History professors pursue archival research through A&S Summer Research Award Program

Drs. Robert Elder (left), Elesha Coffman (middle) and Ricardo J. Álvarez-Pimentel (right) received grants to continue their research projects over the summer. Photos courtesy of Baylor University

By Julianne Fullerton | Reporter

What do history professors do over the summer? They research.

This year, three faculty in the history department received grants through Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences Summer Research Award Program. They will be doing archival research in different destinations.

According to its website, “this program supports faculty who seek to submit external research proposals or eternal fellowship proposals in the following academic year.” Applications are collected annually by Oct. 1 and evaluated by a committee.

Dr. Elesha Coffman, associate professor in history, received a grant to spend a month in Philadelphia at the Presbyterian Historical Society archives, where the Religion News Service is housed.

“What I’m hoping to do at the archive is both get a sense of what kinds of news stories they covered since the 1940s, and also how the organization worked, how they decided what to cover, how they defined religion,” Coffman said.

Coffman said her interest was sparked years ago when she was looking for a picture to use for her first book at the archives. What she thought would be an easy process turned out to be much more work than she imagined.

“It really was that trip to find one photo years ago,” Coffman said. “I’ve been wanting to go back and do more work on that archive ever since. It’s a mostly unprocessed collection — meaning it’s hundreds of boxes — and they don’t have a great idea of what’s in any of them.”

Coffman said her upcoming book will be centered around this research. Although the collection has much to offer, she said she is especially excited to explore the radio scripts, as they are a difficult medium to find.

“I’m especially interested in the radio scripts,” Coffman said. “Looking at the radio scripts here and then being able to think through what kinds of stories were broadcast when people had reason to think about religion in this period, what was likely to come to mind?”

Dr. Robert Elder, associate professor of history, received a grant to go to South Carolina.

“I’m going to be going through collections of papers from the 1830s related to this episode called the nullification crisis, which happened in 1832 to 1833, which is what my next book is about,” Elder said. “I could not do that without the summer research award. I wouldn’t have the resources to do so.”

Elder said his interest in the nullification crisis is based on its importance as a precursor to the Civil War.

“It’s this episode where the state of South Carolina defies the federal government and refuses to enact a federal tax, and there’s almost a war over it,” Elder said. “I wanted to go back and write more about it partly because this is starting to happen again today; we are seeing states on both ends of the political spectrum that are starting to push back hard against federal legislation and regulations in different ways.”

Elder said he plans to go to two locations in South Carolina. In Charleston, he plans to look at newspapers at the South Carolina Historical Society. In Columbia, he plans to look at papers from politicians in an archive at the University of South Carolina.

“The thing that I kind of want to do with it is to make people rethink the relationship between the federal government and state government or think harder about it,” Elder said. “The nullification crisis was this episode where nobody really knew. They were still working out the relationship — what that relationship should be — and we still are too, in some ways.”

Dr. Ricardo Alvarez, assistant professor of history, said he will be using his grant — combined with funding from an Alfred J. Beveridge Grant for Research in the History of the Western Hemisphere, which is given out by the American Historical Association — to pursue research in Mexico.

“Essentially, what I’m doing is I am organizing two research trips, the purpose of which is to help me finish my book manuscript and then be able to send it out for review and publication the following year,” Alvarez said. “What I’m doing with this research trip is going on very specific trips to different archives in Mexico that will help me tie up some loose ends in my narrative arc in the story that I’m trying to tell in my book.”

Alvarez said his book will tell the story of a political and religious counterrevolution in Mexico between 1917 and 1946.

“What this research is getting at is studying the women in youth groups that were mobilized by the church as a way to counteract some of these new reforms that came out of the revolution, which is why I call this a counterrevolution,” Alvarez said. “I’m tracing the evolution of that movement, both its rise and downfall, because essentially I argue that it was a failed movement precisely because it was grounded in racial prejudice and in gender hierarchies.”

Because his great-grandmother was alive during the revolution and he was able to interview her in the fourth grade, Alvarez said he developed an interest in the subject.

“Once I got into the archive and I started seeing the primary sources there, the story really came alive,” Alvarez said. “I realized that it wasn’t just my grandmother’s individual story and what she and her family went through, but this was part of a larger national movement that had all sorts of different constellations of people and ideologies. The more I learned, the more enamored I became with it, and I’m still learning about it today.”

Alvarez said his trip will be broken up into two parts to complete two different kinds of research.

“One of my trips will be in Mexico City, working with national archives in the Capitol,” Alvarez said. “And then the other trip will be to Oaxaca, so in the Southwest region of Mexico on the Pacific coast, to work with more local archives to give me the voices and perspectives of the actors there.”

Elder said he is grateful for the resources Baylor makes available to faculty to further the university’s research goals.

“A lot of universities say they value research and don’t actually provide faculty the resources to do it,” Elder said. “It is a great way that Baylor supports its mission as a Christian research university.”