September 06, 2017
Framing Early American Scholarship
9 min read
In today’s post, Jeffrey Glover, author of “Witnessing African War: Slavery, the Laws of War, and Anglo-American Abolitionism” in the July 2017 edition of the William and Mary Quarterly, reflects on what it means to frame an article.
By Jeffrey Glover
I was surprised by the readers’ and editor’s reports on my submission to William and Mary Quarterly. I was not surprised by how closely they read my essay, or by how extensively they critiqued it (conversations with friends and colleagues had prepared me for that). I was instead surprised by the major criticism of the piece, which the editor summed up in one word: “framing.”
Ask any of my students and they will tell you I am obsessed with framing. When I critique dissertation chapters and graduate seminar essays, I spend most of my energy on the first few paragraphs. This is where scholars in almost every field of study frame their work, explaining how it relates to previous scholarship and why it matters to future endeavors. I’ve long preached to students that a change of frame can make all the difference to whether your work is read as the narrow finding of a specialist or a significant contribution to your field.
So I was surprised the editor thought I had not done enough to frame my submission. That was the one thing I thought I knew how to do!
Yet after re-reading the reports and editor’s letter several times, I began to see how it was possible I had framed the essay poorly even though I was paying close attention to framing. My initial failure in this regard was one I think might be emblematic of a challenge facing us in early American scholarship today. It’s the challenge of how we justify our particular domain of expertise in a field that is growing bigger by the day.
Recently Karin Wulf introduced the hashtag #VastEarlyAmerica to describe the immense range of places, eras, approaches, and archives that are included under the rubric early America. That resonated with me. Far from having exhausted our materials, early American scholars instead often feel like we are struggling to keep up with everything that’s coming out. To take only a recent example, the books reviewed in the issue of William and Mary Quarterly in which my essay appeared range in focus from the western coast of North America to India and the Middle East.
The result of our expansive understanding of the field is that we also have abundant possibilities for research, with new domains of expertise appearing all the time. I like this about the field (in fact, it was the reason I joined it), but it does pose a particular challenge to authors of early American scholarship that scholars in more delimited fields may not face: how do we frame our work for practitioners of our particular subfield while also explaining it to early American scholars who work on materials from thousands of miles away or hundreds of years later?
See, this is where I had failed to frame my submission. My essay was about how British abolitionists used eyewitness testimony from African battlefields to challenge the notion that slaves were lawful prisoners of war. Judging from the readers’ reports, I had persuaded specialists there might be something to my claims, but I had neglected to frame the essay for readers who are not experts in late eighteenth-century English-language journalism of Africa. That, of course, is the majority of readers.
Re-framing my essay to address a larger audience was not an easy problem for me to solve. It’s a problem, though, that I suspect is common in this era of abundant possibilities for specialized early American research, so it might be worth saying a few words about how I approached it.
The editor’s critique compelled me to think about what I had learned in my research that was detachable from my particular archive and potentially applicable to others. What might someone who studies early western North America, or early America’s relationship with the Middle East, or another topic seemingly distant from mine, find valuable in my results? The answer to that question, I thought, was what I had to say about international law. Though I had not originally framed it in these terms, my essay was premised on the idea that international law was not just a top-down creation of lawyers and jurists but was also shaped by colonial travelers (including Africans) who challenged prevailing legal notions in Europe with stories about how things were done in other places. That was certainly the case during the era of the abolition of the slave trade, but a similar dynamic might conceivably have existed in any colonial time or place where questions of international law arose. Thus, I reframed my essay as a contribution to early American international law and its importance for slavery, a much broader topic than I had originally addressed (in the interests of full disclosure, this line of revision required not only reworking the first paragraphs of the essay but also a wholesale rewriting of the conclusion and parts of the body—but that’s another story).
Ultimately, readers will judge whether I was successful at justifying my focus to a broader readership. But my experience with revision at William and Mary Quarterly did represent one attempt to address a rhetorical challenge that many of us working on early American topics face. How to frame our results for colleagues in other early American subfields? My own solution was to try to explain how my essay related to a broader concept (international law) that cuts across times and places. I’ve seen other scholars address this same problem with what might be called a “network” approach, showing how a particular material reality (for example, currency) connects disparate worlds (see Christopher Heaney’s post on this same blog for a great example of this approach). And a survey of any issue of William and Mary Quarterly will reveal still other solutions. My point, for now, is to recognize that for submitting authors, the vastness of early American scholarship is both an opportunity and a challenge—an opportunity because there is so much to be done, and a challenge because the abundant possibilities for research only enhance the need to explain ourselves across subfields.