"I've learned how to really look at the complexity of a document and embrace that complexity instead of shying away from it."
When David Gardner '14 (New York) was a sophomore, he took a history class with Professor Karin Vélez called Conversion and Inquisition. The course structure, heavy on debate, mirrored the syllabus content. It took some time for Gardner to get the hang of the creative approach, but then it all connected. "It really helped me understand the content by practicing it," Gardner says.
That method of first-hand active learning defined the rest of his time in Macalester's history department. With Vélez as his research mentor and thesis advisor, Gardner wrapped up a year of research he began during his semester abroad in Argentina. His thesis, "Conversion, Convergence, and Transcendent Catholicism," is a collection of primary documents related to religious transformations in Argentina during the mid-colonial era.
"I’m really attracted to that period, that moment in history," he says. "It reflects a rapid exchange of ideas and an increasing globalization that very much applies to a lot of things going on today. I’ll read a history book about the early modern period, and the ideas that I formed from reading that book will come back to me when I'm reading The New York Times."
With support from a Mellon Foundation grant that Vélez and history professor Lynn Hudson encouraged him to pursue, Gardner conducted archival research around Argentina, the first time he had worked so closely with original documents. Although he was more than 5,000 miles away from Macalester's history department, the support from professors that drew Gardner to the department continued through email communication with Vélez as they sorted through his questions. When he returned to Macalester, he transcribed and translated the documents, working through archaic Spanish with help from the Hispanic Studies Department.
Part of grappling with an in-depth research project included learning to be open to different questions and directions. "I let what I found in the archives guide my process, as opposed to trying to come up with a thesis that can be supported by the archives," Gardner says. "I've learned how to really look at the complexity of a document and embrace that complexity instead of shying away from it."