Part 2: Research Assistantship with Dr. Reed

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The following post is a part of a series that I am doing for University of Colorado’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP). In March 2014, I received an Assistantship grant through UROP to work with Dr. Isaac Reed on a project in the field of comparative historical sociology. This blog series documents my UROP Assistantship research experience.

When I last wrote, I had just begun my research into the history of the Puritans in Massachusetts Bay, and was looking to get a better overview of  their religious beliefs, especially their foundations in England. I began reading The Long Argument by Stephen Foster, and quickly realized that I needed more basic information before comprehension of Foster's book would be beneficial. I am not one to set a book aside, but I think the experience of stopping Foster's book and looking for something with more of a general overview is a great example of the challenge of learning how to research, as well as the value of an assistantship like that I am doing through UROP.

I can't speak for everyone, but my hunger for learning sometimes pushes me to take on too much. Foster's book is undoubtedly an important resource, but without full comprehension, what use would it be to me? Not wanting to be a quitter, I spent valuable time re-reading the same pages over and over, trying to get the facts and the figures straight. I finally reached a breaking point, and it was then I remembered the emotional quality to research and learning. As someone who believes that a humanistic form of sociology is vital, I think that a complete embrace of our emotional selves is as crucial to our comprehension and assimilation of learning as a fully engaged mind is. With that said, humility is not an easy feeling to wrestle with in times like these. Nevertheless, I walked away from Foster, and sought out more general histories of the Puritan movement that would provide a better foundation for my understanding.

I discovered a valuable resource in Nathaniel Philbrick's book Mayflower, and in addition to giving me a great overview of the Pilgrim movement, I was pleasantly surprised to learn about the importance of King Philip's War, a battle between the English settlers and multiple native American tribes, in the shaping of Puritan New England. Philbrick argues that it was not the settlers religious convictions that made them Americans, but their interactions with the natives. "By forcing the English to improvise," Philbrick writes "the Indians prevented Plymouth Colony from ossifying into a monolithic cult of religious extremism” (Philbrick, 347). This is an unexpected treasure to stumble upon. Philbrick also points out that the Pilgrim settlers escaped England, not because of a desire for liberty and freedom, but because they believed that they were right and that the English crown and the Anglican church was wrong. This schema of right/wrong in contrast to the popular historiographical notion that America's roots in liberty and freedom rest in the Mayflower is something I'd like to explore further.

Philbrick's book was a delight, and though I was concerned that it's narrative quality and it's focus on the Pilgrims would be a distraction, it turned out to be an invaluable resource. It just goes to show that accepting that you don't always know everything can lead you to important places. This is just another example to me of how beneficial this assistantship will be for me as a person and as a professional in the academy. After submitting my work on Mayflower to Dr. Reed, he wisely encouraged me to not get too hung up on knowing everything. In comparative-historical sociology, it is not just about knowing every detail of the past, but recognizing the importance of learning from the future. To understand those on the fringes of the British empire during King Philip's War, we don't only have to look to Puritan England. We can look to other events, like Bacon's Rebellion (which I will be researching later in the summer) to see how the differences and similarities in their troubles teach us about the idea of the "edge of empire" and struggles with the natives in the New World.

Now that the foundation has been laid, I'm turning to a more specific group within Puritan New England: the merchants. I will be returning to historian Bernard Bailyn, and his book New England Merchants in the 17th Century. I hope that by going down this path, I can get a better look at how the colony turned from a religious safe haven to a thriving economic hub.

This post first appeared on University of Colorado's UROP blog. Image via Flickr