AD Banse examined the words scribbled on his screen and realized that after a few days of reviewing century-old documents, he was becoming better at deciphering the often washed-out and often confusing handwritten and vernacular writing of the time.
“I think there’s both a challenge and an exciting aspect to it,” Banse said. “The hardest part was understanding the sometimes illegible handwriting.”
What had fascinated him was reading the story of a slave from over 50 pages of a habeas corpus petition.
“There are times while I’m working where I’m surprised, when I remember these are true stories of people who had to battle some very difficult trauma in their lives,” Banse said.
Banse, a senior at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, is one of eight college students from across the United States conducting historical legal research at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Digital Legal Research Lab, a new experiment in research for undergraduate students. The lab is funded by the National Science Foundation for three years and led by Principal Investigator Katrina Jagodinsky, Associate Professor Susan Rosowski and Graduate Chair in History; and co-principal investigator William G. Thomas, Angle Professor of Humanities, Professor of History, and Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Education at the College of Arts and Sciences.
Students in the program are spending the summer transcribing, encoding, and annotating digitized recordings of habeas corpus petitions and freedom lawsuits, which will be included in the digital humanities projects Petitioning for Freedom: Habeas Corpus in the American West. and “O Say Can You See: Early Washington, DC, Law and Family,” respectively.
“We are unique in that there are not a lot of REUs that are story driven,” Jagodinsky said. “My co-IP and I really saw a gap in training in legal history, and in legal research in general, that we thought we could fill. At the graduate level, scholars are expected to be able to navigate legal archival research, digital databases for legal research, and then also apply sophisticated methods and methodologies to this work, but there are very little training or undergraduate preparation for this job.
With this in mind, Jagodinsky said, students learn several new skills, including archival research methods, data collection and processing, transcription and encoding techniques. In addition, students benefit from professional development and mentoring.
This aspect particularly appealed to Banse, who contacted Jagodinsky before applying.
“I wanted to learn more about the project, and I wanted a program where I would be mentored and in an environment that would motivate me, push me and prepare me for my future,” said Banse, a political science student. “I got everything I wanted and it was very rewarding.”
For Ellyzabeth Morales-Ledesma, a history and behavioral neuroscience student at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, the research experience is an opportunity to try her hand at being a historian, as she reflects decision about his future career path.
“It was certainly very educational,” Morales-Ledesma said. “I’m really starting to see what it means to work in the field of history, or what it would be like if I decided to go to graduate school in history. I’m learning a lot about the field that I don’t think I learned in a regular classroom.
The research experience runs from June 1 to August 4. Students usually spend part of the day in a computer lab at the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, working with the scanned documents. Lectures, discussions and readings are also part of the program. The program ends with a small research fair, where students will present individual projects they have developed.
“I have no historical background,” said Mariam Daoud, a psychology and social and criminal justice graduate at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “It really helped me learn to think critically about all the research I gather to make sure it’s ethical, credible, and reflects historical context. This research taught me to be more critical and holistic in my research.
“This is completely uncharted territory for me. In the best possible way, it’s been a bit stressful as I’m developing a whole new skill set.