N.H., on Friday, July 26, 2019. (Rick Russell photograph)



Valley News Correspondent
Saturday, August 03, 2019

Dartmouth College student Caroline Cook spent last summer buried in the past. The inaugural fellow in the college library’s Historical Accountability Student Research Program, Cook was researching biologist Hannah Croasdale, who became the school’s first tenured female professor in 1964.

She dug through old meeting minutes, college documents, personal letters and scientific notes, and over her 10-week fellowship in 2018, Cook became an expert on Croasdale’s struggles and successes as a female pioneer in male-dominated academia.

While visiting Celia Chen, a professor at Dartmouth and a former student of Croasdale’s, Cook noticed an old box of algae vials on one of Chen’s shelves — and found she could recognize Croasdale’s handwriting on the label.

“That’s how I knew I was totally immersed in this project,” Cook said.

In connection with its “inclusive excellence” diversity initiatives and 250th celebration, Dartmouth is supporting student research fellows to investigate the school’s sometimes uncomfortable past. The goal is for fellows to develop independent research skills while giving voice to stories that may be underrepresented in the school’s history, or not told at all.

So far, the fellows have described the career of a female professor who was discriminated against and underpaid; sexist banners and ugly nicknames that contributed to a hostile campus environment for women who first attended Dartmouth; and the influential efforts of David Eckels, class of 1944, whose “wheelthroughs” of campus helped make Dartmouth more accessible.

“First and foremost, it’s an experiential learning program for undergraduates,” said Myranda Fuentes, the institutional history research specialist at Rauner Special Collections Library. “But at the same time, a huge pillar of it is addressing issues of diversity and inclusion at an elite school in the Northeast.”

Fellowship

An earlier version of the fellowship began in 2017 as a way to get student researchers using the special collections. In 2018, the historical accountability program was established around the principles of diversity and inclusion through archival research.

“The idea is to get a more well-rounded perspective on Dartmouth’s narrative and what Dartmouth is,” Fuentes said.

For the first two years, Dartmouth has funded three historical accountability program fellows, with the Sphinx Foundation funding a fourth. The hope, explains Morgan Swan, Rauner’s special collections education and outreach librarian, is for a five-year mission.

“There’s definitely enough material in the archives to warrant that kind of scope,” Swan said.

The fellowship is a full-time, 10-week research commitment. Fellows receive a small stipend as well as room and board, and they conduct their research during an off-term, without the distraction of classes or other school responsibilities.

Prospective fellows generally start by talking to Fuentes as they try to settle on a research topic that can be sustained for the full term of their fellowship.

“There can’t be too little material, and there can’t be too much material for a 10-week period,” Fuentes said. Last year, in addition to Croasdale, fellows researched the history of physical accessibility at Dartmouth, the black student experience in the 1960s and 1970s, and where Jewish and black students lived on campus from 1930-1943.

Fellows spend a lot of time in Rauner’s airy reading room, their personal cart of archive materials never far from their side. But they also venture to other parts of campus, seeking records and documents housed outside the library.

Though the fellows are considered independent researchers, they aren’t left to sink or swim in Rauner’s sea of special collections. The staff trains them to use library catalogs, databases and other search tools, skills that should carry over if the fellows pursue research at other institutions.

“A lot of people my age don’t particularly understand that not all search engines work like Google’s does,” said Fuentes, who is 24.

Fellows keep a research journal and meet with an adviser at least once per week. Midway through the 10 weeks, fellows write up a meaty blog post that sharpens their topic’s focus while taking the first steps toward making their research findings public.

Fellows are expected to deliver a formal, public presentation of their research, as well as a final project.

“It could be anything,” Swan said of the final project, from an academic paper to a podcast, or data visualization to a performance art piece. “What’s really important for us is that they’re the engine for inquiry and discovery.”

Fuentes agrees, noting that if fellows aren’t engaged with their topics, they’ll get much less out of their research experience.

Completed fellowship projects are posted on the historical accountability program’s website, which also showcases some of the archival source materials used in research. Fuentes and Swan hope this taste of what Rauner has in its collections will spur other researchers to dive deeper into some of the fellows’ topics.

“So, sometimes, a (web)page is just a letter, which visually is not the most breathtaking, but in terms of the content of that project, is really important,” Fuentes said.

Pioneer versus biologist

Cook may have completed her fellowship, but she’s not done with biologist Croasdale. The English major has continued to write about Croasdale and her scientific career, including a recent article in Lady Science magazine.

“I feel very responsible to tell her story in the right way,” said Cook, who will be a junior this year.

One of the paradoxical aspects Cook learned about Croasdale was that, though she struggled with lower pay and slower advancement than her male colleagues, she wasn’t someone who advocated for gender equality. Born in 1905, she counseled patience over protest.

“I really do think that we’re projecting what we expect from our society onto (hers),” she said.

In 1959, Croasdale did write an ever-so-slightly-sharp thank-you letter to a college dean for a raise in salary that would give her, “a feeling of financial security that I have not had for years.” She added that while she enjoyed teaching two heavy courses, she would prefer not to teach them simultaneously –— a nod to her less-than-favorable academic schedule.

Cook explains that Croasdale became a pioneer because of her dedication to her work, not because she strove to become the first tenured woman professor at Dartmouth. Her name isn’t as well-known today as Cook would like, though Dartmouth does give an annual award named in Croasdale’s honor.

Becoming a fellow totally changed how she looks at Dartmouth, Cook said, and she sees herself as part of a longer legacy at the 250-year-old school.

She has a deeper appreciation for the contributions of women professors, though she recognizes advancements can still be made. And buildings she used to casually pass by now carry historical weight.

While looking at old newspaper clippings for her research, Cook saw the common room where she hangs out with her friends. The male students in the photograph — in her common room — had gathered to write a protest letter against admitting women to Dartmouth.

Being here as a woman matters, Cook said.

Cook appreciates that the historical accountability program is connected to Dartmouth’s 250th, and she hopes the college continues to pay attention and also acts upon the stories fellows are telling. Today, Cook is chasing another story as she prepares an exhibit for “Women on the Faculty: A Dartmouth Centennial” conference on Nov. 8.

“I’m back in Rauner, digging through boxes again!” Cook said.

Ties to slavery

One powerful issue none of the historical accountability program fellows have tackled is Dartmouth’s early ties to slavery. The college’s founder and first president, Eleazar Wheelock, is believed to have owned at least 19 enslaved people of African descent over his lifetime, according to college archivist Peter Carini, who explores this issue on an episode of the Dartmouth podcast, “Hindsight is 20/19.”

“While less prevalent in New England, slavery was a prominent feature of life in the northern colonies, and like Wheelock, most ministers and doctors owned at least one or two enslaved people,” Carini said on the episode, adding that Wheelock stood out for owning so many.

Because the fellows choose their own topics, slavery may still be researched in the future. Historical accountability program staff and interns, who do staff-directed research, comb the archives to find new information on specific topics, one of which is slavery, so the program isn’t staying away from the issue.

This fall, the college will examine its troubling history with enslaved people, as many leading academic institutions such as Brown, Harvard and Georgetown have also done in recent years. As part of Dartmouth’s commemoration of its 250th anniversary, Department of Sociology Professor Deborah King will host a symposium titled “Dartmouth’s Vexed Relationship to the Institution of Slavery” in conjunction with her course “Lest We Forget: History, Collective Memory, and Slavery at Dartmouth.”

There will also be a student-curated exhibit at Rauner on slavery in the Hanover area.

‘Emotional labor’

Faydra Richardson, a soon-to-be senior, is about halfway through her historical accountability program fellowship. It’s right about the point where she’s preparing to write up her big, midpoint blog post.

The African and African American Studies major picked a difficult subject for her research: sexual assault at Dartmouth, and the college’s efforts at reform. Richardson called reading reports and personal accounts of sexual assaults “emotional labor.”

She mentions being shown a banner that reads, “Dartmouth’s In Town Again — Run, Girls, Run,” and seeing the term “cohogs” instead of coeds in archival material.

“It’s a different sort of challenge than I’d anticipated,” she said, adding that she’s found ways to separate herself from the material. “I go for a lot of walks.”

But it’s a burden she’s willing to shoulder, at least for now. “There are ugly things that are happening, and somebody should be looking at them,” she said.

It also comes as Dartmouth is in mediation talks with nine women who have filed a $70 million class-action lawsuit that alleges college administrators turned a blind eye to sexual misconduct by three former professors in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

Richardson’s interest in her research topic grew after doing a project on how sexual assault affects black women, and Dartmouth’s V-February programming on gender equality issues kept her thinking about the subject.

Richardson also hoped to try her hand at independent research, outside of the classroom. “I wanted to know myself as an academic,” she said.

And she liked the historical accountability program’s philosophy of student-driven research, where the college didn’t get to steer her topic. “Good research comes from passion,” she said.

Since starting her research, poring over task force reports and reform proposals, Richardson has noticed a change in her perspective. “The problem has gotten bigger and harder as I’ve looked at it,” she said.

While she would still like Dartmouth to do more in addressing sexual assault, Richardson has come to understand that crafting policy language that holds up legally yet still protects all kinds of people in all kinds of situations is challenging.

“It’s given me a lot more sympathy on the policy side,” she said.

Despite that challenge, Richardson is leaning toward producing a series of reform proposals for her final project. Because she’s read so many of them from the college’s past, she hopes she might be able to pull together solutions Dartmouth can use in its future.

One idea that Richardson really hopes to get across from her time as a research fellow is that sexual assault affects a broad range of victims and populations, and not just middle-class women.

“That’s something that’s close to my heart about this project,” she said.

Inspiration and externships

Looking ahead for the historical accountability program, Fuentes and Swan are planning an updated website to house the fellows’ projects. Besides improving design and accessibility, they want to ensure the site is flexible enough to meet the needs of future projects as well as outside researchers.

“We really want to make sure it gets the most use possible,” Swan said.

In addition to the fellows and internship program, Fuentes and Swan are working on an externship proposal, where fellows will travel to other schools or historical repositories to see what their archives say about Dartmouth.

“We understand that as an institution, Dartmouth can’t always tell its own history using its own voice,” Fuentes said.

This would be a shorter research term, about four to five weeks, which may allow more students to participate. And, working with other institutions can help tell more complete stories about what it was like to be a student in the region’s past.

“What does Dartmouth say about Mount Holyoke? What does Mount Holyoke say about Dartmouth? And how do those narratives differ, or are they they same? It’s an interesting thing to look at,” Fuentes said.

Also, Fuentes explained that the externships may give the historical accountability program another avenue to examine Dartmouth’s connection to slavery, with the hope of finding new leads at other institutions.

Swan spoke about how the student fellows he’s worked with have inspired him with the topics they commit to, the level of output they produce, and how they go above and beyond in tackling their areas of research.

“They’re always breathing new life into me, and always confirming that putting them at the center of the program was the right way to go,” he said.

Matt Golec can be reached at mattgolec@gmail.com.