Research project helps history come alive for students

When Trevecca Nazarene University senior Christian Keen and Kelsey Raymond, a junior, first heard about an undergraduate history research project set for the Fall 2016 semester, they signed up.

“Initially it was just a credit,” Keen admitted. “What really attracted me to it was that it was independent research, and I had never done that before.”

For Raymond, the appeal of the faculty-led research experience (FLARE) project was more practical. She was trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her history degree in the future.

“I was debating going into teaching history or museum archival work,” she said. “I really didn’t know [which one]. I decided this was a great opportunity for me to see the other side of history.”

One thing is certain: neither signed up for the project because of a profound interest in the topic. In fact, both admit knowing very little about Adelicia Acklen, the focus of the project.

Led by Dr. Erica Hayden, assistant professor of history at Trevecca, the FLARE project is one of four planned for the 2016-2017 academic year. FLARE projects allow undergraduate students to experience research first-hand. First implemented in 2015, FLARE projects are part of Trevecca’s Quality Enhancement Program.

A handful of projects receive University funding each academic year. Hayden’s project is centered on archival research, but also called for students to create a website, crafting online narratives that will present their findings in a creative way. Keen and Raymond were part a group of 10 students participating in the project.

Hayden says she wrote the proposal as a way for her students to get “on-the-ground” experience in archival research and public history.

“Our students do a lot of research, but getting them into archives, like the Tennessee State Archives and other universities’ special collections—that’s a new set of skills that a lot of undergraduates don’t get a chance to do,” she said. “We have a growing interest in museum studies and public history, and I wanted to create a project that helped students get some experience in that world.”

Hayden chose Adelicia Acklen, a famous 19th century Nashville businesswoman and owner of Belmont Mansion, as the subject of the research project, in part because of Hayden’s connections with the staff at Belmont Mansion.

“We know a lot about her life in particular, but we’re trying to contextualize her within the larger Nashville setting,” Hayden said. “She’s a fantastic, fascinating 19th century woman. She was incredibly wealthy and became wealthier still through her subsequent marriages and building up a portfolio of property and assets.”

Hayden’s students worked in smaller teams, exploring four different themes, including Acklen’s business and real estate dealings, her philanthropic work, immigration patterns in Nashville during the 19th century and the development of personal and commercial travel.

Antonio Guerrero, a fifth-year senior who stayed at Trevecca for an extra year to finish a double major in communications, is combining his love of history with filmmaking to create a documentary detailing the project as a whole. He’s accompanied his fellow researchers on multiple trips to the Tennessee State Archives and various libraries, all the while documenting the process of sifting through primary sources—like Acklen’s personal letters—as well as digging into census records and immigration trends.

“There’s a lot of security in archives,” Guerrero said. “They would not let me take a camera past a certain checkpoint. We had to leave our bags behind and couldn’t touch anything and had to put special gloves on. It was like looking at the Declaration of Independence in National Treasure!“

For Hayden, this was all part of the plan.

“Students really got an opportunity to dig into the sources, to see what’s out there and to interact with the archivists,” Hayden said. “Certain groups are finding more than others. I think some of the students are a little frustrated by that, but that’s part of the historical process in terms of research, so I think they’re learning a valuable lesson in the frustrations of historical research and having to think outside the box to answer some of their questions.”

The groups researched are currently working to draft their findings into narratives for their digital exhibits. While the teams are beginning to work on their websites, Guerrero has started the tedious process of editing hours of footage into a documentary.

“I’m documenting every aspect of every group,” Guerrero said. “I’m looking at their work, reading their papers, and I went with them to the library and the archives.”

For Keen and Raymond, who grew so attached to Acklen during their research that they commonly refer to her by her first name, letting go of the project has been a little more difficult than they anticipated. After months of research, visits to the archives and trips to parcels of land around Nashville once owned by Acklen, coming to the end of the semester feels a little like saying goodbye to an old friend.

Maybe that’s why both Keen and Raymond plan to continue their research in the spring semester.

“I thought after Christmas I’d be done, but there are still gaps everywhere,” Raymond said. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget Adelicia.”

Keen and Raymond, along with fellow FLARE researcher Laney Overton, have submitted an abstract to present their findings at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) in April 2017. They won’t know if their project has been chosen until late January 2017.

Regardless, both Keen and Raymond say the project is one they’ll never forget. Keen credits the confidence in research skills she gained with helping her to get an internship at the Frist Center for Visual Arts, where she’ll help shape how academic material is presented to the public.

Raymond says the semester-long project has influenced her plans for the future. She’s certain she’ll pursue further education in museum studies after she graduates in 2018.

“I thought I’d come into this and decide teaching 100 percent because it’s been a dream of mine to teach since I was in middle school,” she said. “But I’ve never felt so alive than when doing this kind of research.”

As for Hayden, she’s excited by the burgeoning passion for public history she sees developing in her students.

“Historians have an opportunity to share wonderful stories with a public audience and make history interesting,” she said. “Historic homes, museums, battlefields—that is the way a lot of people interact with history. It’s so critical that the history they’re getting is academically rigorous but that it’s presented in a way that engages the audience. Public history has this really important mandate to make history come alive.”

Media contact: Mandy Crow,, 615-248-1695