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Davidson Historians Give Duke Colleagues a Lesson in Collaborative Research

John Martin
Duke History Department Chair John Martin and Davidson students Daniel Guenther ’15, Katherine Herold ’15 and C.T. Talevi ’14.

Duke University got a history lesson recently from Davidson students. The Duke History Department invited the Davidsonians to Durham to talk about their collaborative investigation of a 1915 trial in Columbia, S.C., of an African American man who shot and killed a white man who had assaulted his wife.

The presentation by seven of the dozen students enrolled last spring in Professor John Wertheimer's legal history seminar drew praise from the Duke audience. "Wow!" said Professor Nancy MacLean during the question-and-answer period. "This is one of the most interesting presentations I've ever seen in this room!"

Duke History Department Chair John Martin added, "Two features of the presentation especially impressed me – the integrity with which you dealt with your primary sources, and the way you used story-telling."

Each of the students presented a three-minute talk about a facet of the case or an aspect of their collaborative research. This particular study, titled State v. Sanders and the Jim Crow Jury, was the 12th undergraduate seminar Wertheimer has directed in collaborative fashion. Each one explores an episode from North Carolina or South Carolina legal history, and most have concerned civil rights issues.

The 1915 Sanders trial was remarkable because an African-American defense attorney successfully excluded a prospective juror from the all-white jury on the grounds of racial bias. Wertheimer and his students used Sanders as a point of departure to explore southern law pertaining to juries.

Other cases Wertheimer's students have researched include a 1931 arson case involving a group of young, white, female inmates who torched their state-run "training school," a 1914 challenge to a Winston, N.C., city ordinance mandating racial residential segregation, and the Reconstruction-era prosecution of a black man and a white woman for "fornication," even though the couple was legally married.

Davidson historians
Davidson historians (front l-r) Katherine Herold ’15, Wertheimer, Daniel Guenther ’15, (back l-r) Bridget Flynn Kastner ’15, Cam Parker ’15, Will Mahler ’15, Everett Muzzy ’15 and C.T. Talevi ’14.

Wertheimer originally conceived of the collaborative project in 1997 as a training exercise to prepare undergraduate students to write high-level, individual history research papers. But his students enjoyed the experience of working together so much they implored him to let them continue, and he did.

He tells students at the beginning of the semester that their goal is to produce "a collaborative research paper so well-conceived, so thoroughly researched and so finely written that it gets published." That goal has been achieved several times, including articles in professional journals, chapters in edited collections, and even a book, Wertheimer's Law and Society in the South (2009), which contains several of the classes' case studies.

Wertheimer has been delighted at the way in which academic cooperation bonds members of the class, especially through their off-campus trips to research archives.

At the Duke seminar, one of the student presenters addressed that point, saying "It was like being on a team. People took on difficult assignments because they didn't want to let down their teammates."

Students participating at the Duke seminar were Daniel Guenther '15, Katherine Herold '15, Bridget Flynn Kastner '15, Will Mahler '15, Everett Muzzy '15, Cam Parker '15, and C.T. Talevi '14.

Wertheimer has presented his pedagogy for the course at professional meetings, and regularly receives requests for his syllabus from history professors around the country. For a complete explanation of the methodology, read Wertheimer's description of it in a 2002 issue of the Journal of American History.