My New Year’s Resolution: Francis Hargrave and Interdisciplinary Teaching

Today is December 31st, the final day of 2014. So, in the spirit of the annual rite of passage into the New Year, I have a resolution to share. Although normally I am more focused on the usual spectrum of eating more vegetables and playing more tennis (things that always, quite frankly, feel a bit like taking the easy route anyway, because I actually enjoy both lima beans and sports), this year I am inspired by a relatively obscure, mid-eighteenth century English lawyer. Francis Hargrave: barrister, activist, librarian, and historian, is a major figure in the first and second chapters of my dissertation. His work is in many respects a model for the kind of scholarship I want to write. More specifically however, it is also the model for the kind of teacher I am resolved to be.

This coming year, I am working for and presenting at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting in New York City.  Unsurprisingly, the conference theme, “history and other disciplines,” has been on my mind quite a bit. Then again, interdisciplinarity has been a part of my academic outlook since I was an undergraduate, and likely before, even if I did not quite know the word for it yet. Since my dissertation explores the relationship between copyright and politics in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century Atlantic world, I think it is safe to say that my research would simply not be possible without this framework. Studying physical books and the ideas contained within them, moving across national boundaries with distinct economic and legal regulations, requires not only the interweaving of different historiographical approaches but involving more than one academic field. For me, legal and literary studies are foundational in how I approach not only the history of intellectual property but also the broader themes that dominate survey courses.

So why Francis Hargrave? While there has been considerable attention paid in recent years to the landmark anti-slavery case, Somerset v. Steuart, Hargrave, the young lead attorney and mastermind of the strategy that prompted Lord Mansfield’s verdict, has not been discussed in much detail, something I hope to contribute to with my dissertation. Because not only was Hargrave pivotal in the Somerset case, he was also heavily involved with the foundational copyright litigation, Donaldson v. Beckett. Long story, or rather long chapter, short, Hargrave was involved in two of the most ground-breaking cases of the second half of the eighteenth century, then promptly switched gears and began to, almost exclusively, write legal histories and educational commentaries. He was not pigeonholed by one genre – copyright, anti-slavery, historian, litigator, writer, orator – but built a career on multiple abilities.

While I have been working on linking these different categories together for a journal article on labor, literary property and gradual emancipation, it occurred to me that this wasn’t just about my research or my writing but my classroom, too. As a teacher, it can be perpetually challenging to make history relevant to students interested in other subjects. I have spent the past two and a half years of my teaching fellowship at Hunter College gaining invaluable experience as a teaching assistant, running my own discussion sections while observing different lecture styles and approaches in both halves of the survey. Regardless of chronological periodization, it seems difficult to show students how history is a part of their major specializations, from chemistry to communications. Given the closer nature of the connections, it appears that students in the second half of the survey struggle a bit less: some lucky ones have grandparents and parents who have lived through many of the experiences we discuss. For a historian, to be sure, living through something brings its own set of complications but nonetheless, I think it adds a fascinating dimension to a student’s perspective. I have more experience in the second half of the survey  and have observed this process pretty closely but this spring, I will be teaching my own, independent course in the first half, for the first time. I have yet to have a student with a living memory of the American Revolution but if this changes next year, I promise you a fascinating post on either time-travel or ghosts!

Thus 2015, as you can see, will be a big year for me as an instructor, rendering this resolution a bit more important than usual. My goal is to balance providing my students with a solid foundation of their historical past, history for history’s sake, with a sense of why it matters to their present. I would like my students, like Hargrave, to see history in other fields and value its importance to multiple modes of thought, even if that history is about three hundred years old.

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