Workshop on Capitalism Informs Study of Slavery and Freedom

Workshop on Capitalism Informs Study of Slavery and Freedom

Alisha Hines is a Ph.D. candidate in History and African and African American Studies at Duke. Last spring she received a Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grant to attend a summer workshop on the history of capitalism; her aim was to learn about technical content areas such as statistics, accounting and economic theory in order to apply quantitative methods and techniques to her study of slavery and freedom in the middle Mississippi River Valley. Now back on campus, she shared this update.

At the History of Capitalism Workshop at Cornell University this summer, I participated in an intensive introductory series to a range of topics and skills including corporate finance, statistics, economics and other topics. Participants attended class each day from 9:00 to 6:00, during which the day’s lecturer would introduce us to their field of specialization (the majority of our lecturers were faculty at Cornell or nearby institutions). The idea is that historians of capitalism would be able to gain a greater sense of how corporations work, the logic of accounting and the grammar of economics in order to approach our sources and topics in new ways and with more technical grounding.

In addition, we spoke with historians of capitalism in the field who have implemented the kind of skills we were developing in the course in their own work. Archivists from repositories with collections related to business history, such as the Baker Library at Harvard, walked us through some of their collections and resources that might be useful to our work. The sort of “hard” skills we learned were how to use statistical software (JMP), Excel and also some digital mapping techniques.

The workshop was quite useful to me because I use steamboat company records in my research and I now feel more confident reading ledgers and account books, and can ask new questions about the hiring practices, for example, of steamboat captains and how they might have assessed the risk of employing enslaved men and women in river work. In addition, I was able to learn more about mapping techniques that are somewhat more accessible than GIS, which I can use to chart patterns of mobility of black women in the Mississippi River Valley.

Finally, I was able to meet a number of historians whose work overlaps geographically or thematically with my own and have some invigorating conversations about our research ideas and the history of capitalism more generally. I have even planned to submit a panel proposal to an upcoming history conference with a fellow cohort member. The organizers of the workshop have facilitated an ongoing network among participants in the program that I will certainly continue to draw on and contribute to as I proceed in my academic career.

This internal funding mechanism from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies encourages graduate students to step away from their core research and training to acquire additional skills, knowledge or co-curricular experiences that will give them new perspectives on their research agendas. Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants are intended to deepen preparation for academic positions and other career trajectories.

Photo courtesy of Alisha Hines (History of Capitalism Summer Workshop 2016 cohort)