[Ad]dressing the past: A critical methodology for archival research in rhetoric and composition

Alexis E Ramsey, Purdue University


This dissertation offers a critical methodology for archival research. Currently, in the field of Rhetoric and Composition there has been relatively little discussion about the process of finding and analyzing primary source material. I open the dissertation by analyzing Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever and Carolyn Steedman’s Dust: The Archive and Cultural History to help draw a distinction between the Archive (the physical place named archive, such as the Purdue University Archives and Special Collections) and the archive (or the conceptual idea of the archive). I explain that Archives force researchers to interact with artifacts and documents in very specific ways—issues of access and the use of finding aids being prime examples of this structured interaction—thereby signaling the agency of the archive. ^ To facilitate the research process, the archive is explored according to three distinct, yet recursive registers: the archive-as-institution, the archive-as-preservation, and the archive-as-action. “Archive-as-storage” refers to the institutional aspect of the archive and how the conceptual space archive can be defined as Archive, the physical building. The second concept, the “archive-as-preservation,” emphasizes how documents and artifacts are processed, preserved, and accessed within the archive. Finally, the “archive-as-action” refers to the ways a researcher actually works within the archive. This is the archive as research space. I argue that to view the archive only in terms of one of these levels or without accounting for the subjective positioning of the researcher is to create an incomplete vision of the archive and its holdings. To help researchers understand these three levels, I offer a set of questions aimed at positioning the researcher with or alongside the multi-tiered archive. I end the dissertation with an application of my methodology based on research at the Tippecanoe County Historical Association with an Edwardian style dress, ca.1900. ^ Also included in the dissertation is an examination of archival narrative tropes. In chapter three I explore four main tropes: access, gatekeeping, serendipity and inconvenience. These tropes function obliquely as teaching guides, providing researchers with cautionary tales about the kind of hurdles researchers go through to retrieve information. In doing so, the tropes negate the positive agentive power of the archive because they make the archives into tools that researchers manipulate to find histories, rather than positioning archives as helpful and beneficial to the creation of histories.^




Shirley K. Rose, Purdue University.

Subject Area

History, General|Language, Rhetoric and Composition

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