Engaging Students in the Archives: Counteracting the “Violence of Abstraction”
Engaging Students in the Archives: Counteracting the “Violence of Abstraction”

When asked, the overwhelming majority of my first-year college students say they like “hands-on” learning over lecturing, reading, and even group discussion. Students invariably know what it feels like to be learning – and they like the feeling. They describe their best learning experiences as relevant, challenging, and satisfying.

What they don’t say is that they learn when they aren’t afraid. While learning must be confusing at times, it doesn’t have to be frightening. Most new college students are challenged by the theoretical concepts covered in my first-year courses, such as changing meanings of freedom and unfreedom.

Many students respond with anxiety and appear to be distracted or bored when confronted with these lofty ideas. Boredom is an acceptable attitude among peers in the classroom; admissions of fear are not. This anxiety also makes it difficult for students to empathize with the historical actors we are studying.

In The Slave Ship: a Human History, Marcus Rediker focuses his dramatic account on the vessels that transported millions of Africans from their native lands to face death aboard the ship or slavery ashore.

He shows the reader the tragedy of the middle passage via the records of the lives of captains, sailors, and Africans. In so doing, Rediker avoids what Barry Unsworth describes as a “violence of abstraction,” an ideological practice in which one talks about slavery but doesn’t show its ravaging human toll.1

By teaching about slavery through human stories, not just theoretical concepts, we counteract this “violence of abstraction.” For example, Rediker tells the story of a captured African who resists imprisonment by cutting his own throat with his fingernails aboard a slave ship. This account reveals to students the visceral and personal horrors of slavery as well as the human agency possible in inhumane circumstances.

An even more hands-on way to avoid the “violence of abstraction” is to teach students to use archival documents to find and tell these individual stories. For the past several semesters, I have brought my first-year students to Brooklyn Historical Society to examine slave bills of sale, and through them, the experiences of enslaved Brooklynites.

When a first-semester student whom I’ll call Crystal enters the imposing and venerable Othmer Library at Brooklyn Historical Society, she might feel intimidated by her surroundings. For Crystal, research has heretofore meant finding information using search engines like Google.

But things quickly start to look up for Crystal. The friendly staff members engage Crystal and the other students in a discussion about the library and its value. The staff members then demonstrate how to best handle the unique documents that they will study there. Crystal starts to feel more comfortable in this unfamiliar setting.

Crystal sits down and opens a labeled folder which contains a 1777 bill of sale for Jin, an enslaved Brooklynite.2 Crystal’s curiosity is sparked by the discolored paper, the 18th century handwriting, and the raised red wax seal affixed to the document. This is not like any other source she has ever seen, and this experience bears little resemblance to reading a textbook or a website.

I have asked Crystal and her fellow students to read the document, transcribe it, and extract information from it (who, what, where, when and why the transaction occurred). Given straightforward directions and encouraging support, Crystal can attend to the task at hand.

Crystal and her group members launch into transcribing the document, which in part reads:

…I Isaac Van Brunt of New Utrecht in Kings County for and In Consideration of the Sum of Thirty Pounds of New York Currency to me in Hand paid by Elias Hubbart of FlatLands the Receipt whereof I do hereby acknowledge, have bargain’d Sold an [sic] delivered…according to the New Form of Law…a Negro Wench Named Jin…for ever…

Crystal’s group then examines a second document recording the 1782 sale of Jin by Elias Hubbard [sic] to Wilhelmus and Peter Stootoff for eighty pounds.3 Crystal gathers that Elias Hubbard has resold Jin and she begins to ask a number of questions about the rise in Jin’s “value” upon resale.

Crystal has developed a great deal of empathy for Jin and wants to know more about her. Crystal now has a stake in what she’s learning.

Slave bills of sale from the archives illuminate for students the commoditization of human beings in ways that secondary sources cannot. Using primary sources enables students like Crystal to bear witness to the buying and selling of human beings.

Students begin to raise questions about these transactions, imagining, for example, the price negotiations that could have occurred. Students might also wonder how enslaved people reacted to their own sale – stories which are rarely documented. Crystal might not have been able to raise such questions had she only been lectured to about life under slavery.

By bringing my students to the archives, I was able to avoid the “violence of abstraction” and to create a moving and effective learning experience. Crystal’s hands-on experience analyzing primary sources gave her the tools to move past her initial anxiety and to grow as a thinker. Through her encounter with Jin, Crystal was better understand the human toll of the institution of slavery.

1) Marcus Rediker, The Slave Ship: A Human History (New York: Viking Penguin, 2007), 12.

2) Slave indenture for Jin, 1777; Hubbard family papers, 1974.044, box 1, folder 11; Brooklyn Historical Society.

3) Slave indenture for Jin, 1782; Stoothoff family collection, ARC.150, box 1, folder 17; Brooklyn Historical Society.

To cite this page:
Sara Campbell, “Engaging Students in the Archives: Counteracting the ‘Violence of Abstraction,'” TeachArchives.org, accessed [insert date here], http://wwww.teacharchives.org/articles/counteracting-abstraction/.


Sara Campbell
Adjunct Professor of English
LIU Brooklyn
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