Synthetic Thinking: An archivist’s journey from dinosaurs to Du Bois

By Matthew Woodbury

Dr. Robert S. Cox is Head of Special Collections at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries. He received his PhD in History from the University of Michigan in 2002.

Dr. Cox began his PhD to learn about the past. Initial training as a paleontologist, however, meant that the materials he consulted were millennia older than those he now manages for the University of Massachusetts Libraries. Shifting doctoral programs from studying fossils to reading and writing about American history required both learning new disciplinary approaches and refocusing on a new geological era. This transition, Dr. Cox explains, was not as difficult as it might seem. Paleontologists and historians refer to different types of data and deploy specialist techniques in their inquiries, but he found both fields share a commitment to holistic thinking about how environments and living entities interact. The fundamentals of interpreting patterns and processes – then assessing the relationships between individuals and communities – requires similar analytic work to piece together an incomplete puzzle.

Clements Library

A formative institution for Dr. Cox’s historical training – one that also launched his career in archives – was the University of Michigan’s William Clements Library. Starting as an archival assistant in 1990, he immersed himself in the collections and encountered a range of perspectives about how researchers use maps, documents, and images to make historical arguments. Working in a nationally significant library with strengths in American history was also convenient. Using material already available on campus allowed Dr. Cox to write a dissertation on American spiritualism in the 19th century without having to take numerous extensive and expensive research trips. He could also continue on-the-job training at the archive, coach basketball, and teach microbiology in the meantime.

Dr. Robert S. Cox

In 1998, as he continued to write, Dr. Cox was in the position of choosing between accepting a job as an archivist at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia or pursuing a place in the professoriate. For him, deciding between academic nomadism or a secure position where he could enjoy some seniority was an easy one. His archival training and previous experience with scientific and technological material meshed well with the APS’s strong collections in the history of science and technology. Dr. Cox finished his dissertation from Pennsylvania while working at the APS.

If Dr. Cox’s work at the Clements and the APS focused on eighteenth and nineteenth century history, his role at UMass – where he began working in 2004 – includes an emphasis on contemporary issues. A significant part of his job is looking for collections that complement UMass’s archival strengths in the history of social activism and organization, especially those from the 1960s to the present. The process of building connections with activist communities, and engaging individuals and groups in dialogue about the benefits of archiving their material allows Dr. Cox to learn about intentional communities, advocacy organizations, and civil rights campaigns.

W. E. B. Du Bois in 1907 – There are over 100,000 items in the UMass Du Bois collection

One collection in particular, the archives of W.E.B. Du Bois, Dr. Cox finds especially powerful for understanding the history of social activism. Characterizing Du Bois as having an acute and perceptive “synthetic imagination,” Dr. Cox admires how Du Bois conceptualized and understood the ways in which gender, class, and race interacted to shape inequality in America. While archives relating to 20th century social activism are chronologically removed from his training as a historian of science and 19th century American social history, Dr. Cox sees working with collections like that of Du Bois as part of a broader, shared project of understanding diverse perspectives from the past.

Dr. Cox also takes the land grant, public service, mission of UMass seriously. As a research center, UMass Special Collections welcomes populations with widely ranging interests. Visiting the reading room on any given day could be professors, representatives of local historical societies, and families interested in learning more about their genealogy, house or neighborhood. The archivist’s challenge is to engage visitors and facilitate their access to materials in ways that they find meaningful. Building on skills he developed through teaching and advising students, Dr. Cox has to modulate appropriate responses to serve visitors. Public engagement also takes Dr. Cox outside of the library and into communities throughout Massachusetts. Listening to public history practitioners, inquiring about their goals, and working collaboratively has, among other initiatives, resulted in a free and open-source catalog that the public can create content for and edit.

Having advised students who go onto careers in archives and a range of history careers, Dr. Cox recommends graduate students use their time in the doctorate to practice the analytic and expressive skills of speaking and writing in a persuasive, succinct, and meaningful way. He encourages future PhDs to first think broadly and critically about their own work and how it relates to scholarship crafted by others and then to take that understanding and convey it in ways that audiences can understand. Dr. Cox has found students whose communicative skills allow them to create and modulate information in a range of directions and registers can find success in a range of roles.

One suggestion he has for current graduate students is to take an intentional and pragmatic approach to completing their degree. By ensuring that as many components as possible are contributing toward completing the dissertation and graduating, there is  “no wasted time.” Another piece of advice is to take a long-term view on degree requirements like prelims and the prospectus. If the goal of the PhD is prove a student has become a trained and competent in their field, it’s important to remember that requirements are milestones along the path rather than insurmountable obstacles. Finally, Dr. Cox – whose dissertation was published by the University of Virginia Press in 2003 as Body and Soul: A Sympathetic History of American Spiritualism – encourages students to think about writing the dissertation as a proto-book-manuscript.

Dr. Cox’s integrated approach to archival management, questions of historical interpretation, and inclusive manner of engagement are manifestations of the synthetic thinking that he admires in the writings of Du Bois. Even for those of us with interests limited to merely one geological era, thinking purposefully about how to communicate the importance of our work, taking a generous approach to working within and across disciplinary boundaries, and remaining grounded about obstacles and opportunities are issues well worth considering.

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