It’s that time of year again; leaves begin turning brown, students sojourn back to their universities, and (at least here in Texas) the weather remains a humid 90 degrees with no sign of abating. School is back in session and here at the Baylor Collections of Political Materials, we’re knee-deep in the papers of former Congressman Chet Edwards. Our archivists were delighted to find the “orientation packet” for the 102nd Congress’s freshman class, which included presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and current Speaker of the House John Boehner.
Of course, a politician of Edwards’s caliber had to start somewhere; these orientation documents show the kind of information a new member of congress in 1991 needed to know. Some of these are schedules and itineraries, designed to get congresspersons from event to event on time. These itineraries have great historical value and outline crises and issues of the day, such as the conflict in the Persian Gulf, the Fight Against Drugs, and Campaign Reform.
A hefty portion of these materials focus on informing new members of procedures and important issues they may not have encountered before being elected. Perhaps most interestingly, the packet provides several biographies of scholars in addition to articles and clippings on their areas of specialty. Members of Congress were expected to familiarize themselves with the academic view on Soviet-US Relations, the Savings & Loan Crisis, American Competitiveness, and other issues. Luckily, Congressman Edwards appeared to take succinct but dutiful notes, even recording the names of speakers. Many of these documents are inscribed with Edwards’s own handwriting, giving researchers a glimpse into his process.
While it’s impossible to equate the experience of the collegiate and congressional freshman, it’s striking how similar the two experiences appear to be. Both require attending lectures, taking notes, and reading academic articles. Both require meeting new, more learned colleagues and learning from them. Both require jumping feet-first into an unfamiliar environment and quickly adapting to new schedules, procedures, and ways of thinking. As our own students engage their peers at Baylor University, we can’t help but think that Chet Edwards felt many of the same emotions they feel today.