Keys to the Archive: Miss Jane Pittman


This project began as a class assignment for graduate students in a research methods course. The course aims to guide new MA and PhD English students through different kinds of scholarly research, from thinking with theory to applying bibliographic techniques. This particular version of the course took a single literary text as its object of study. Ernest J. Gaines’s classic novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman became an entry point for asking fundamental questions about genre, the category of fiction, problems of representation, and legacies of humanistic inquiry.

Those theoretical discussions laid a foundation for developing interpretations of the novel that addressed problems in different fields of study. Students explored their own interests in areas such as translation, folklore, gender, and critical race studies. The papers they wrote at mid-term became the basis for this collaborative project. As a class, they generated a set of keywords relevant to the novel, then each writer used what they learned in their own research to author entries for those critical terms.

The students steered this project, from conceptualization to content creation to editorial intervention. They determined to address an audience of educators interested in teaching the novel. They picked images and historical events to help contextualize the novel. They scanned relevant materials from the Gaines Center collections, imported media content, titled the project, and helped standardize its design. Needless to say, collaborating on this project required them to do more than practice scholarly techniques. They practiced making academic community by using their research to build a guide to the Gaines Center collections.

Sadly, Gaines passed away on November 5, 2019, while we were at work on this project. Many of us had seen him recently—in attendance at a talk on campus, at an annual cemetery cleaning near his home in Pointe Coupee Parish. His death came as a surprise. No surprise at all was the outpouring of love and admiration for his work as an author and a teacher. The many celebrations of his life reminded us what an impact he had on American literature. This project hopes to take stock of that influence by better understanding the lifecycle of one of his formative works, and by making it legible to others.

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