By: Kristin Bertsch
I always knew I wanted to be an English major because I loved stories. I understood stories. I knew what they meant. I really felt like I had things figured out.
Picture it: freshman year, waltzing into Shakespeare Seminar, feeling pretty darn certain I already knew everything there was to know about the bard (I had read Hamlet AND Macbeth, thank you very much). I could read Shakespeare well enough, and I could tell you what the stories were about, and that seemed like the ultimate accomplishment for a Lit major. Then a blonde fireball came blazing in to change it all. It was in that class that Dr. Pam Parker started teaching me a better way to love stories:
“Don’t spend too much on what the story is ‘about;’ figure out what the story ‘does.’ That’s why we do this…”
Those words have resonated in the back of my mind for the last three years. Fast forward to my junior year, and I’m putting those words into action with my mentor, Dr. Parker. For almost two years now, I have worked with Dr. Parker as a research assistant, creating a digital archive of historical materials and, perhaps more importantly, helping create stories that “do” important things.
I work with a treasure trove of letters, photographs, books, film, and ephemera from early 20th century Christian missions in China. These materials are part of Dr. Parker’s family collection, from her grandparent’s missionary service in China starting in 1923. Perhaps you’ve seen me prancing around campus with a mysterious large, grey box. Yes, inside that box, are hundreds of 20th century documents, fragile and musty like an old library book. Yes, I am quite like a peacock when I have this box.
My job is to create a digital archive of these materials, which will allow future scholarship and research to be conducted without needing to use the physical copies. This limits wear and tear, and it also lends to organizing the materials in a way that is conducive to a specific research project. Dr. Parker is preparing to use these materials for personal research on China Missions narratives, and part of my job is to prepare the materials for this kind of study.
My work as a research assistant is largely technical, in that most of my time is spent scanning and digitizing letters, photographs, etc, and collaborating with other students and specialists to create a digital commons for storing and displaying the materials. I have developed an unforeseen number of technical skills (which I had always hoped to avoid by pursuing English), but more than that I have practiced the lesson I began with Dr. Parker my freshman year. I’ve been studying what stories “do” and how to use them.
While I’m digitizing with the letters, I also read them. They tell stories about the world from the perspective of a Christian family a century ago on the other side of the world. Stories about food shortage, disease, and violence. Stories about Christmas parties, friendships, and welcome rainfalls. These letters are about beautiful and tragic experiences of life. But what these stories do is even more profound. These stories tell us about ourselves. They tell us about the world we live in yet never seem to fully know. They tell us about our values and beliefs, what we love and what we protect, what we fear and what we lament. Working with Dr. Parker on this project has given me an opportunity to explore the world vicariously and to expand my perspective by looking through another’s eyes. That’s what stories are meant to do, and that’s something to love.
An excerpt from one of the letters…
“The rice fields were so beautiful, like checker boards, each small section ripening at a different time. The bunches of rice stalks coming up in such regular rows and all of the same size that the seeds must have been carefully set out by hand… From Chinkiang to Nanking we were in a region of very low, flooded land, where the tillers of the soil wore shirts and gee-strings only and were up to their shins in water, following the everlastingly slow old buffalo and wooden plow in the rice field; or sitting in large tubs gathering a nutty root from a water plant, which the children buy at the stations like peanuts…”
Kristin Bertsch (’17) is a junior English/Writing major at Whitworth, pursuing a future in graduate school and a career in travel writing. Kristin studied abroad last year in Britain and Ireland and will study English at Oxford University during spring of 2016. In addition to her studies and contributions to the English Department blog, Kristin works as research assistant to English Professor Dr. Pam Parker and as archiving assistant to Library Director and Art Professor Dr. Amanda Clark. Kristin is an active supporter of local art and theater and a frequenter of Spokane Poetry Slam.