Welcome to ‘Between the Lines’ – interviews with teachers, writers and writing teachers on specific aspects of their craft.
In this week’s interview, author and Goucher College writing professor Katherine Cottle discusses the practice and possibilities of primary source research in creative and critical projects, which is embodied in several of her five books, including The Hidden Heart of Charm City: Baltimore Letters and Lives, I Remain Yours: Secret Mission Love Letters of My Mormon Great-Grandparents: 1900-1903, and Baltimore Side Show.
According to her bio, she two “feisty” children and a propensity for burning dinner (“I’m a horrible cook,” she assures me cheerfully). Cottle also writes poetry, non-fiction, cultural criticism, essays and reviews.
An Expanding World of Words
Growing up in a “farm-like” conservancy area of Baltimore County, Maryland, Cottle – the eldest of three children – sought out nooks behind rose bushes or slices of space between buildings where she could spin yarns in peace. “I was very quiet, externally. More of a listener,” she recalls. “But I was wordy internally: talking to myself, making observations, telling stories. I was writing, mentally.”
Cottle had the good fortune to attend a public high school which offered creative writing courses (“now, you’re lucky to get a unit, much less a whole class”). Her creative writing teacher, with whom she is still in touch, encouraged students to enter competitions and submit work for publication. This was important for Cottle, who was 14 years old when her first piece appeared in the local paper: “It was a big deal to have readers outside my ninth grade classroom.”
Building on her positive high school experience, Cottle went on to earn a B.A. in English from Goucher College, an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Maryland at College Park, and a Ph.D. in English/Professional Writing and American Literature from Morgan State University.
Paths and Possibilities
Asked what steered her toward teaching writing, Cottle chuckles: “It wasn’t, ‘this is what I’m going to do with the rest of my life’. I still don’t know that. But no matter what I’ve done, writing has pulled me in its direction.”
Although she has not always, or exclusively, taught, Cottle has educated writers from early teens to adulthood, in settings ranging from intensive summer programs, to tutoring, to middle and high schools, to her current full-time role at Goucher.
There, she teaches courses including first-year writing, poetry, professional writing and senior capstone courses, allowing Cottle guide students from the beginning to the end of their undergraduate studies. “Every class, every semester is a new experience,” she says. “You are starting a new adventure every time – every class, every day. That requires strength, enthusiasm and a positive attitude.”
Strength, enthusiasm and a positive attitude are rewarded by reciprocal learning. Cottle cherishes interaction with students and colleagues as means to cultivate her own practice. “It allows me to reflect on my own work [at] a helpful disconnect. I have to step back and recognise where I am in that picture.”
Her goal as an educator is to pay forward the “gifts I got from my mentors… to inspire others to develop the command and craft of their work so they feel confident as writers. Whether first year or senior capstone, [I want them] to feel that what they’re learning will help them beyond the classroom. Hopefully they see how writing will play a role in their life, how communication will help them going forward.”
On Primary Source Research in Creative and Critical Projects
Q: What is primary source research in this context?
A: Opening your research lens beyond the standard scholarly essay. It means looking for non-traditional sources, things you won’t find in Google. Some might not be valued by the academy, but provide scope for humanities documentation. For example, my dissertation focused on intimate letters from 1850-1950 in Baltimore. Some [were] online, some I had to go to a physical place to see. Others cannot be found, because they were hidden or destroyed.
Q: Why is this type of research significant in critical and creative contexts?
A: It adds unfiltered content. It allows voices which might not typically be found in public settings to be brought to the surface and validates genres beyond the scope of traditional research.
Q: How does one begin?
A: Think of yourself as your own search engine, and create an algorithm. You can start on the internet, but usually you have to go to physical locations, or call or write people to find out if something is in an archive; you might open your research to living sources.
Q: How did you approach researching the intimate letters?
A: My focus was on historical figures. I asked mentors at my university, then cast a wide net to see what I could find. After that, I decided to focus on a particular time period. There were a variety of ways to go about finding letters. Some were available online. Some were in archives. Others were archived but not accessible to the public. I contacted writers who’d been immersed in particular figures and asked them. Part of the excitement of doing a primary source search is that the process becomes part of the journey. You document the search as much as what you find. I wound up with a chapter on letters that we’ll never find, even if they exist.
Q: How do you avoid drowning in details?
A: Set parameters as you go along: here’s where I am, here’s what I found, here’s what I’m going to continue, here’s what I’m going to put off for another time.
Staying within those parameters is useful, but you need to start the process first. It’s a little messy in the beginning, but human beings are messy.
Q: How might a teacher structure a primary source research assignment?
A: I teach a 200-level writing course with units on sources such as diaries, photographs, maps, children’s books, recipes, oral histories, etc. We focus on one genre a week, look at examples, do some practice.
We usually start with photographs. First, students observe exactly what is in the frame. Next is the reflective lens when the student considers what they bring to the image as a viewer. Then they apply an analytical lens to think about the picture’s social significance.
We apply this metaphorical frame to other types of sources, asking: What’s there? What [do I] bring? Why is this important to our world?
Q: An author who does primary source research well?
A: Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. There’s a set of photographs in the middle, you can start the framing there; but the whole book is full of primary sources, [Skloot] pieces together Lacks’ life through research. Plus [she] has such a connection to Baltimore. I like to use articles or examples connected to place, so if students are local it gives them another perspective.
Q: A piece of writing that changed your life?
A: Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980 by Lucille Clifton. Hers was one of the first readings I went to; she had such humor, her work was so in-depth and thoughtful. But she was also unapologetic about loving The Price is Right. It showed me you could be a writer and be real, you could bring your strengths to writing in a way that was unique to you.
Q: A classic you love to teach?
A: Poets like Lucille Clifton, Anne Sexton, Tyehimba Jess – I’m not sure I could pick just one. A collection of women’s poetry from the late 20th century would be perfect.
Q: A contemporary work you love to teach?
A: I enjoy Billy Collins work. There is a simplicity about it, with a deep foundation, but also wit. He takes the human experience seriously and not seriously at the same time.
Q: A book about writing every writing student should read?
A: Bird by Bird: Some Notes on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. Students connect with it.
Q: A living writer you’d love to hang out with?
A: Jeanette Winterson. I’ve only read two or three of her books, including Written on the Body and The Passion, but they left a physical feeling. The impact lingers, they are so powerful. She and Toni Morrison have that – they are in a whole ‘nother category. It is hard to find the language to describe, but you feel it at a cellular level.
Q: Your perfect writing space?
A: After going through the pandemic, it’s definitely not being home all the time. I work well in an outside environment, like a coffee shop, where there is human movement or discussion, but in the background. And a comfortable spot to sit.
Q: If you could publish anything, what would it be?
A: Right now, I’m working on [a book of] recipe poems. My brother-in-law is an incredible cook and has everyone over for dinner once a week. But during the pandemic, he couldn’t. We talked about writing a cookbook, but quickly realised it wouldn’t be typical. Each recipe is a tribute to a friend or family member who attends his dinners, so different people, different types of food; each will include a narrative about the person who makes, brings or requests the food.
I like blending genres. For example, my friend and I self-published a book of illustrated poetry. Even my memoir and nonfiction include other genres.
- Web: KatherineCottle.com
- Goucher College: Faculty