"True and Candid Compositions: The Lives and Writings of Antebellum Students at the University of North Carolina" began with a decade-by-decade search through the special collections of the University of North Carolina Libraries for materials written by students enrolled at the institution between 1795 and 1869. Beginning with the individual and family papers housed in the Southern Historical Collection (SHC), I made notes for myself concerning the contents of each file and photocopied documents that met four preliminary criteria for possible inclusion:
Though these criteria do not apply to all of the documents eventually included here, they provided sufficient direction initially to identify what would become a surprisingly large body of antebellum student writing. Once I had searched the SHC for each decade of this study, I consulted the Dialectic and Philanthropic Society Records housed in the University Archives (UA) for additional examples of writing by students whose letters, compositions, and diaries I had been reading. Proceeding a decade at a time helped me keep in mind the names, dates, and events shaping a brief period of the University's history and often resulted in my being able to match a student letter with his Society writings or to connect an early draft of a composition housed in the SHC with the final version filed in the Dialectic Society Records. During this early period of my research I also read relevant histories of the University of North Carolina, of other American universities, of the state of North Carolina, of public education in the South, of the education of African-Americans and women, and of nineteenth-century rhetorical theory and literacy instruction.
Between Fall 1991 and Spring 1994 the documents I had photocopied became the basis of a course assignment for graduate students enrolled in the Department of English's bibliography and research methods course. Team-taught with colleagues in medieval and American literature, all of whom were experienced editors, this course became an important workshop for discussing and solving the editorial problems presented by nineteenth-century documents written by students. Approximately 120 graduate students during this period received from one to three manuscripts that they were instructed to transcribe, emend, and annotate. Students also were told to prepare an introduction to the edited document(s) in which they offered a biographical sketch of the writer and discussed textual matters. These research assignments, which were submitted for a grade, not only introduced students to basic principles of documentary editing but also helped me develop an eye for nineteenth-century handwriting and strategies for presenting these materials. Some of the documents that were first edited by graduate students enrolled in the bibliography and research methods class are included with permission in this collection. The graduate students' names appear in the document's "About This E-Edition" information.