Digitizing of Sewanee’s Early Student Records Adds New Opportunities for Research on Sewanee’s Student Narratives Through Time

Mitch Shakespeare

Opinions Editor

The recent digitizing of student records from 1868 to 1920 has opened the door for further research into the early history of Sewanee’s student body. 

These student records, found within a volume of the Sewanee Alumni News from 1955, provide detailed information about the over 3,500 students that made their way to the Domain from the refounding of the University to the early 20th century. Details like names, graduation years, hometowns, fraternities, professions, and military service can be found within these records, allowing faculty, students, and staff to dig deeper into what it meant to be a Sewanee student over a hundred years ago. 

The project to digitize these records was formed through collaboration among the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, and Dr. Christopher Van de Ven, the GIS (Geographic Information Services) instructor for Sewanee and the manager of the Landscape Analysis Lab. Dr. Andrew Maginn, a visiting assistant professor of history, as well as the senior research associate and program coordinator for the Roberson Project, described the idea for the project forming early this semester. “I represented the Roberson Project during a presentation for the Center for Teaching,” Maginn said, “and afterwards Dr. [Woody] Register and I met with Dr. Van de Ven. We had worked together previously on several projects, most recently Founding Funders. We talked for a bit about how we could take Founding Funders to the next level or, potentially, work on a new, similar project.” 

The Founding Funders project was spearheaded by the research team of the Roberson Project in order to track, locate, and research the original investors behind Sewanee’s birth and rebirth between 1856 and 1865, especially in regards to how investments in enslaved individuals helped lay the groundwork for the University’s original endowment. “This has been a five-year project that examines exactly who these investors were and their significance,” Maginn said. “They were men and women that ended up providing funds for the University’s creation. These funders directly or indirectly benefited from the institution of slavery.”

“The Center for Teaching presentation by the Roberson Project communicated to the faculty what the Roberson Project is and detailed some of the work they had done,” Van de Ven said. “To my understanding, they were there to advocate for deeper collaboration between the Roberson Project and classes. After the presentation, we spoke and I said that I would really like to do something with my Advanced GIS class in collaboration with them. I basically said, ‘Do you have anything that would be appropriate that would need the labor of 9 to 10 people?’”

The idea for this new project eventually narrowed down to transcribing and digitizing the early student records, as after talking with Mandi Johnson, the director of the University Archives and Special Collections, Van de Ven was provided with a scanned copy of the 1955 Sewanee Alumni News. Van de Ven then brought the project to the attention of his Advanced Applications of GIS class, assigning each student, as well as himself, a number of pages to transcribe into a spreadsheet. “The real labor was copying the records word for word,” Van de Ven said. “We only really needed the names, cities, states, and entrance and graduation years, but I made everybody do more because I didn’t want anyone to ever have to do this work over again.” 

With page numbers assigned, the students and Van de Ven began to arduously transcribe hundreds of records pertaining to the lives of Sewanee’s earliest students. Almost immediately, details began to pop off the page that grabbed the attention of those working through the records. Sometimes it came down to where a student was from. From towns along the western frontier of Tsarist Russia (eventually to be part of Poland) to Chiba, Japan, the University showed that even in its infancy, it was able to draw students from across the planet. 

Other times, it was the professions of some of the early students after leaving Sewanee that intrigued the transcribers. From private detectives to a deposed preacher-turned-riverboat captain along the Mississippi River, there were a plethora of eccentric, and sometimes antiquated, jobs that early Sewanee students found themselves in. 

After days of combing through the records and transcribing them, the Advanced GIS students and Van de Ven finally had a fully digitized dataset. “Once we had transcribed,” Van de Ven said, “we began to make sure that we were consistent in the formatting of the dataset since there were ten of us doing it, so there had to be a bit of editing and spot checking.” 

The next step of the project was to load the dataset into ArcGIS, a computer program that can read data and place data points on a map that help visualize the locations found within the dataset. Each student was then asked to make a variety of maps to display various aspects found within the dataset. Maps varied from showing the location of students that joined fraternities, the location of students that served in the military, and even mapping the students that had actually graduated, as in the early years it was common to attend the University to take only a few classes before leaving to work. 

What these maps proved was the ability for this dataset to show physical and analytical trends within the early student body. These trends can tell researchers more than what might be obvious on the surface, answering various questions we might have about early Sewanee students. Where did they come from? What relationships might some of these students have had with the Confederacy or the plantation system? What historical moments at Sewanee, such as the installation of a new vice chancellor, might have increased recruitment within a certain state, region, or city? 

The answers to these questions, as well as many others, will gradually reveal themselves as the data begins to be passed around the University. There are already plans in motion to expand the dataset past the 1920 end date, and students and faculty from a variety of departments and disciplines are beginning to use the dataset for their own research and projects. “Collaborations have already begun,” Maginn said. “This includes the Roberson Project and the departments of history, sustainability, and even Asian studies; all these people are coming together to look at this research and incorporate it into their own work. It’s truly inspiring seeing this project unfold and figuring out where, and how far, it can go.” 

This project shows an example of the success of multidisciplinary collaboration in bringing together students and faculty that generally wouldn’t find themselves working alongside one another. “It shows the best aspect of research at a liberal arts institution,” Maginn said, “and what it can be when everyone is firing on all cylinders. This is a way to bring departments together, as well as fill in the gaps of research that’s already been accomplished.” 

Furthermore, the project itself can help current students to learn the stories of students from the past, allowing for greater interest in exactly how, and in which ways, we are all related through our University. This is a narrative that hasn’t always been shown to students. “We’ve heard the narratives and stories of the original founders,” Maginn said. “We’ve heard the narratives of the early founders of the University, the narrative of the early administration, and the faculty narrative. The Roberson Project has made great strides in adding the narrative of Sewanee’s relationship with race. This project is an opportunity to discuss the student community and student life as it was, as it is, and what it can be.” 

“I think the project is really appealing for a student body that’s searching to define themselves as they confront Sewanee’s difficult history,” Maginn said, “and I think to do that it is essential to understand the narrative of this institution’s early students. After all, we are all woven together into the tapestry of Sewanee.” 

Read more about the collaboration between the Advanced GIS class and the Roberson Project on their Meridiana blog: https://meridiana.sewanee.edu/

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