Cole Crawford’s college years have gone a little differently from yours.
You ate a lot of pizza and played a lot of beer pong. Cole has read, transcribed and edited everything ever written by a 19th-century poet named Robert Tannahill.
You went to class, sometimes. Cole went to Scotland, where he chased down a decade’s worth of private letters that Tannahill sent to friends, publishers and fellow poets before his untimely death in 1810.
You discovered that it’s easy to memorize the “Golden Girls” theme song, making it possible to sing along when you watch “The Golden Girls” reruns every day. Cole discovered something a little bit different.
Last summer, in a little county library in Scotland, the Creighton University senior discovered what is believed to be a completely unknown poem by Tannahill, one of the most famous poets in Scottish history.
“I wanted to yell, but I didn’t, because I was in the archives room,” Crawford told me recently. “I was the youngest person in there by at least 30 years,” he added, by way of explanation.
Next month Cole will twice publicly present his research on Robert Tannahill, the poet he’s been studying on and off for several years while working for a collaborative effort by Creighton University and Notre Dame University to digitize the work of famed British poets. The research he will present is the sort of thing you would expect to see from a doctoral student, maybe a young professor.
Except Cole is an undergraduate. Cole is 20. Cole is making all of the rest of us look very, very bad.
This Creighton student’s tie to Tannahill — who, let’s be honest, most of us have never heard of, because we were watching “The Golden Girls” — began in his sophomore year. That’s when he signed up for a class with Greg Zacharias, an acclaimed Creighton professor and Henry James scholar who is now working to digitize all of the famed writer’s letters.
Creighton is also digitizing the work of the Laboring Class poets, a loose group of English and Scottish poets from the 18th and 19th centuries whose most famous member is Robert Burns.
It was in Zacharias’ class that Cole first read Tannahill. He liked the poet’s focus on nature. He was intrigued by his brief career, one cut tragically short when Tannahill committed suicide at age 35. He decided he wanted to learn more.
Soon he was working on the digital humanities poetry project. He was scanning Tannahill’s work, translating the unfamiliar Scots language into English definitions for potential online readers. Cole did this for dozens of poems and songs. And then hundreds. He ended up repeatedly reading everything the Scottish poet had written.
He actually plotted all the places that Tannahill mentioned in his work, and made a digital map, so a scholar or a student can see where, geographically, the poet tended to focus his work.
He ended up knowing more about Robert Tannahill’s work than anyone you know.
“My opinion of his songs really went up,” he says. “I don’t know if Tannahill understood his gift for songs. They really represented what Scotland was at the time, I think.”
Then Cole got a research grant to study and digitize Tannahill’s letters. Last summer he flew to Scotland to do just that.
Most of the famed Scottish poet’s letters are kept in a bound manuscript at the University of Glasgow, so Cole started there. He read all the letters there. And then he traveled to several smaller libraries, which all had smaller numbers of Tannahill letters in their collections. He read those, too.
He ended up knowing more about Robert Tannahill the man than anyone you know.
“He’s been styled as a radical, but there’s no evidence of that,” Cole told me. “He’s a much quieter person than he’s been made out to be. He was very sensitive. He took criticism to heart. And I think the last couple years of his life, he was depressed.”
One June day, Cole sat in the archives room at the Paisley County Library. He was leafing through all the Tannahill stuff that the nice older women who work at the library had brought out for him.
That’s when he saw the copy of the sonnet. He didn’t recognize it, which was strange, because Cole knows every poem and song that Tannahill has ever written, practically by heart.
He got excited. He walked out to the main library, to leaf through the complete collection of Tannahill’s work.
The sonnet wasn’t in there.
Cole went back to the archives room. He looked at the sonnet again. He leaned back in his chair, and he raised his arms a little bit, and he worked hard not to yell and scare the two old men researching their family genealogy at the next table.
“It was kind of a personal ‘A-ha’ moment,” he says. “It really validated what I have been doing.”
Cole will present his research twice on campus this week as part of larger research presentations. He’s still working on the digital humanities project involving Tannahill, and will until he graduates in May. Then he’s headed to graduate school, he says.
He wants to keep doing digital humanities research. He wants to take masterful writing — writing sometimes in danger of being lost to history — and preserve it by placing it on the Internet, so that everyone can read it. In other words, he has very little time for The Golden Girls.
“Not many undergrads get to do something like this,” Cole Crawford says appreciatively.
It’s been rewarding, he thinks. Even more rewarding than getting really good at beer pong.
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