One of the great challenges of my past year has been to write the history of the Department of History at the University of North Dakota. In a fit of naive exuberance, I agreed to write the history of the department over the last 25 years as the University will celebrate its 125th-iversary this winter. But as I began to gather information on the broader history of the department, I discovered (ironically) that there hadn't been a proper history compiled for the University's 100th anniversary in 1983.
This led me, even more foolishly, to embark on writing a complete history of the department from its inception (in around 1902 when Horace B. Woodworth was named the first Professor of History at the University, but with roots in the early 19th century) until today. So, over the last six months, I have been spending quality time in the University archives (and with their most excellent staff) attempting to sort out the history of the department, the history of the university (guided in particular by Louis Geiger's University of the Northern Plains (Grand Forks 1958), and, in many cases, the history of the state (guided, of course, by Elwyn Robinson's History of North Dakota (Lincoln 1966)). I will point out, for those of you who have not gathered this from my blog, I am not a historian of American academic institutions (or even America, for that matter) so there was more background reading than I initially anticipated. Moreover, the kind of "primary source" research that I encountered was also a bit of a challenge. I had never really done archival research so coming up with strategies to deal with the uneven record of the department -- sometimes too much information and sometimes hardly any at all -- in the 20th century was another difficulty. I decided to try to complement the material from (what I quaintly call) the textual sources with oral accounts and material gained from personal correspondence. Finally, I violated every rule of good sense and academic scholarship when I put pen to paper without a clear idea of where I was going.
As one would guess, the project quickly spiraled out of control. I have now written three chapters covering the history of the department from the late 19th century to around 1970 (note that I haven't actually reached the last 25 years!). The experience of writing this has brought to the fore many questions, but one in particular that resonates with some of the ongoing discussions in surrounding academic scholarship: I've written all this up, but now what?
I have come up with three solutions:
1) Chapter 1 I will convert into an article and send it along the North Dakota History -- the quarterly journal of history published by the state historical society.
2) Some parts of my research, I will attempt to serialize here in this blog paying particular attention to scholars of antiquity who have taught in North Dakota.
3) Much of the other chapters, I will make available on my website in some form or another. In the next week or so, I will try to post a version of chapter 2 as an experiment.
Working on the history of the department at a mid-sized institution has, of course, raised all sorts of interesting questions regarding institutional memory, the development of the discipline, and even the relationship between the administrative and academic on university campuses. Hopefully I can explore some of these ideas over the next few months here in this blog.