Overview of Primary Sources

Second semester is progressing and so is our research. History lectures from last semester have ceded to discussions on research methods and strategies, including use of the source-collecting tool Zotero. There has been a shift in dynamics with class work increasingly becoming more independent and individualized, with several weeks during the semester dedicated to library research and one-on-one meetings as replacements for standard class sessions.

I have pinned down a final research focus: How does story have the power to compel social change? How has Sr. Helen Prejean employed narrative to further her cause, and what has been the effect?

This post will feature my primary sources. The essential trinity of sources underpinning my research will be the Prejean papers and her two books. Many students have noted that they are organizing trips to other universities throughout the country to access archives specific to their work, with at least one student expecting to visit the Dorothy Day papers at Marquette’s Raynor Memorial Libraries, and I have the distinct advantage of being within close proximity to the Prejean papers. A finding guide is available here. Dead Man Walking and The Death of Innocents will clue me into Sr. Prejean’s storytelling mechanisms. Supplemental texts in Sr. Prejean’s voice include some of the speeches she has made throughout the country, such as a lecture made to St. Mary’s law school in 1995 that was subsequently published in the university’s law review, entitled: “Capital Punishment: The Humanistic and Moral Issues”.

My efforts at organizing an interview with Sr. Helen have proven unsuccessful. I was able to establish a line of communication with her office, but subsequently I received word from a professor at DePaul who had been contacted by the office and was asked to get in touch with me. Professor Susanne Dumbleton told me that she was willing to serve as a substitute for Sr. Helen, who is eager to finish writing her third book. I will be looking to interview Professor Dumbleton in the coming weeks, as well as potentially other figures via phone or in person. I had earmarked a large majority of Ramonat funds towards a potential trip to Louisiana for the express purpose of visiting with Sr. Helen, but new developments will force me to reassess how best to use my research funds.

Other original sources include the film Dead Man Walking and papal encyclicals. The film has tangential relevance to my research focus but cannot be ignored. The encyclicals include Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae (1968), important in its assertion of sanctity of life, and John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae (1995), which took a hard stance against capital punishment. I will continue collecting primary sources as I go (right now, I have a larger collection of secondary sources).

The early-research phase in the Seminar is exciting yet also daunting. A Ramonat Seminar student from last year recently came into class to discuss his work and told us “No matter how much work there is to do, it will all get done”. A simple phrase of reassurance. It is a mantra that I’m sure will be replaying in my head over the next few weeks.


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