UW News

June 10, 2014

Students mine history for their own Documents that Changed the World installment

UW News

The Treasury Warrant used to pay for Alaska. The purchase was dubbed "Seward's Folly" for the Secretary of State who approved the purchase.

The Treasury Warrant used to pay for Alaska. The purchase was dubbed “Seward’s Folly” for the Secretary of State who approved the purchase.Wikipedia

Undergraduates working with University of Washington Information School Professor Joe Janes looked to American and European history for their own installments of Janes’ podcast series, Documents that Changed the World.

In the podcasts, Janes — now sometimes joined by student colleagues — explores the origin and often evolving meaning of historical documents both famous and less known. UW Today presents these periodically, and all of the podcasts are available online at the Information School website.

Documents that Changed the World podcasts:

The class was General Studies 197, a weekly seminar designed to give small groups of freshmen exposure to faculty. Janes and his students discussed a different installment of his Documents series each week, and for the final task, he asked them to research and write their own ideas for the series. Some of these they turned into podcasts in the series.

So today, we present a student-written two-for-one entry in the ongoing series. Andrew Kyrios studies the use of checks, particularly the 1868 Treasury Warrant that paid for “Seward’s Folly,” or the purchase of the Alaska Territory. And sophomore Jill Fenno discusses telegrams, particularly a secret, coded 1917 cable from Germany to Mexico suggesting the latter attack the United States to distract and delay America from entering what was to become World War I.

Jill Fenno

Jill Fenno

“Germany was subsisting on potatoes and sending 15-year-olds onto the battlefield, so something dramatic was required,” wrote Fenno. Hence the plan to convince Mexico to attack its powerful northern neighbor, sent in a secret, coded telegram that ultimately reached President Woodrow Wilson. Of course, Mexico undertook no such ill-advised military maneuver, and history carried on. “Now, of course, the telegram has all but vanished.”

Kyrios ponders the oddity of checks as payment for cash and hones in on the circumstances of Treasury Warrant #9759, payable to Russian diplomat Edward de Stoeckl, which paid for the Alaska Territory. Many thought it a bad decision and dubbed it “Seward’s Folly,” for Secretary of State William Seward, who approved the purchase. “Although he faced criticism, when asked what his greatest achievement was as secretary of state, his response was ‘the purchase of Alaska — but it will take the people a generation to find it out.”

Andrew Kyrios

Andrew Kyrios

Janes, who usually works with and mentors graduate students in the Master of Library and Information Science program, said he enjoyed this rare opportunity to work with undergraduates.

“Having a small seminar with 15 freshmen was completely new to me, and a real joy,” he said. “It allowed me to develop some new teaching muscles, engage with bright and interested students, and help them to get started on their academic careers. What more could you ask for? And of course I’m doing it again next year.”

The Documents that Changed the World podcast series is also available on iTunes, with more than 90,000 downloads there so far.

Previous installments of the “Documents that Changed the World” series