Daily Archives: January 7, 2019

1939 cartoon of caricatures at the NYPL reading room

The Space Between Researcher, Object, Institution: Building Collaborative Knowledge with Primary Sources


As archival and special collections resources become increasingly available in digital environments, our need to understand these documents in the context of their original material forms remains. As a result, techniques for teaching primary source literacy are a topic of rich discussion in special collections, archives, and library institutions, especially as information professionals consider ways to expand both research and readership. In light of the significant focus on undergraduate populations in many case studies on special collections pedagogy, this article discusses a year-long pilot program titled “The Collaborative Research Seminar on Archives and Special Collections” between the Graduate Center, CUNY, and the New York Public Library. To frame this interdisciplinary graduate seminar, which addressed both the theory and praxis of primary source research, I first discuss pedagogical frameworks, including Jacques Rancière’s critique of explication and Paulo Freire’s “banking model,” alongside Adrienne Rich’s teaching notes from her time at CUNY and Patrick Williams’ work on embodiment and archives. I then explore participant responses that address imagination, experimentation, and identification in the reading room—especially after the methods of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, a key contributor to this program. By enumerating the practices that informed and constituted the Seminar, I suggest that we might consider conversation, experience, and experimentation as fundamental values in special collections pedagogy.

As we envision the digital futures of books, manuscripts, and archives, there is no substitute for historicization: books and manuscripts are technologies too, and foregrounding this perspective allows us to contextualize our work with digital facsimiles, metadata, and resources. This conversation far predates our current moment of digital profusion; in Orality and Literacy (1982), Walter J. Ong compares Plato’s critique of writing to contemporaneous critiques of computation, noting that “once the word is technologized, there is no effective way to criticize what technology has done with it without the aid of the highest technology available.” Ong continues, arguing that this technology is not “merely used to convey the critique” but rather brings “the critique into existence” (78). To corroborate this: when we explore the implications of our material history, our work increasingly, though not exclusively, occurs within or alongside digital context. We write about rare and archival materials in digital spaces, create digital repositories of items, and use digital methods to analyze documents, from transcription services to x-ray spectroscopy. Yet handling, working with, and conceptualizing primary source materials are skills that can be gained through a combination of experience and instruction. Forms of digital access to these items do not circumvent the need for these skills, but only expand their value.

While there are decades of research on the concept of information literacy, the idea of “primary source literacy” is relatively nascent both as a professional term and as a template for specific pedagogical strategies (Carini 2016, 191). Elizabeth Yakel and Deborah Torres’ “AI: Archival Intelligence and User Expertise” (2003) posits an influential three-part standard: domain or subject-focused knowledge, artifactual literacy, and the idea of “archival intelligence,” which consists of understanding archival theory and practices, negotiating strategies to handle the ambiguity of primary sources, and creating meaning from the artifactual or material qualities of a source. In addition, professional organizations for libraries such as the Society of American Archivists (SAA), the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) and ACRL’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RBMS) have formed a “Joint Task Force on Primary Source Literacy” (2015), whose guidelines have been approved as of 2018. These guidelines, which consolidate decades of work among information professionals in these organizations, attest to the growing importance of quantifying and understanding the ways in which we teach within special collections, archives, and libraries.

Today, teaching techniques that animate these guidelines are most visible in case studies or digital toolkits (such as Brooklyn Historical Society’s “Teach Archives” in 2013), designed to illuminate the pedagogy of specific institutions, as well as the Society of American Archivists’ recent publication series, “Case Studies on Teaching with Primary Sources (TWPS)” (2018), which animates the “Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy” by the same organization. These resources are often extensive, such as Using Primary Sources: Hands-On Instructional Exercises (Bahde, Smedberg, and Taormina 2014), a text designed to share both activities and types of learning goals across a range of collections and populations (vii). These techniques and examples often emphasize hands-on, lesson-based learning, as opposed to presentations or “show-and-tells” that exhibit materials but do not provide instruction on how to analyze them or access them in the context of a research visit. As embodied by Past or Portal?: Enhancing Undergraduate Learning through Special Collections and Archives (Mitchell, Seiden, and Taraba 2012), the increasing volume of specific case studies across materials and institutions contributes to the robust conversation on pedagogy in special collections, particularly at the undergraduate level. However, beyond resources such as the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) report, Terra Cognita: Graduate Students in the Archives (2016), which surveys the findings of the CLIR Mellon Fellowships for Dissertation Research in Original Sources, few resources or literature exists for teaching primary source literacy to graduate populations, especially in a multidisciplinary context.[1]

At the graduate level, students often seek basic training that echoes aspects of Yakel and Torres’ (2003) idea of primary source literacy and includes negotiating materials in special collections and archives, navigating catalogs and finding aids that are primarily hosted in digital spaces, and managing information and notes once in the reading room. The types of questions that accompany graduate-level primary source literacy align with Yakel and Torres’ concept of “archival intelligence,” and are enumerated in the CLIR report Terra Cognita (2016): “Navigating Institutions,” “Negotiating Expectations,” “Documenting Processes,” and “Finding What You Need”—all essential aspects of archival research that involve technical knowledge, critical thinking, project management, and interpersonal skills. However, particularly in fields with a strong theoretical component, or in programs that require teaching, graduate students are also often primed for conversations not just on resources or skill development but also on special collections pedagogy itself. Special collections-based classes with graduate students are not just an opportunity to impart skills or information, but to critically examine “the archive” as a theoretical, conceptual, and literal space. As a result of the so-called “archival turn” in literary studies, for instance, sparked in part by Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (1995), the idea of the archive, which graduate students often theorize in their work, may have little in common with an institution they visit to conduct research that is staffed by humans (not theories), with unique management and custodial procedures, reflecting a history all its own. In particular, scholars and archivists have different stakes in their definitions of what constitutes an archive or special collection, and how these sites signify critically, conceptually, and literally. By speaking across these disciplinary boundaries, we can more equitably offer credit and share responsibilities for making the material traces of history visible and accessible to those who need them. And given the critical possibilities of this interaction, special collections pedagogy stands to benefit from a model in which knowledge of primary source work is not just transmitted, but actively co-created with a highly proficient and critically engaged population.

To frame key features of critical pedagogy specifically for work in special collections,[2] we might consider the standard “show-and-tell” class visit, in which a librarian or curator imparts information about objects on display, as an example of Paulo Freire’s “banking model” of education from his canonical Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970). In this model, knowledge is “bestowed” by those in possession of it unto those who do not, and students may only participate in “receiving, filing, and storing the deposits” of knowledge they are granted within the educational context (72). While these “show-and-tells” often have a highly affective component—since generally the most striking or historically important objects are featured, which can feel special or exclusive—they rhetorically foreground a teaching model in which the instructor is the gatekeeper or expert, and students the initiates. This model, based on explication, is the target of Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1987), in which he argues that a student who “is explained to” is susceptible to submit to a “hierarchical world of intelligence,” in which an explanation can always be obtained or offered as superior to the student’s own intuition and research (8). Rancière suggests that by explicating, instead of fostering the development of communal knowledge and conversation that he terms “universal learning,” we may well reinstate hierarchies of knowledge that certainly apply to the special collections reading room and should be challenged: the trope of the omniscient librarian, or the equally inaccurate librarian who solely pages items without interest or understanding.

If we consider the dynamic of the reading room—the physical space in which archival encounters occur—they are not dissimilar to the hierarchies of access that Rancière (1987) describes within learning: the uneven distribution of knowledge in the room, the presence of obstacles or facilitators that mediate the flow of materials that may yield knowledge, the differing institutional and disciplinary vocabularies on either side of the reference desk. Many of these discrepancies may have practical and professional purpose; for instance, security considerations require material to be distributed according to certain protocols, and standards for metadata and cataloging are often in place to facilitate physical access and storage of materials. In addition, many misperceptions about the figure of librarian or archivist as all-knowing or gatekeeping conceal the fact that staff often work with little resources, within hierarchies of supervision, and in light of their own interests or challenges regarding the material in their care.

However, the presence of these limitations offers us critical possibility, and likewise opportunity to re-examine their usefulness as policies. For instance, Patrick Williams’ (2016) work on critical library pedagogy cites Audre Lorde’s exhortation to examine not just books, but also our interactions with them, and asks what possibilities might unfold if we approach special collections work in this embodied way (111). Continuing in this critical pedagogical vein, we might also consider Rancière’s (1987) idea of intelligence as “the power to make oneself understood through another’s verification,” which includes dialogue, participation, and experimentation (73). Together, these theories suggest that rather than a pedagogical model that views student knowledge, particularly at the graduate level, as deficient and in need of augmentation, teaching models within special collections might collaboratively cover the technical basics expressed by Yakel and Torres (2003)—such as negotiating discovery systems, reading a finding aid, or mastering a research statement in the reference interview—while also allowing students and facilitators to build and develop collective knowledge that addresses both practical and conceptual considerations for primary source work in a digital era. In doing so, we can reframe teaching and outreach as acts of equity and access, expanding the historically narrow range of who feels empowered to conduct primary source work.

In what follows, I will suggest how this teaching model applies specifically to interdisciplinary graduate populations, and will discuss the technical and conceptual underpinnings of a year-long project titled the “Collaborative Research Seminar on Archives and Special Collections,” conducted with staff and support from the Graduate Center, CUNY and the New York Public Library. This project entailed numerous group meetings to discuss institutional partnerships, pedagogy, and student research, and culminated in two two-hour long seminars each semester, each hosting under twenty students, faculty, and staff that had been selected by application. While many aspects of this project used digital platforms—for promotion of the event, for applications, for communicating with participants, for locating relevant materials, and for follow-up communication with participants who elected to write blog posts about the experience—the core of this program was conversational, in-person, and interactive with materials. And after Ong’s (1982) discussion of using the highest technology available to understand those prior, this project uses digital methods—such as this article, as well as student blogs—to make its non-digital elements visible. Not as a preliminary to digital work, but as an essential interlocutor for it, the Seminar focused on cultivating the in-person conversations, relationships, and experiences that prepare participants for confident and critical engagement with primary source materials. Thus, I present this project as a case study, for the specificity the genre offers, but also invested in developing a pedagogical frame that considers two core principles—conversation and experience—that allow us to not only impart primary source literacy skills, but also reconsider the possibilities of what counts as “research” in our embodied encounters with primary sources.[3]

The Seminar


The Collaborative Research Seminar on Archives and Special Collections began as a project in the spring of 2017 to engage graduate students, faculty, and staff in academic and cultural institutions with primary source research methods, and to increase dialogue between the Graduate Center, CUNY, and the New York Public Library.[4] In early 2017, I developed the idea for the Seminar with Alycia Sellie, Assistant Professor and Associate Librarian for Collections at the Graduate Center, CUNY, as well as subject specialist for the English program. Adam Rosenkranz, Gale Burrow, and Lisa Crane (2016) at Claremont University, who document their own “Primary Source Lab Series” begun in 2012, cite this type of collaboration—between subject specialist and librarians—as an effective model for graduate-level primary source teaching. However, like many projects, this one began not with a literature review but with an immediate concern: as a specialist, my daily work consisted of collaborating with a variety of researchers and materials, while my evenings were spent working as a graduate student in the Graduate Center, CUNY’s English Ph.D. program. I wanted to consider a structure to share my experiences as a library specialist with my academic colleagues and also to create a platform for my Library colleagues to share their expertise, ideas, and sentiments about their work. This commitment to representing voices across institutions was comprehensive, and involved a Seminar committee that included the Graduate Center Library’s Alycia Sellie, Roxanne Shirazi, and Polly Thistlethwaite, the New York Public Library’s Jessica Pigza and Thomas Lannon, faculty advisors Ammiel Alcalay (Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative) and Duncan Faherty (The Early Research Initiative), the Center for the Humanities’ Kendra Sullivan and Sampson Starkweather, and Matthew K. Gold and Lisa Rhody from Graduate Center Digital Initiatives. Together, the committee negotiated pedagogical structure, the application process, and decisions that ultimately contributed to the collaborative nature of the program.[5] The Seminar was designed for the needs of an interdisciplinary and varied applicant pool, with the perspectives of numerous committee members, facilitators, and participants whose work addresses academia, radical archives, publishing, and special collections librarianship. As Marcus C. Robyns (2001) indicates, teaching primary sources beyond discipline-specific skills and knowledge allows us to envision “the archives [as] not only a repository of the past but also a challenging center of critical inquiry” with multiple interlocutors and facets, and the Collaborative Research Seminar sought to create an experience that spoke to this concept (365).

A key part of the Seminar’s pedagogy took up the primary source principles of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, begun in 2010. This publishing initiative, under the editorship of Ammiel Alcalay and consulting editorship of Kate Tarlow Morgan, in conjunction with staff from the Center for the Humanities, connects doctoral students and guest editors with projects that explore the archives of under-published and underrepresented authors of the twentieth century, as well as lesser or unknown aspects of well-known authors. The results are published annually and draw on a variety of authors from Langston Hughes to William S. Burroughs, Kenneth Koch to Toni Cade Bambara, Diane di Prima to Ed Dorn. As editor Megan Paslawski (2013) notes, the principle of Lost & Found is to “follow the person,” an ethos that Alcalay and the editors take literally—as in, visiting poets or the unexpected institutional and personal places their works lead—and also archivally. Instead of privileging scholarly conversations and secondary knowledge that categorizes materials, Lost & Found editors are encouraged to listen closely to the documents, engaging what their primary materiality might mean (8). Given Rancière’s (1987) Jacotot, whose teaching method rests on distributing literature and then engaging with it closely, carefully, and extensively without explication, Lost & Found’s exhortation to “follow the person” models a mode of both pedagogy and academic research centered on fidelity, community, connection. As Paslawski (2013) notes, this method “allow[s] more than words to be found” in its requirement that we examine what is there, listen to it on its own terms, and forsake traditional narratives about materials for the paths they indicate (9). This method encourages a different practice of engaging with archival materials, by fostering personal relationships with heirs and literary estates, former colleagues, and other archivists, editors, and scholars to generate new insights and interest in the subject. In particular, this entails “rescuing” literary figures from the way they have been historicized (or forgotten), in order to understand the person who actually was, and restoring the live-wire network of authors and collaborators instead of siloing authors by style or literary movement. While Lost & Found focuses on twentieth-century poetry that might broadly be considered as part of the New American poetry milieu (even as it challenges the value of such a categorization), its methods are applicable to a variety of primary sources—many of which we examined in the Collaborative Research Seminar itself.

As an essential teaching resource, Lost & Found has published archival materials on pedagogy that were generated by poets who taught at City University of New York, including Adrienne Rich, June Jordan, and Toni Cade Bambara. These poets were hired as instructors by Mina Shaughnessy, the Director of the CUNY SEEK Program (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge) in the late 1960s. This program, which came to City College in 1965 as a pre-baccalaureate program, sought to provide additional instruction and educational support to students from a more diverse range of communities, and to increase the percentage of African-American and Puerto Rican students at City College (Rich et al. 2013, 1). In a chapbook of her archival materials from this era, Lost & Found editors include quotations by Adrienne Rich of Paulo Freire, among numerous other critical pedagogy voices, as she writes her own powerful methods of teaching. In her “Notes, Statements & Memos on SEEK, Basic Writing & the Interdisciplinary Program (1962-1972),” Adrienne Rich writes of her class English 1.8:

The problem for the teacher is to make the term’s work supportive and relevant for each and every student: to help dislocate ‘blocks,’ to open possibilities of expression, to help each student as much as possible to become the kind of writer he is meant to be. It is not simply to turn out 15 people who can pass the English proficiency examination, although we hope that that will inevitably result. (Rich et al 2013, 18-19)

While Rich’s subject is writing, this type of pedagogy is widely applicable. Rancière (1987) expresses similar sentiments—“the problem is to reveal an intelligence to itself”—but Rich’s model is distinctly expressive and supportive, beyond a baseline of fostering student self-motivation and independence (28). As with the Seminar, we might think beyond activities designed to produce proficiencies (like Rich, while acknowledging that these are essential), but look ahead to the outcome of fostering the unique type of primary source researcher our students want to and need to be. As with Rich’s pedagogy, this type of mentorship is an act of equity in its potential to expand who believes themself to be a writer, or an archival researcher—and thus, a custodian and author of our material history.


As with any conversation on pedagogy, theoretical robustness depends on good implementation: this starts with understanding both learning goals and student needs. To learn more about self-reported student needs and interests, as well as manage enrollment numbers, the Seminar began its pilot year with an application process. Both the Graduate Center, CUNY, and the New York Public Library are considering how to contribute the resources necessary to continue, given that 117 students, faculty, and staff from primarily the Graduate Center, CUNY applied over the course of the pilot year in two application cycles. The volume of applicants attests to the need for this type of programming, and while the demand for the Seminar far exceeded our instructional capacity at the time, I connected with all applicants to provide additional resources and support for their work.[6] Expressing interest across a wide swath of disciplines, skill levels, and even academic status, the application results of the Collaborative Research Seminar foregrounded the need for pedagogy with an interdisciplinary audience in mind. Given that most case studies for special collections pedagogy focus on class-specific visits that have a set subject or topic, the Collaborative Research Seminar explores a teaching model that challenges us to give voice to interdisciplinary archival experiences.

The first iteration of the Seminar in Spring 2017 was hosted jointly at the Graduate Center Library and the Brooke Russell Astor Reading Room of the New York Public Library, with a cohort of 12 participants selected from 58 applicants. The second iteration involved 19 participants from 59 applicants, as an experiment to determine scalability of the pedagogical model. Most of the participants were graduate students, with one or two faculty members at each Seminar; the committee decided to prioritize graduate student applications and work towards a different model to specifically address the different needs of faculty. All participants from both sessions were given the opportunity to publish a blog, funded by the Center for the Humanities, about their experience and the items they examined at the New York Public Library, and to join the working group Primary Source, also through the Center for the Humanities. Given also the inability of the program’s structure to accommodate all applicants due to staffing and resources—a conflict at odds with the very mission of the program to increase access to special collections work—much remains to be seen as to the possibilities of this model.[7]

Each Seminar consisted of two sessions—held for two hours in the evening, two weeks apart. The first session was hosted by the Graduate Center Library and oriented participants towards specific questions and concerns in archival work. The second session was hosted in the Brooke Russell Astor Reading Room at the New York Public Library, and consisted of hands-on experiences with collection holdings. I worked with staff from the New York Public Library to curate objects from the second session in response to conversations and feedback from the first session, either around an area of research interest or a theme in archival work. Each session concluded with a short exit survey that participants completed on paper, containing basic response questions, including hopes for future sessions or information that was helpful or still being digested. To accommodate the variety of skill levels in the Seminar, participants also received a sheet on how to handle special collections material, as well as a hand-out on other Graduate Center and New York Public Library collections and resources available to them as their research progresses.

In the Spring Seminar, with a cohort of 12 students, Alycia Sellie and I led the initial session of the first Seminar with an open-ended discussion on archival work. Topics discussed included challenges with finding relevant resources, negotiating expectations in reading rooms, and collaborating with archival staff. The session concluded with small group work browsing NYPL’s Archives Portal and digital catalog to find items of interest for the second session. Participants wrote suggestions for second session on notecards and submitted them before leaving. After a debriefing meeting that included feedback from the Seminar committee, I worked with Thomas Lannon and Jessica Pigza to lead the second session. Using New York Public Library collection materials from multiple curatorial units, we conceived of research tables as “stations” that addressed specific fields of knowledge or types of archival materials—including institutional records, books and annotation, serial publications, family papers, lightly processed archival boxes, and others. Items were arranged by their designated theme on a table, where participants were invited to rotate either solo or with colleagues to examine the materials. After rotating through stations, participants reconvened for a large group discussion about materials they encountered. The session ended with completion of feedback forms, and an invitation for participants to stay involved by writing a blog post or joining the working group for Primary Source at the Center for the Humanities.

The Fall Seminar operated on a similar principle, although with a slightly larger cohort of 19 participants. In advance of the first session, the Collaborative Research Seminar committee distributed a list of readings to participants to assist in framing their Seminar experience, including introductions to the field of archives as well as accounts of specific experiences with primary source work (Appendix A). To accommodate a larger cohort of students, the first session drew on the rotating station model of the second session of the first Seminar. Staffed by Meredith Mann (NYPL), Tal Nadan (NYPL), Alycia Sellie (GC CUNY), Roxanne Shirazi (GC CUNY), Thomas Lannon (NYPL), and myself, the rotating stations covered four main themes. These themes, collaboratively developed and inspired by Roxanne Shirazi’s sharing of the CLIR report Terra Cognita (2016), included “Navigating Institutions,” “Negotiating Expectations,” “Documenting Processes,” and “Finding What You Need.” Participants rotated through the first three stations for short amounts of time, and then remained as a whole group in the final station—an exploration of archival vocabulary, New York Public Library discovery tools, and a working session where the group populated a shared Google Doc with items of interest as a way to experiment with collections discovery. The relatively high ratio of facilitators to participants allowed for a variety of pedagogical approaches within each station—from small activities to open discussion—as well as offered participants an opportunity to meet and connect with librarians at the Graduate Center and the New York Public Library.

The second session of the Fall Seminar followed the model of the Seminar’s first iteration, featuring a series of curated stations designed around groups of documents from the New York Public Library’s curatorial units of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. After rotating through a few stations, either collaboratively or solo, participants convened for a larger follow-up discussion. The session ended with completion of feedback forms, and an invitation for participants to stay involved by writing a blog post or joining Primary Source at the Center for the Humanities.

For both of the second sessions of the Seminar, material selection was an especially important component. We sought to not only choose generative items that spoke to multiple research possibilities, but to create a pedagogical framework in which participants could encounter these items with as little predetermination as possible. Given the interdisciplinary nature and varied skill levels of the participants, the principle of “listening closely” to documents on their own terms was key to the success of the hands-on portion of the Seminar. This was accomplished in part by mitigating expectations: in the application phase of the program, we asked participants to submit research interests, but reinforced that the Seminar was not a reference consultation and they were likely to encounter materials that did not speak to their current research topics. This openness was also facilitated by the manner in which participants were invited to encounter the materials themselves in the second session—by roaming from table to table, alone or among colleagues, for suggested ten-minute intervals.

Curated stations in the reading room had minimal didactics, generally only including a small slip that indicated whether or not items could be photographed for online distribution (as on social media networks, such as Twitter). For some archival materials, we would supply the finding aid or the catalog record as an additional object on the table in its own right, to facilitate the iterative practice of negotiating the physical object alongside its metadata. Participants were encouraged to learn about the materials in this exploratory manner by speaking with the session’s facilitators and their colleagues, as well as being attentive to the nature of the encounter itself, beyond how the item might apply to their specific research. We ended the second session with a framing discussion, that allowed us as a group to consider the possibilities and limitations of such an interdisciplinary openness to materials, and what types of encounters encourage increased comfort and skill with primary source work.

Specific examples of collection items from the first Seminar included Isaac Newton’s assistant’s edits on the Principia (1687), Wallace Berman’s innovative literary mail-magazine Semina, Sylvia Plath’s annotations of The Four Quartets, a copy of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair as a book-in-parts, Patti Smith’s notebooks juxtaposed alongside nineteenth-century commonplace books, a single box from the Timothy Leary Papers, Noah Webster’s correspondence with his daughters, among many others. These items, which range from rare books to periodicals, archival material to unique manuscript items, offered participants a variety of archival encounters to experience and discuss. Likewise, in the second session, selections included Muriel Rukeyser’s reading notes on Willard Gibbs, a collection of archival research done by Rukeyser; the mimeographed biweekly magazine, The Floating Bear, edited by Diane di Prima and LeRoi Jones; the San Quentin execution register; photographs by Jessie Tarbox Beals of the Health School at P.S. 40 in New York City in 1918, from the People’s Institute records; affidavits and inspector’s reports from Brooklyn and East Harlem from the Committee of Fifteen records; as well as documents relating to early printing in Peru, 1584-1628. Each of these stations presented a range of materials that, whether or not they directly addressed participants’ research field, afforded increased experience with the first steps of meaning-making with primary sources—to look closely, and listen to the documents.

This type of close attention was modeled in multiple ways across a single collection. The New Yorker records station, curated by Tal Nadan and Meredith Mann, contained a typescript of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and letters to the editor in response, a print copy of The New Yorker from the Library’s general research division, and a computer opened to the New Yorker Digital Archive database. Here, we encouraged participants to think of the different digital and paper materialities of these items and how they might serve varying forms of research. For instance, sometimes a searchable database of digitized items is far more expedient than searching individual items, depending on the research question. Through printouts of the digital catalog records and discussion of digital resources, we sought to underscore how different materialities address different research needs.

With material selections for special collections teaching, it is difficult to avoid the act of curation, which is traditionally associated with the “show-and-tell” format. Expertise and knowledge of collections is a valuable pedagogical resource, to frame disciplinary and methodological approaches to materials widely, as well as suggest the sheer variety of encounters that can occur in special collections. While the very act of creating stations constituted curation in the Seminar’s pedagogical model, the approach to material selection in conversation—noting its arbitrariness, its relationship to a librarian’s personal interest, and its value as an example of a type of record group—opened the idea of selection for questioning. In this way, by understanding that one must start somewhere for hands-on primary source work but that this act nevertheless predetermines the experience, the pedagogy of the Seminar used discussion to reframe and question the authority of material selection.

The final aspect of each iteration of the Seminar was post-assessment, a practice that is encouraged by Anne Bahde and Heather Smedberg (2012), who advocate for “measuring the magic” as an essential component to facilitate primary source literacy and build on Esther Grassian and Joan Kaplowitz’s (2009) instructional literacy assessments of reaction, learning, and performance assessments. These translate to three rhythmic questions: “did they like it?” “did they get it?” and “can they do it?” (156). To address this, the Seminar used a questionnaire assessment, which entailed completion of a paper exit survey after each session. For the initial session, questions focused on clarifying learning objectives and understanding how participants felt about the experience, and for the second session, the questions focused on the entire Seminar structure more broadly.

In terms of “did they like it”: all participants said they would recommend the program to a colleague, and when the second Seminar cohort was asked if their likelihood of using New York Public Library materials increased as a result of the Seminar, all answered affirmatively. The question of whether participants “got it” creatively appears in the resulting blog posts published through the Center for the Humanities, which I will address shortly. As for “can they do it”: the nature of graduate research is long and winding, with results diffused across publications, papers, and dissertations. Thus, while assessment is a key consideration, given the complexity of the materials and subjects we teach, metrics for assessment in graduate populations may ultimately constitute very long-term and qualitative information. In the case of the Seminar, while we have provisional information as to its reception and success, it may be too early to understand the impact on its participants and facilitators. What does offer extensive insight, however, are participant-generated blog posts that reflect on the experience.

Conversation and Archival Encounter

While the success of these Seminars in terms of quality of conversation, depth of thought, and general demand and interest is due to a special alchemy of enthusiastic instructors, participants, and diverse expertise, I observed two fundamental pedagogical features within the structure of the Collaborative Research Seminar. These two features—conversation, and what I will term the “archival encounter”—challenge the general protocols of the reading room in ways that are productive for both participants and instructors. In doing so, they offer an opportunity to rethink what is in fact occurring when we teach with special collections or work with primary source materials.

“The archive” is often an archetype of rules, silence, and prowess—quiet rooms with careful pencils, researchers with well-formulated questions, librarians as gatekeepers to the treasures. Even with proper training on and permission to handle rare items, students may, as Patrick Williams (2018) notes, appear “almost scared to move” (118). We might consider this timidity as a result of the aura of the materials themselves, as Williams discusses, and also the imposing aura of the institution—including reading room, policies, and atmosphere. These archetypes (and indeed, stereotypes) obscure many of the realities of reading rooms, from the intellectual labor of staff to institutional hierarchies and pressures, and deserve to be thoroughly questioned (if not outright debunked). Thus, to encourage conversation around methods, to invite participants to encounter materials without research questions, context, or any hope of being an instant expert, is to de-center the authority of the reading room and reference model of special collections. This act not only demystifies, but also reimagines what parts of the archival encounter might be considered research: emotion alongside analysis, touch alongside historical knowing.

In their assessment of an undergraduate-based special collections program, Melissa Hubbard and Megan Lotts (2013) reiterate the importance of responsiveness and experience in their program’s success, encouraging students to relate materials to their “own thoughts and feelings” as a way to “view themselves not only as consumers of information, but also as interpreters and creators” (32). Hubbard and Lotts describe a relatively familiar process to those who have worked in special collections: the realization that authority and answers are not to be uncovered and “consum[ed],” but rather forged. Like the methods of Rancière’s Jacotot, the experience of encountering primary sources—especially during a class visit, in the context of a seminar, or in early stages of research—defies simple explication or understanding and instead asks for more of the researcher: thinking, feeling, creating context. As Patrick Williams (2016) notes, the general focus on explication, or the “supplying [of] answers” in response to materials, is often transformed when the reading room becomes a classroom space, “relieved by the overwhelming impulse to notice the odd or unexpected attributes of the materials with which we share space” (118). Williams’ word, “relieved,” is critical to the affective experience of this type of encounter—when we examine items that are not part of our fieldwork, that float without context for that initial moment of encounter, the experience of archival work is suddenly not about context or answers, but about immediacy. The moment of the encounter becomes a close orbit between the object and the ability to make sense of its form, our feeling.

This intensity of encounter often leads to imagination and identification as powerful forms of archival knowing, such as those described by Iris Cushing (2017), a participant in the first Seminar who returned to the Berg Collection to work on The Floating Bear, a rapidly and frequently published mimeograph newsletter edited by Diane di Prima and Amiri Baraka from 1961 to 1971. As part of her investigation, Cushing considers the question of context by examining the variety of authors represented in The Floating Bear, noting how the material document collapses the temporal distance between her and her subject, as well as creates a force-field of focus unto itself. Writing about these poets, she notes:

Those people are very close (their work is in my hands) and yet very far away (as it was made over half a century ago). In the Bear the names of the authors are placed after their work, so if I didn’t recognize the poem, I wouldn’t know who wrote it unless I turned a few pages. There’s no table of contents. The poem is the total focus of attention. I begin to read, my eyes wandering over the plain, uncluttered space of the page. (Cushing 2017)

While Cushing’s observations are specific to The Floating Bear’s decisions in layout and publishing, her statement that “the poem is the total focus of attention,” in the absence of paratextual information such as a table of contents, author biographies, or even secondary research in the moment of the encounter, might be a metaphor for the type of archival encounter that occurred in the Collaborative Research Seminar more generally. Cushing follows the imperative of the poem as “total focus of attention” as she states, “I begin to read,” offering a succinct methodology for archival work: find the focus in the material itself and encounter it on its own terms. Doing so, as she finds, leads to imaginative possibilities, generated by this specific materiality:

Sliding the very first issue of the Bear out of its white envelope, I found myself holding a stapled packet of 8 ½ x 11” pages, creased long ago from being folded in half for mailing. There was a purple 3-cent stamp in the top right corner, and a typed mailing label above the masthead, bearing the address of the poet John Wieners. Instantly I envisioned the young poet on a day 56 years ago, checking his mail, loosening the staple holding the newsletter closed (a staple now rusty with age) and sitting down to read it. (Cushing 2017)

Here, Cushing demonstrates not only the act of physically investigating the material for signs of its context—the fold in the paper, the stamp, the address—but also a key recipient, the poet John Wieners, wiggling the staple that holds the mimeographed pages closed. This act of imagination requires context—such as knowledge of Wieners’ status as a poet in the New American milieu, as well as the importance of The Floating Bear for creating poetic community when poets were far-flung, often broke, and hungry for each others’ work. However, as Cushing narrates, the act of sitting in a special collections reading room, imagining the addressee at a kitchen table, attests to the particular magic of primary source work—like crystals, these objects may hold energy of eras prior, memories, and experiences that we might tap into through imagination and experience. This collapse of boundaries is critical in the archival encounter, and the implementation of stations in the Collaborative Research Seminar intends to create space for these moments.

Writing on Valerie Solanas’s annotated SCUM Manifesto held in the Manuscripts Division, Collaborative Research Seminar participant Cory Tamler (2017) notes that

During the Collaborative Research Seminar we tried to think beyond the limitations of the practical and to imagine what might be possible within archives. I got fired up by instances of time leaving marks in an archive, on an object; an object’s temporal layers. What drew me to the annotated SCUM Manifesto is the way it contains two characters who are the same person. It’s a record of a conversation between the author and herself, but it’s a performative conversation, enacted for an audience (but what audience?) that was already historicizing her through public characterizations of her sexuality and mental health. It resists the freezing action of historicization, existing within time dynamically.

Together, conversation and “the encounter” in the Collaborative Research Seminar might echo Rancière’s (1987) idea of the material book as a site for “verification” based on its material qualities: “the materiality of each word, the curve of each sign” (15). When enmeshed as a pedagogical strategy, conversation and experience focus the instructors or facilitators not on verification of the student’s “knowledge, but the attention he gives to what he is doing and saying” (32). The second session is particularly instrumental for this process, since materials are presented as stations that participants can engage at will. Instructors may choose to circulate and linger around their favorite stations, sharing conversation with participants, or might abstain from revealing contextual details. The focus is not on transmitting knowledge, but on framing our experiences in terms of the material conditions that inspire them.


At its core, the move to create practical resources and theoretical constructs around the particulars of special collections pedagogy rests on a political and ethical imperative. The movement to reconsider radical, inclusive pedagogy and decenter the economic and cultural hierarchies that restrict access to education reminds us of important precedent for destabilizing the idea of who certain institutions are meant to serve. Libraries, from the nineteenth century onward, have served as symbols of democracy (even though they may be more accurately seen as testaments to benevolent capitalism)—the New York Public Library’s latest slogan is “Libraries are for Everyone,” and now, “Knowledge is Power.” At the same time, a public institution like the New York Public Library also contains reading rooms for rare books and archives, whose use is governed under significantly different conditions than the rest of the Library. While these practices are ultimately important for the safe preservation of materials, they nevertheless create mystique, and in some cases intimidation, for those who are not used to the rhythms of special collections—students who have not been told or taught that the materials of primary sources are theirs to examine, analyze, and place within history.

For instance, Cecilia Caballero’s (2017) “Mothering While Brown in White Spaces, Or, When I Took My Son to Octavia Butler’s Exhibit,” raised extensive conversation around institutional knowledge as a fundamental gatekeeping concern in primary source literacy, and in particular the political stakes of such uneven distribution of this knowledge. Caballero notes that while she applied to a fellowship to gain access to the Octavia Butler material at the Huntington Library, she took her unsuccessful application as an indication that she was not able to access the archive as a researcher and had to instead attend an exhibition of Butler’s work to examine it in person. While the Huntington Library, as well as many other major collections, permit researchers with a reference application alone, the fact that this only transparent to those already “in-the-know” poses a challenge to truly diversifying the researchers and research that occurs in special collections. Thus, to reconsider the role of special collections pedagogy as a fundamental act of access, and an act of making reading rooms more diverse and equitable, we must think critically about ways we might teach primary source research skills, including how to make meaning around objects, the institutions that hold them, and the community of people they engage.

As special collections continue to invest in digitization—whether that means making catalog records or finding aids available online, digitizing images of collection materials with accompanying metadata, or sharing born-digital materials in reading rooms and through online reference correspondence—we must consider how these materials are currently being used and also how they might possibly be used in the future. In determining the future of digitally-inflected archives and special collections, there is no substitute for conversations with the research populations we hope to serve and expand. To that end, the Seminar demonstrates through its teaching model, through student blogs, and through this very article, that the fundamental piece of context for primary materials is not necessarily secondary sources, nor is it an understanding of the differences between digital and analog archival objects. Rather, by understanding our embodied selves, we might collectively acknowledge the depth of knowledge that primary source practices afford.

It is my hope that the Collaborative Research Seminar might serve as an extensible and adaptable format for creating community and conversation between libraries and graduate institutions, as well as a model for an interactive approach to special collections pedagogy. While this collaborative model is an investment, for both institutions as participants, and requires extensive administrative support, as well as time spent teaching, coordinating student blogs, and following up with individual reference support, it nevertheless affords a starting point for thinking through specific practices of special collections pedagogy with graduate populations. In particular, it suggests that special collections pedagogy for graduate students is well-served by taking full advantage of methods that foreground conversation and experience, so that we might use interdisciplinary and multi-level classrooms as an occasion to listen closely to our primary sources and the ways they challenge institutional and disciplinary categories. In doing so, we will expand the possibilities of primary source work for our next generation of researchers, and welcome their fresh insights to conversations in higher education and cultural institutions alike.


[1] While this may be in part a result of changing disciplinary training, or lack of institutional resources on both sides, it may also be in part because of the high expectations of professionalization in graduate programs today—that graduate students should already have these abilities, even though the literature on undergraduate primary source literacy strongly indicates that these skills are not taught at that level evenly or consistently.

[2] While special collections, archives, libraries, and even museums all constitute different repositories for artifacts and records that we might consider primary sources, I refer specifically to library contexts in this article, and use the term “special collections” as the most capacious and broadly-applicable term, since they often contain a mixture of rare books, literary manuscripts, and archives as part of research collections curated and designated for primary source work.

[3] During this article, at times I may foreground the first person “I” to indicate aspects of my professional and personal experience that shaped this program as well as my critical response to it, including my status as a doctoral candidate at the Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY), during planning; as a literary manuscripts specialist at the New York Public Library’s Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature; and as an editor of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, a publishing collective for primary source materials. It is my hope that this specificity will make clear the veritable alchemy that constitutes primary source pedagogy, as well as encourage others to reflect on their unique capacity to create similar projects with their own strengths and intentions.

[4] While the special collections of the New York Public Library have a longstanding relationship with CUNY students, and for decades have partnered with professors and staff to facilitate class visits, no formal structure exists to consistently and annually link the Graduate Center, CUNY, and the New York Public Library on the specific topic of primary source literacy and practices. Given the size and scope of both of these institutions, as well as the variety of student and instructor needs from special collections class visits, this is of course understandable. At the same time, the Seminar’s collaborative design, with two sessions that span the Graduate Center Library and the manuscript and print-based special collections of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, fills a gap in graduate and professional-level instruction on primary source research methods across these institutions, and considers how a sustainable model of engagement might look in future iterations.

[5] Additional teaching was provided by Tal Nadan, Meredith Mann, and Emilie Yardley-Hodges from the New York Public Library.

[6] This additional support took the form of a digital resource with a list of New York Public Library and Graduate Center resources, individual reference consultations via email or in person, and an invitation to join an open-ended working group titled “Primary Source,” with the Center for the Humanities.

[7] This Seminar is not a sole effort within the New York Public Library or the Graduate Center Library to consider special collections pedagogy; numerous staff are engaged with this question, across divisions and disciplines, at any given time. Rather, I intend to examine the practical and theoretical considerations of this particular event while making visible as much as possible the labor contributed by staff members from both institutions.


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APPENDIX A: Advance reading list for Fall 2017 first session of Collaborative Research Seminar.

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About the Author

Mary Catherine Kinniburgh works at the New York Public Library, where she specializes in literary manuscripts and exhibitions. She earned her doctorate from the Graduate Center, CUNY, where her dissertation focused on libraries belonging to poets like Charles Olson and Diane di Prima in postwar America. She has served as a Digital Fellow at CUNY and Columbia Libraries, a Teaching Fellow at Brooklyn College, and is currently an editor for Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative.


Collaboration Adventures with Primary Sources: Exploring Creative and Digital Outputs


The Archives & Special Collections (A&SC) Department at the University of Pittsburgh endeavors to play a central role in instruction involving the use of primary source materials. Since 2013, A&SC developed and continues to build upon a dynamic instruction program through active outreach and recruitment to invite faculty to bring their classes to visit the reading room and engage with primary sources. We collaborated with faculty to design assignments and in-class exercises that incorporate primary sources and allow students to generate and share original research. By presenting a series of case studies, the authors will share how they experimented with new ways to present research using primary sources through social media, zines, data sets, and visualizations: what we call “creative outputs.” This article highlights the experiments, challenges, and lessons learned in hopes of advancing undergraduate research with primary sources and supporting an environment of student innovation.


The Archives & Special Collections (A&SC) Department at the University of Pittsburgh endeavors to play a central role in instruction involving the use of primary source materials. In this article, Jeanann Haas, the Coordinator of Special Collections and Preservation, and Jennifer Needham, an archivist, discuss the variety of ways they have worked together to engage students in primary source research, including working with faculty to develop assignments that result in blogs, zines, data sets, and visualizations, what we call “creative outputs.” Since 2013, A&SC developed and continues to build upon a dynamic instruction program through active outreach and recruitment to invite faculty to bring their classes to visit the reading room and engage with primary sources. A&SC collaborate with faculty to design assignments and in-class exercises that incorporate primary sources and offer students the opportunity to generate and share their original research and discoveries in creative ways. This article presents a series of case studies in which students worked with primary sources and used digital humanities methods to present their research in creative ways.

Recent literature on archives and special collections reveals that the information literacy movement impelled the profession to champion participatory and collaborative learning with primary sources, thus departing from the show-and-tell model of instruction where students simply look at rare books and archives as librarians and archivists talk about them (Carini 2016, 192; Garland 2014, 326). Participatory and collaborative learning allows archivists and librarians to collaborate with faculty to support student researchers in analyzing primary sources to create, produce, innovate, and contribute to scholarship in creative and visual ways (Vong 2016, 150; DeSpain 2011, 30). Creating opportunities for students to engage with primary sources using digital humanities methods not only advances research-based learning but also fosters collaboration and communication among faculty, librarians, archivists, and digital humanists (Davis, McCullough, Panciera, and Parmer 2017, 482). In this article we share our experiences collaborating with faculty to support their pedagogical goals, design assignments that transcend the traditional research paper, and challenge students to produce creative outputs that further visualize and showcase their research.

Zines as Creative Outputs

In 2017, an English Department professor contacted A&SC to discuss possibilities for incorporating primary source research and creative projects in the two courses that she was teaching in the upcoming semester: “Women in Literature” and “Science Fiction.” The professor assigned students to create a zine or write a final paper about alternative publishing methods that would draw on class readings and discussion, personal interests, and materials consulted during their visit to A&SC.

During their visit to the A&SC reading room, students consulted science fiction fanzines, science fiction pulp magazines, feminist zines, and underground and alternative press newspapers in order to gain an understanding of pre-internet modes of communication and creative labor. As students explored the materials they completed a worksheet, designed by the professor, to prompt close examination of the materials. They were asked to consider the publisher, format, content, imagery, advertisements, and other interesting features.

Students enrolled in “Women & Literature” consulted feminist newspapers and newsletters from the 1970s including titles such as WomanSpirit, Broomstick, and Allegheny Feminist. They also reviewed lesbian feminist materials from the 1990s, comic books with women protagonists, and science fiction fanzines created by women. During their class visit, students studied the materials and considered the different literary approaches that female authors employed as well as women authors’ many perspectives on political upheaval, personal quandaries, and oppression in different literary and societal traditions. The “Science Fiction” course worked with a variety of science fiction and comic fanzines such as Cosmic Reflections, Granfalloon, Feinzine, and Cerebro. Students also worked with science fiction pulp magazines such as If and Galaxy, and superhero and science fiction comics like Superman, X-Men, Flash Gordon, and Buck Rogers.

Students in both courses returned to the reading room outside of their class time to perform a closer reading in preparation for their final assignment. The aim of the zine assignment was to encourage students to create a self-published and original work in response to the materials that they researched and consulted. Creating zines is a “reflection-based activity” that models a “student-centered approach to learning” (Vong 2016, 63). Students were challenged to think critically about the ideas, values, and events not necessarily covered by the mainstream media. In addition, those in “Science Fiction” considered the history of fandom and the subculture and emergence of the genre as a whole.

The students’ creative output was engaging and enlightening. The zines produced by students in both courses included reflections on class readings; editorials; original fiction, poetry, and art; and repurposed articles and headlines. Many of the zines modeled the common zine aesthetic and incorporated magazine clippings, repurposed illustrations, collage, and other DIY features. Students focused on gender representation in science fiction, women in the scientific community, lesbian culture and community, sexual harassment and assault, and mental illness. For the “Women & Literature” course, one zine addressed sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement, discussing the historical nature of contemporary debates. The author hopes that their zine will reach a wider audience and provide support for those who have experienced sexual assault.

A student in the “Science Fiction” course created their zine to address the lack of LGBTQ+ representation in mainstream science fiction and included a short story and reading list of what they believe to be quality queer content in books, television, and video games. They modeled the cover art after a specific issue of Cosmos Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine that they consulted in A&SC and tried to emulate text produced on a typewriter. Elated by the final assignment, the faculty member showcased the zines at Pitt’s Digital and Handmade Showcase. She plans to explore this type of assignment in future courses. Taking inspiration from the professor and her assignment, A&SC hopes that this non-traditional method of scholarly output is something that can be further utilized by other professors. With the students’ permission, the class gifted the zines to the A&SC to enhance the zine collection, preserve their creative output, and serve as an example of student-produced work.


Figure 1. A selection of zines created by the classes, Women & Literature and Science Fiction

The zine collections also inspired another student who received a Brackenridge fellowship which provides undergraduates with a summer stipend so that they can devote themselves full-time to a creative or analytic research project. While other scholarship awardees were directed to submit a research paper as a final deliverable, this student negotiated to create a series of zines. She consulted with the science fiction, comic, and feminist zines as well as the contemporary zine holdings at Pitt’s Frick Fine Arts Library and Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Public Library. Interested in placing the zine, as a format, in historic context, she conducted research throughout the summer in order to publish a variety of zines based on her findings that outline zine history, how to make a zine, the social significance of the medium, and a personal zine reflecting upon her research experience. In addition, she hopes to start a zine club at the University in order to provide direction, resources, and space to students interested in self-publishing their own zines.

Digital Humanities Application

Many faculty have expressed interest in using digital humanities methods to provide opportunities for students to share research as an alternative to the traditional research paper.  Special collections, archives and rare books can provide students with the resources to inform compelling digital humanities projects. At the University of Pittsburgh, the Digital Scholarship Services (DSS), part of the library system, provides support for digital humanities teaching and research. They work closely with A&SC to recommend digital humanities applications to students and professors. For example, the Composing Digital Media course requires that students, “compose digital media while exploring the rhetorical, poetic, and political implications of multiple writing platforms. Students will learn how to compose a range of critical media objects using web-authoring languages, text, sound, images, and video in proprietary and open-source software” (University of Pittsburgh, 2018). The professor required students to visit A&SC to perform a close reading of science fiction fanzines, comic books, 1970s rock magazines, and feminist and gay press materials from the 1970s and 80s. The assignment asked students to categorize content based on a predetermined set of tags relating to gender and race, organized in the form of a digital timeline. She wanted the visual representation of the text to help students contextualize the categorized content over time. In addition, the faculty member wanted the final product to benefit A&SC. Many of these materials have not been digitized or indexed, so the professor hoped the project would render the materials more discoverable. DSS recommended that she use Timeline JS because it is a free, easy to learn software application that can quickly produce a digital timeline.

During the students’ initial visit to A&SC, the professor and archivist led a Timeline JS tutorial and introduced the content that would be incorporated into the timeline. After the students consulted the materials, the class regrouped and decided to assign tags including trans communities, objectification, sexual norms, diversity, empowerment, and animosity. Anticipating challenges, the professor required students to compose one timeline as practice before delving into the full assignment. Students voiced concern that the categories were too broad and difficult to tag and worked together to choose new tags that they believed would more accurately describe the content and settled on overcoming objectification, call to action, defying gender roles, verbal violence, and racial diversity. Although the new categories were still broad, they were nuanced enough to aid in the completion of the assignment.

The professor divided the class into groups of 3-4 students and directed them to work with a specific format such as fanzines, rock magazines, or feminist newspapers. Each student read three articles from their assigned format and assigned tags, took photographs, and entered metadata about these publications into a Google Spreadsheet. The spreadsheet detailed the bibliographic information along with the tag. Students also drafted a synopsis of each article that would position their chosen reading in the context of the tag. Timeline JS generated the timeline using the information on the spreadsheet. Examples of the timelines include Science Fiction Fanzines: A Collection of Thoughts, Theories, and other Things and Pop Rocks.

Battershill and Ross recognize that “many activities in the digital humanities require adaptability, creativity, and openness” (Battershill and Ross 2017, 5) and urge practitioners to keep an open mind and learn from those things that don’t always turn out as expected. Due to the complexity of the project, a data visualization tool may have been better suited, but visualization tools tend to require time and effort to learn beyond the two-week scope of the project. Nevertheless, this exercise still proved to be valuable in exposing students to a new digital humanities tool that challenged them to use close reading to produce a digital timeline. Furthermore, the assignment empowered students to participate in the decision-making process, negotiate and build consensus, and modify the categories based on their research and initial experiences with primary sources.

Social Media

While timelines are a great way of visualizing key events within the context of a specific period of time, multimodal social media blogs also serve as effective tools for telling a compelling narrative.  Composing a blog post is an important exercise in clear and concise writing, and it also allows students to share their work with a larger audience. In addition, when students compose multimodal blogs related to collections, they help to publicize these collections to potential future researchers.

Several years ago, A&SC started using the blog platform Tumblr to highlight collections in an engaging and visual way. Student employees served as the content creators and researched and wrote blogs based on their interests, drawing inspiration from A&SC collections. Recognizing that Tumblr could also be a great way to engage classes, A&SC invited faculty to consider assigning blog entries as alternatives to regular writing assignments.

In one example, we helped a professor design a multimodal blogging assignment in which students would collaborate with local community groups to help them memorialize their histories. This was part of a course offered in the History of Art and Architecture Department (HAA) titled, “Nationality Rooms: Visualizing Heritage in Pittsburgh.” The Nationality Rooms are thirty classrooms, located in the University of Pittsburgh’s historic Cathedral of Learning, that depict the national and ethnic groups that immigrated to Pittsburgh and also serve as University classrooms. Committees consisting of community representatives from across the world were formed to design, fundraise, and support the construction of the classrooms to represent different cultural heritages. The host committees’ planning, design, and construction for each of the Nationality Rooms are documented in the archives and include meeting minutes, correspondence, architectural drawings, and photographs. The course required each student to choose a specific room and research that room’s archive in order to identify how the host committee wanted to memorialize and represent themselves. Along with a paper and oral presentation, students wrote a short blog post using their paper abstract. For the last two weeks of the semester we featured one post per day on the A&SC Tumblr site. Some of the topics included, “Keeping Greek Heritage Alive during World War II,” “Showcasing Japan’s Cultural Past to Facilitate American Interest,” and “The Politics of the Syrian-Lebanese Nationality Room: Memorializing Unity and the Arabic-American Identity.”

The posts were written well, however, they focused more on the room as a whole and not on one aspect of the room in conjunction with a primary source from that room’s archive. Also, they did not include images of materials from the archives, but rather images of the rooms. From this experience, we learned that the students required more explicit directions. Although the instructions for the assignment were communicated to students verbally during the initial class visit, it would have been better to provide the students with written instructions outlining the requirements for the post.

Some faculty maintain their own class blogs and assign students to create posts using  A&SC materials. A&SC hosted an Introduction to Creative Writing class to look at scrapbooks from S. Leo Ruslander. Solomon Leo Ruslander (1879-1976) was a tax lawyer in Pittsburgh who compiled thirteen scrapbooks which document his professional and family life. The scrapbooks contain letters, photographs, event programs and invitations, postcards, newspaper clippings, and ephemera that document his wedding, family vacations, and material relating to local and regional associations[1]. Interacting with personal artifacts such as diaries draws researchers closer to the object’s history and cultural significance by evoking personal reflections and emotion (Lanning and Bengston 2016, 9). The professor asked students to spend time consulting with the scrapbooks and to each create their own, individual, creative portrait of Mr. Ruslander based on the information gleaned through the scrapbooks. Using WordPress, the class compiled their essays and created an online class magazine titled Seventeen Ways of Looking at S. Leo Ruslander. This project motivated students to embrace different roles throughout the creation process such as author, editor, reviewer, and publisher, while simultaneously establishing a meaningful connection with primary sources (DeSpain 2011, 26).

Faculty assign blogs to teach students how to articulate their research in shorter writing exercises that ask students to write succinctly and for a popular audience. In addition, assigning hashtags to their posts enable students to consider ways to enhance discoverability. Students often include links to their blog posts in job applications to demonstrate their writing skills. In addition, the blogs raise awareness of collections as posts are “liked” or “reblogged” by other individuals, libraries, or museums. They are indexed and discoverable through search engines such as Google, rendering these stories available to future researchers. To encourage faculty to incorporate blogging into their writing assignments, A&SC has created guidelines to assist faculty in scoping projects and has provided information about formatting, content length, and images.

Independent Student Research and Digital and Creative Outputs

In addition to class blogging assignments, independent student research opportunities teach students how to perform research using primary sources. As part of a larger library initiative and in partnership with Pitt’s Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR), A&SC offers the Archival Scholar Research Awards (ASRA) to encourage undergraduate scholars and researchers from the humanities to engage in original research using archives, special collections, and primary sources at the University of Pittsburgh. The ASRA program creates opportunities for students to connect with faculty mentors as well as with librarians, archivists, and curators who support student research and introduce students to collections. ASRA students also engage in collections work that supports their individual research projects and enhances the  discoverability of library and archival resources.  A&SC strives to find ways to incorporate creative outputs such as producing zines, timelines, social media, and other digital applications into the ASRA students’ collections work while simultaneously giving the faculty mentor a glimpse of what might be possible to include in their class assignments.

The ASRA program has made it possible for A&SC to witness the enthusiasm and passion that a researcher has when they detect a sign or clue that provides greater insight into their research. An undergraduate Biology and Philosophy major and ASRA recipient studied the archives of David Hull because it was a newer collection that had never been researched. Hull was one of the philosophers who founded the modern subdiscipline of Philosophy and Biology. The student began her research by focusing on the correspondence files in the Hull Papers to situate Hull’s thinking among twentieth-century philosophers of science within the century’s wider cultural movements. She carefully documented major themes, correspondents, events, locations, and dates that she encountered in the archive in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. The student also created Tumblr posts to raise awareness about the Hull papers and document the progress that she was making in her research.

Through her research, this student witnessed firsthand the debates among philosophers, and scientific philosophy theories that differed from the “winning” side. Based on this research, the student concluded that subject material taught in general philosophy classes is often from the viewpoint of the “winning” or most popular side of a theory. The correspondence files also revealed how the philosophers networked with one another, discussed ideas, and formulated their theories. From this data, she identified patterns in the letters and developed the thesis that Hull’s ideas synthesized the opinions of many different philosophers and that the best ideas are the products of cooperation. She worked closely with the DSS to find a tool that could visually support her theories and that she could embed in her poster for an end-of-term presentation. Figure 2 illustrates how she was able to carefully examine the manuscripts, recognize and interpret patterns in the author’s writings, create a narrative, and draw powerful conclusions about Hull’s work (Carini 2015, 194). In addition, she used the data in her Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to create a visualization using the data visualization and analytics application Tableau.


Figure 2. Visualization chart detailing themes in Hull’s correspondence

This student’s experiences and discoveries demonstrate the importance of original research with primary sources. This student is one of the first researchers to use the David Hull papers and she made some significant discoveries that other researchers can build upon; she and her Faculty Mentor published a paper titled “David Hull Through His Own Philosophical Lens” focusing on this research and made it available in D-Scholarship, the University of Pittsburgh’s institutional repository.

Another success story from the ASRA program revolves around three students who received the ASRA award to conduct research using the Black Panther, the newspaper published by the Black Panther Party. The students each conducted their own individual research using the Black Panther. They studied the Black Panther Party’s foreign involvement and support, the origins of the publication’s visual vocabulary, their use of propaganda, and the artwork of Emory Douglas, Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party. At the same time, students consulted every issue of the physical newspaper that was held in Pitt’s archive and recorded information about the publication in a Google spreadsheet. Their goal was to create a dataset that would aid their research and provide insight into collections that are not necessarily discoverable through the library’s catalog and allow researchers to collect, process, and critically analyze data using quantitative methods. They recorded information about the inventory and missing issues, the cover art and accompanying headline, the back cover art, and any other art found within each issue. In addition, students noted articles about women’s health, women in prison, women’s leadership within the party, and the party’s international connections. The faculty mentor, who supervised the students’ research,  consulted this data set in order to design a new course on conflict and art. Further, this data set will also benefit A&SC in assisting other faculty interested in incorporating the newspaper into their curriculum.

The intent is to make this Black Panther newspaper dataset public so future researchers can better locate information. As Chester et al. recognize, “masses of data and statistics are no substitute for close reading, but they create an opportunity for individual scholars to pose new questions to sets of data never before assembled” (Chester 2018, 67). However, in retrospect, A&SC needed to coach the three students to adhere to the same format when entering their data.  As a result, the dataset is inconsistent and requires more revision before it can be released to the public. The project did successfully identify content for class visits and has the potential to feed into other digital humanities projects. When students engage in primary source research, they move away from being consumers of information to producing, creating, and contributing their theories and ideas to the greater body of scholarship. A&SC also supports students engaging in independent research or internships under the direction of faculty. These autonomous pursuits offer a little more freedom to experiment with creative outputs and are not necessarily confined to a specific class or curriculum. To this end, Pitt librarians seek out academic departments who wish to offer undergraduate students internship opportunities and place them in A&SC for course credit. These internships support original research and provide a mechanism for students to share their research in creative ways. For example, an undergraduate student focusing on Museum Studies focused her internship on Japanese printmaking and consulted Japanese prints in Pitt’s University Art Gallery, Carnegie Museum of Art, and in A&SC’s Walter and Martha Leuba’s print and broadside collection. The student compiled detailed information about selected prints; enumerated, re-housed, and labeled prints; and investigated unattributed prints for the eventual digitization of this material. She aimed to create a virtual exhibition of Japanese prints using Omeka, a free and open source web-publishing platform for content management and online exhibit creation, and to promote the Leuba collection prints and her research through Tumblr. Given her personal research focus on twentieth-century Japanese woodblock prints, she specifically took interest in a piece by Kiyoshi Saitō (1907-1997) titled Clay Image. The student realized that the people featured in the print were actually the hollow figures made from terracotta clay, called Haniwa, which she learned about that previous year in an Asian art class. She then shared this new insight on her blog and featured this print on her Omeka site. Through this internship, the student became familiar with the Japanese prints within Pitt’s collections and became proficient in using Omeka to help communicate her research discoveries. In addition, the student’s contributions will help lead to increased discoverability of the prints.

Digital Microscopes

In addition to encouraging creative outputs, A&SC encourages students to interact with collections through in-class exercises. When a professor teaching Making the Book brought his personal digital microscope to a class visit, A&SC immediately realized the potential to engage students in a method of active learning often reserved for the biological sciences. When the department purchased five microscopes[2] for class use, faculty enthusiastically requested that they be made available for their students. The ability to see cotton fiber threads in 17th-century paper or to distinguish a woodblock print from a lithograph allows students to identify and study the materiality of paper, ink, and printing methods.  Peter Carini notes that “Primary source materials come with special and unique challenges, particularly in an era when young people are increasingly electronically literate but have less and less interaction with physical documents” (Carini 2016, 193). Classes focusing on the history of the book appreciate being able to see and actually touch older books, compare paper to parchment, witness real evidence of animal skins in books, and study features like marginalia, decorations, watermarks, and clues to ownership and provenance such as library stamps, call numbers, annotations, etc. Faculty feedback indicated that the digital microscopes and physical interaction served as a wonderful complement to the theoretical discussions in the classroom by allowing this first-hand, philological experience. The microscopes helped students better observe examples of stereotyping, electrotyping, linotype, and rotogravure to understand how the press was mechanized. Similarly, they compared  different machine-made papers such as wood pulp, typescripts, dime novels, and mass market magazines to hand-made paper found books produced during the hand-press period and fine press books created during the Arts and Crafts movement.


Figure 3. Researcher using a digital microscope to view text from a 16th century book



Figure 4. Microscopic images of rubrication and a woodblock print[3]

Unfortunately, A&SC was not prepared for the demand for the microscopes (including out-of-class assignments which required students to come in on their own time to capture and save screenshots) and lacked the hardware needed to operate them.  The professor expressed serious concerns about asking students to use the digital microscopes on their own personal devices and download the software, but the library-owned devices proved unreliable and difficult to troubleshoot. We learned we must fully test equipment prior to implementation and we must manage expectations of faculty and students. The department will invest in dedicated devices to use with the digital microscopes and ask students to save captured images to a flash drive or upload them to Cloud storage.


By collaborating with other colleagues such as faculty, community organizations, subject specialists, and Digital Scholarship Services staff, A&SC facilitates and supports a wide variety of research endeavors in both traditional and creative formats. These collaborations support student research and allow students to explore not only how to perform research using primary sources, but how to disseminate their research through the creation of zines, digital humanities projects, and blogs. In addition, it helps us share information about our collections and services.

When learning new technological skills, students run the risk of concentrating on learning the new technology rather than prioritizing the research process. Based on these experiences, we advise others interested in these kinds of collaborative assignments to allow plenty of lead time in experimenting with innovative pedagogical approaches, especially when they involve new technologies. In the case of the digital microscopes, the microscopes were extremely popular, but we were not prepared for the hardware challenges. Make certain that the technology enhances the experience with primary sources and does not overshadow the lesson and become the focus.

A&SC wishes to build upon anecdotal feedback that we receive from faculty and students to create  a more formalized assessment program based upon the joint Association of College & Research Libraries/Rare Books & Manuscript Section–Society of American Archivists Joint Task Force on Primary Source Literacy. A&SC hopes to determine whether students are walking away with new knowledge of primary sources, how we can better collaborate with faculty, and how we can better reach ambitious goals around student success, retention, and graduation rates set by the University of Pittsburgh. Peter Carini argues that a standard is needed to “provide a collection of goals for planning class sessions for students…help shape conversations with faculty about fitting primary source teaching into the broader curriculum…and allow archivists and special collections librarians to better assess the work they do in their class sessions” (Carini 2016, 196).

Finally, A&SC acknowledges how important it is for students to become creators and producers who can make use of primary sources and digital applications in order to contribute their theories and ideas to the greater body of scholarship. Their discoveries and research outputs shed light on what modern archival research looks like in the 21st century.  Collaborations among librarians, archivists, and other experts improve student learning by encouraging innovative teaching through combined expertise and new technologies (Davis, McCullough, Panciera and Parmer, 2017, 483). These collaborations offer different perspectives, diverse ideas, and expertise from across disciplines and functions. After a series of collaborations with faculty to design assignments and in-class exercises that incorporate primary source research, we have discovered that encouraging creative outputs and the use of digital applications can foster student innovation.


[1]Description of collection taken from finding aid.
[2]Bodelin Technologies ProScope EDU 5MP High Resolution Desktop USB Microscope.
[3]Example of rubrication from Hugues of Fouilloy’s De Claustro Animae, 14–?, and Ptolemy’s Almagest, 1515.


Battershill, Claire, and Shawna Ross. 2017. Using Digital Humanities in the Classroom: A Practical Introduction for Teachers, Lecturers and Students. London; New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Carini, Peter. 2016. “Information Literacy for Archives and Special Collections: Defining Outcomes.” Libraries and the Academy 16, no. 1: 191-206.

Davis, Ann Marie, Jessica McCullough, Ben Panciera, and Rebecca Parmer. 2017. “Faculty-Library Collaborations in Digital History: A Case Study of the Travel Journal of Cornelius B. Gold.” College & Undergraduate Studies 24, no. 2-4: 482-500.

DeSpain, Jessica. 2011. “On Building Things: Student-Designed Print and Digital Exhibits in the Book History Class.” Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Scholarship and Pedagogy XXII, no. 1: 25-36.

Garland, Jessica. 2014. “Locating Traces of Hidden Culture in Rare Books and Special Collections: A Case Study in Visual Literacy.” Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America 33, no. 2: 313-326.

Lanning, Robbyn Gordon and Jonathan B. Bengston. 2016. “Traces of Humanity: Echoes of Social and Cultural Experience in Physical Objects and Digital Surrogates in the University of Victoria Libraries.” Cogent Arts & Humanities 3, 1-19.

MacDonald, Susan Peck. 2007. “The Erasure of Language.” College Composition and Communication 58, no. 4: 585-625.

Michelle Chester, et al. 2018. “Old Text and New Media: Jewish Books on the Move and a Case for Collaboration.” Digital Humanities, Libraries, and Partnerships: A Critical Examination of Labor, Networks, and Community. Edited by Robin Kear and Kate Joranson, 67.  Cambridge: Elsevier Ltd.

Miller, Kelly E. 2014. “Imagine! On the Future of Teaching and Learning and the Academic Research Library.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 14, no. 3: 329-351.

University of Pittsburgh. 2018. 2017-2018 Undergraduate Catalog.  Retrieved from https://catalog.upp.pitt.edu/

Vong, Sylvia. 2016. “Reporting or Reconstructing? The zine as a medium for reflecting on research experiences.” Communications in Information Literacy 10, no. 1: 62-80

About the Author

Jennifer Needham is a Research Librarian at Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, MA. After working five years at the University of Pittsburgh Archives & Special Collections as an archivist, in October of this year, she decided to move back to her native New England and accepted a position at Deerfield Academy. Jennifer earned her bachelor’s from Smith College in 2010 and her MLIS from the University of Pittsburgh in 2011.

Jeanann Croft Haas is the Special Collections Coordinator in the Archives & Special Collections (A&SC) Department at the University of Pittsburgh.


How a Digital Collaboration at Oberlin College Between Archivists, Faculty, Students, and Librarians Found Its Muse in Mary Church Terrell, Nineteenth-Century Feminist and Civil Rights Icon


This collaboratively authored article explains how a pedagogical partnership at Oberlin College between archivists, faculty, librarians, and students led to Digitizing American Feminisms (americanfeminisms.org), a project begun with pedagogically designed class assignments. The cooperative work between archivists, faculty and students models the synergy that can be developed in thoughtfully developed projects. The resulting website includes over thirty documentary student-created projects featuring introductory essays with transcriptions and annotations of primary materials highlighting feminist histories from the Oberlin College Archives. Demonstrations of student learning, these documentary editions also democratize access to previously unpublished and obscure materials that enhance knowledge of the diverse dimensions of First and Second Wave American feminisms. Key in this multi-year project was the rediscovery of 1884 College graduate, feminist and civil rights advocate Mary Church Terrell, whose reclamation coincided with a major gift of papers by her heirs to the Oberlin College Archives. Recovering the history of Terrell inspired students to connect past and present, stimulated a conference on activism for alums and students, and helped move the College to rename its main library in her honor as it looks ahead to a digital future that will connect and empower diverse learners, faculty, archivists, librarians, and all those interested in social change.

Sixty years after her death, social justice activist and 1884 Oberlin College graduate Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954) stood at the center of a team of archivists, faculty, librarians, and students at her alma mater. Inspired by Terrell, we engaged in a series of collaborative projects that demonstrated the potential of digital history to rewrite dominant narratives and inspire activist interventions on our campus and beyond. Born to freed slaves in Memphis, Tennessee, Terrell fashioned an illustrious career as founding president of the National Association of Colored Women, charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and relentless leader in campaigns for women’s suffrage and racial equality. Although Terrell herself never encountered “digital humanities,” she became central to our cooperative work on the student-created web-published document projects that comprise Digitizing American Feminisms: Projects from Oberlin College, and she inspired further interventions for social justice on our campus and beyond. This “View from the Field” describes the collaborative digital archival assignment crafted for an Oberlin College history class and its afterlife, including the naming of Oberlin’s Main Library for Mary Church Terrell.

Our project originated in Fall 2012, when archivist Ken Grossi and Professor Carol Lasser attended a workshop on “Teaching the Archives,” sponsored by the Alliance to Advance Liberal Arts Colleges. Together, Ken and Carol designed an assignment for Carol’s history course on American feminisms in which students would transcribe items in the Oberlin College Archives and create “mini-editions”—small documentary projects presenting both digitized images and their transcriptions to make these materials widely available in digital form to public audiences. This assignment built on Carol’s earlier experiences helping students understand the relationship of past and present by creating “How Did Oberlin Women Students Draw on Their College Experience to Participate in Antebellum Social Movements, 1831-1861?” for the website Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000. In this assignment, Ken saw the opportunity to publicize and make widely available materials from lesser-known and underutilized but significant collections.

Archival research is the heart of Carol’s history pedagogy. She places the exploration of primary materials at the center of a “history compass,” which she asks students to use to develop their historical thinking. Specifically, the compass has three intersecting axes:

Axis “A” runs between seeming opposite reasons for why we study history: to recover the pastness of the past and to recognize the presentness of the past. Axis “B” connects the contrasting poles of historical causation: contingency, with its emphasis on free will and individual agency, and determinism, with its emphasis on the role played by forces beyond individuals’ control. Finally, axis “C” stretches between divergent methodological positions: the need for research in primary sources to locate evidence and establish historical facts and the need to construct historical interpretations in dialogue with other scholars. (Kornblith and Lasser 2009, 2–3).

Figure 1. Image of a “History Compass” with “Axes of Historical Analysis” at center and six spokes with arrows extending outward: “Contingency,” “Constructed Interpretations,” “Presentness of Past,” “Determinism,” “Factual Evidence,” and “Pastness of Past.”

As an archivist, Ken carefully preselected collections with diverse, accessible, and engaging materials, and flagged points of interest. For example, in the Frances Walker-Slocum Papers, he showed students the program for her pathbreaking 1976 piano recital of African American music at Oberlin. Ken also shared the courtship letter Ruth Alexander wrote to her future first husband describing her efforts to capture a porcupine on film, which enticed students to pursue a project on this multi-dimensional woman of extraordinary drive. Another team took great interest in an 1860 letter from Jamaica written by single missionary Lucy Woodcock to her brother. This focused engagement with specific documents was crucial given the time limits of the busy semester, during which students were also exploring the many interwoven narratives of American feminisms.

The archival assignment was broken into several parts to scaffold the learning goals that develop students’ historical thinking. Each student was assigned to a research team to produce their “mini-edition” based on a particular collection in the Oberlin College Archives. Composed of three students, each team skimmed collections in a special archival session at the beginning of the term and identified their preferred collection. Each individual was responsible for transcribing 500–2,000 words from a particular document or series of documents, which entailed slow, careful reading. In addition, each student produced a heading for their document(s) with identifying information (creator, date, place, type of document), and a 150–300 word introductory note underscoring the importance of context. Every document required appropriate annotations to identify elements that might be new to readers. Each team also cooperatively produced an introduction to their mini-edition, about 500–1,500 words in length, explaining the project’s overall significance and demonstrating their ability to interpret the past. Finally, each group had to produce a bibliography, which highlighted how present interpretations are built on past constructions. Grappling with unfamiliar people, phrases, and ideas, students learned to analyze the distance between past and present.

After Ken conducted an introductory session on archival research methods, students returned regularly to the archives to receive further one-on-one assistance in navigating their collection and related resources. They learned to use finding guides, identify sources and citations for footnotes, and manage digital versions of scanned archival documents. Many students made particular use of the special Monday evening hours at the archives, scheduled to accommodate their hectic days.

Ken and Carol noted appreciatively that students improved their efforts when their assignments could be read by a general audience far beyond their classroom. Yet, while excellent, the completed student projects did not always meet the standards for digital publications on a scholarly website. To improve the quality of these mini-editions, Ken and Carol used local Mellon grants targeted at digital projects plus important supplements from Oberlin College to hire trios of student assistants, primarily recruited from the class, in the summers of 2015 and 2016. As the student assistants improved the quality of these digital mini-editions by incorporating new documents, additional visuals, and even sound recordings, they refined their historical thinking skills and developed editorial expertise. One student focused on the digital layout of our project, eventually guiding us toward the use of WordPress, preferred for its appearance and functionality, especially the ease with which Word documents could be migrated to its platform.

Figure 2. Homepage for Digitizing American Feminisms.

Through their work on Digitizing American Feminisms, the student assistants refined their historical analysis skills. For example, one team of student assistants curated and analyzed the correspondence between antebellum Oberlin African American alumna Lucy Stanton Day and the American Missionary Association. In the correspondence, Day and the association members debated her suitability to serve them at the end of the Civil War. The team of students teased meaning out of cryptic exchanges and came to appreciate the vocabulary of the past on its own terms (Hoak et al. 2015). Another group of students analyzed the courtship letters between early Oberlin students James H Fairchild and Mary Kellogg. The students were horrified by sentences revealing abolitionists’ unreflective participation in racialized culture. Through their analysis of these letters, the students grappled with language and context, eventually coming to terms with the distance between—and proximity of— past and present (Kummer-Landau et al. 2015). The students focusing on Frances Walker Slocum, Oberlin’s first tenured female faculty member of color, pointed out the heartbreaking contradiction that she was shunned by other women teaching in the conservatory, even as the Women’s Movement came into its own (Kummer-Landau et al. 2016).

In February 2015, Oberlin students Sarah Minion, Natalia Shevin, and Michaela Fouad connected past and present through their work on Mary Church Terrell, applying her quest for social justice to current struggles. As Natalia and Sarah later reflected,

Four months before we began our research, in November 2014, prosecutors in Ferguson, Missouri, had chosen not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the murder of Mike Brown, which reignited national Black Lives Matter protests. On our campus, Black students made myriad demands on the College (Stocker 2014). As we joined protests in Oberlin and Cleveland, we were also making our way through Terrell’s then-modest materials in the Oberlin College Archives. Almost immediately, we saw how experiences of racism like those we now witnessed at school and in national headlines had, in earlier times, motivated Terrell’s life-long pursuit of a more just world, especially for African American women. Discovering, selecting, transcribing, and digitizing Terrell’s papers at the Oberlin College Archives brought her with us into the present at a critical moment. Terrell became for us at once a testament to the ambitious spirit of Oberlin and a guide for who we must strive to be as students, administrators, faculty, staff, and alumni.

When we pored over Terrell’s files, we noticed, stuck between her letters and manuscripts, the business card of Russell Thomas Edwards, a lobbyist in Washington D. C. While Edwards and his relationship to Terrell remain unclear, the phrase he composed in jaunty, deliberate script across the front of his card became our inspiration for understanding Terrell’s tenacity: “You can’t keep her out.” It served both as a warning to all who attempted to silence Terrell in her relentless challenges to institutional barriers that obstructed the advancement of African Americans and women, and as an acknowledgement of her accomplishments in doing exactly that. It spoke to the many ways in which Terrell seized access to the very institutions that tried to keep her—and her commitment to racial and gender justice—out.


Figure 3. Introduction to March Church Terrell project on Digitizing American Feminisms website.

In an effort to replicate for our readers our own experiences in the physical archive we used Edwards’ words to title our mini-edition (Fouad et al. 2015). We drew documents from different boxes and different collections to tell our story of Terrell’s confrontation with Oberlin College administrations, as well as with local and federal policy-making agencies. We explored the flexibility of the digital space to construct a coherent narrative from disparate documents, allowing us to highlight Terrell’s simultaneously compassionate and critical relationship to her alma mater. Terrell honored the place that Oberlin College occupied in her own life story and in abolitionist history, but, at the same time, held administrators accountable for its subsequent “back-sliding” on racial justice (Terrell 1914). To allow readers to see this for themselves, we transcribed each document in our project in full. Yet we acknowledge our influence on the narrative through our selection, interpretation, and authoring of introductions to the documents.

We hope her life and words, presented in our digital exhibit, will continue to inform bold progress at Oberlin College and to inspire us as we strive to be active alumni and citizens.

Sarah and Natalia continue to honor Terrell’s legacy—to be unyielding and courageous in the necessary work for social justice.

Their digital work had yet further repercussions on our campus. In a remarkable twist of fate, just after the completion of this class project, Alison Parker, professor of history at the College at Brockport, SUNY, at work on her scholarly biography of Mary Church Terrell, reached out to connect Oberlin students and faculty with Terrell’s heirs Raymond and Jean Langston. In her conversations with the Langstons, Parker emphasized the importance of Terrell’s archives to students, faculty, and staff at Oberlin, and the Langstons chose to donate a number of Terrell’s papers, which remained in their possession. This gift then inspired collaboration between Oberlin’s Africana Studies Program, chaired by Professor Pam Brooks, and the Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies Program, which Carol then chaired, resulting in a Spring 2016 conference entitled “Complicated Relationships: Mary Church Terrell’s Legacy for 21st Century Activists.”[1] Joined by the Departments of History and Comparative American Studies, the Library, the Alumni Association, the Oberlin Alumni Association Of African Ancestry, and others, this celebration of the “homecoming” of Terrell’s papers brought together scholars, students, and alumni to explore our histories and our futures. Thinking with Mary Church Terrell, the conference pondered how she could help us understand engagement, respectability, and activism in the digital age. We asked what Terrell’s synthesis of pragmatic and strategic approaches to advancing civil rights and suffrage could teach us about approaching social justice work today.

Mary Church Terrell lingers on the Oberlin campus. In July 2016, newly appointed Director of Libraries Alexia Hudson-Ward could not understand why, as she arranged her books in her spacious office, one volume, Mary Church Terrell’s autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, kept tumbling off her shelves. As Oberlin’s first African American and second woman library director, Alexia was deeply impacted by Terrell’s 1896 admonition to pursue “the acquisition of knowledge and…the cultivation of those virtues which make for good” (Terrell 1898, 8). Soon Alexia learned of a movement on campus to honor Terrell’s legacy by renaming the Main Library after her. To her great joy—and with support of the president, key administrators, students, and faculty—the board of trustees voted to approve the Mary Church Terrell Main Library.

In preparation, Oberlin’s librarians rolled out a further digital initiative, Mary Church Terrell: An Original Oberlin Activist. Raymond and Jean Langston gifted additional Terrell papers to the archives during the naming ceremony. Considered together, these collaborative efforts to recover the voices and visions of former Oberlin activists underscore how digital technologies can help shape historical memory.


Fouad, Mickaela, Sarah Minion and Natalia Shevin, eds. 2015. “You Can’t Keep Her Out”: Mary Church Terrell’s Fight for Equality in America. Accessed December 12, 2018. http://americanfeminisms.org/uncategorized/you-cant-keep-her-out-mary-church-terrells-fight-for-equality-in-america-1911-1949/

Hoak, Lisa, Dan Quigley, and Essie Weiss-Tisman, eds. 2015. “I Shall Have Your Sympathy, If Your Judgment Refuses Me Your Support”: Lucy Stanton Day, the American Missionary Association, and the Politics of Respectability (1864). Accessed December 12, 2018. http://americanfeminisms.org/uncategorized/i-shall-have-your-sympathy-if-your-judgment-refuses-me-your-support-lucy-stanton-day-the-american-missionary-association-and-the-politics-of-respectability/

Kornblith, Gary J. and Carol Lasser. 2009. “Introduction: Reflections on Textbooks and Teaching.” In Teaching American History: Essays Adapted from the Journal of American History, 20012007, edited by Gary J. Kornblith and Carol Lasser. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins.

Kummer-Landau, Eve, Kasey Ulery, and Joanna Wiley, eds. 2015. “You Will See With What Freedom I have written”: The Courtship Correspondence of James H. Fairchild and Mary F. Kellogg. Accessed December 12, 2018. http://americanfeminisms.org/you-will-see-with-what-freedom-i-have-written-the-courtship-correspondence-of-james-h-fairchild-and-mary-f-kellogg/

Kummer-Landau, Eve, Jenny Sledge, and Kasey Ulery, eds. 2016. “Frances Walker-Slocum’s Brilliance and Advocacy: Bringing Black Classical Composers to the Forefront of Oberlin Conservatory.” Accessed December 12, 2018. http://americanfeminisms.org/frances-walker-slocums-brilliance-and-advocacy-bringing-black-classical-composers-to-the-forefront-of-oberlin-conservatory/

Terrell, Mary Church to Henry Churchill King, January 26, 1914, Papers of Henry Churchill King, Oberlin College Archives, Recor Group  2/6, Box 72. Accessed December 12, 2018. http://americanfeminisms.org/ayou-cant-keep-her-out-mary-church-terrells-fight-for-equality-in-america/document-2-segregation-in-oberlin-college-dormitories/

Stocker, Madeline. 2014. “Students Fight for Academic Leniency.” The Oberlin Review, December 12, 2014.

Stocker, Madeline. 2014. “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot: Students Protest Systemic Racism, Police Violence.” The Oberlin Review, December 5, 2014.

Terrell, Mary Church. 1898. The Progress of Colored Women: An Address Delivered before the National American Women’s Suffrage Association at the Columbia Theater, Washington, D. C., February 18, 1898, on the Occasion of its Fiftieth Anniversary. Washington, DC: Smith Brothers.

About the Authors

Ken Grossi is Oberlin College Archivist and a member of the Advisory Board of Project STAND: Student Activism Now Documented.  He provides instructional sessions, presentations, and research assistance in support of the use of primary source materials for teaching, research, and scholarship.

Alexia Hudson-Ward is the Azariah Smith Root Director of Libraries for Oberlin College and Conservatory. Ms. Hudson-Ward holds an M.L.I.S. from the University of Pittsburgh and a B.A. degree in English Literature and African American Studies from Temple University, and she is currently a Ph.D. student in the Managerial Leadership in the Information Professions program at Simmons College.

Carol Lasser, Emerita Professor of History at Oberlin College taught and published on nineteenth-century American history and women’s history before retiring in 2017.  She is, most recently, joint author, with Gary Kornblith of Elusive Utopia: The Struggle for Racial Equality in Oberlin, Ohio (Louisiana State University Press, 2018).

Sarah Minion graduated from Oberlin College in 2017 with majors in Politics and Comparative American Studies. Interested in the nexus between grassroots community organizing and meaningful policy change, she currently works at the Vera Institute of Justice.

Natalia Shevin is an early childhood educator in New York City. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2017 and recently published a document collection about Mary Church Terrell in the online journal, Women and Social Movements in the United States.

Printed pages, bound with a ring; top page includes a landing spaceship and a bulldog mascot.

From Page to Screen and Back Again: Archives-Centered Pedagogy for the 21st Century Writing Classroom


This paper describes the efforts of three instructors to incorporate archival research into first-year and advanced undergraduate writing courses. Inspired by recent scholarship on the value of archives-centered pedagogy in rhetoric and composition, we participated in the second cohort of the University of Georgia’s Special Collections Libraries Faculty Teaching Fellowship program, an effort to help faculty learn best practices and methods for using primary source material held in our Special Collections Libraries. In the program we developed courses that ran during Academic Year 2017–18: two First-Year Composition II courses and one upper level writing course, Writing for the World Wide Web. We found that working with archival material in writing courses allowed students to remix, appropriate, and curate the past as they identified new avenues for exploration in the unanswered questions and creative provocations presented by the historical record. In addition, the collaborative and active nature of the archives-based composition process helped build an awareness of the social nature of writing and the material properties of texts that are essential for critical 21st-century literacy.


In 2017, we participated in the University of Georgia’s (UGA) Special Collections Libraries Faculty Teaching Fellowship (SCLFTF) with a common goal of using archival collections and research methods to improve student writing. The fellowship offered us access to the expertise of the archivists and the space of the library for our student population in courses that we developed over the course of the program. As Wendy Hayden (2015, 404) has noted, “One challenge to integrating archival research into undergraduate courses has been the lack of practical advice and training in archival research provided by the field.” UGA’s archival Teaching Fellowship  program provided us with crucial training in navigating the collections, working with finding aids, and understanding the “archival and library principles that support robust discovery and integration of relevant special collections materials” (Center for Teaching and Learning, n.d). During Spring 2017 semester, we each developed writing courses that would introduce students—both first-years and upper-level English majors—to archival research.

In this article, we describe the resulting archives-centered courses that we ran during Academic Year 2017–18 and discuss what we see as the most significant implications and opportunities for writing pedagogy that emerged from our experience. More specifically, we focus on the way this work foregrounded the technologies and materialities of texts and the collaborative and social nature of writing activities. In our courses, students, instructors, and librarians worked together to assemble and recontextualize archival materials through varied lenses and to produce new collaborative and multimodal texts that drew on that material in different ways, not necessarily simply as sources to be cited, but as inspirations for new ways of thinking about the past and future. Using archival research also gave our students the opportunity to think in new ways about how library-based material can produce new questions for exploration and how rare books and manuscripts can inform and inspire textual form and delivery systems in the digital age.

A key question for us was, “What does this kind of focus on textual materiality and physical interaction with primary texts bring to the table for writing pedagogy?” We observed that archival work is not, as typically depicted, solitary. As Matthew A. Vetter has noted, instructors who use the archives must collaborate with the librarians and often with outside organizations in charge of the archives as well; as such the authority in the classroom is dispersed throughout a community that is able to include and inspire the students (2014, 36–37). In each of our courses, we, the instructors, could provide some guidance but not prescribed rules for interaction with the archive, nor could we predict the outcomes of the class research.

The instructor generally curates the archive in an undergraduate setting, encouraging the students to work collaboratively with the texts to decode unfamiliar media. In addition, all work must be done at the archive, in reading rooms with strict rules, all of which takes reading out of the private space and into a social one. In her consideration of how to tap into the social affordances of digital media in scholarly publishing, Kathleen Fitzpatrick (2007) reminds us that “the technology of the book, and the literate public with which it interacted, produced a general trend toward individualizing the reader, shifting the predominant mode of reading from a communal reading-aloud to a more isolated, silent mode of consumption.” Classroom archival work shifts the focus back to reading as a communal act, serving as a model for cooperative writing. Fitzpatrick notes that “texts have thus never really operated in isolation from their readers, and readers have never been fully isolated from one another, but different kinds of textual structures have given rise to and interacted within different kinds of communication circuits.” One of these communication circuits is the work the archivist put into developing an archival collection. A well-developed collection has been built with an eye toward how the material is connected. So, by the time the collection is available to the public, the networks between the materials have already been established. Thus, archival work allows for an alternative “communication circuit” between readers and writers—both a return to more traditional (communal) modes and forward movement toward new modes of communication enabled by new media. In addition, by bringing different but related materials together, the archive allows students to see how diverse texts and types of media are in conversation with one another.

Following these textual considerations, we wondered, “How does archives-centered writing pedagogy promote the kinds of collaborative, curatorial, and recombinatory skills that are critical to digital age composition and literacy?” Building on the idea of archives-centered pedagogy as social and networked production and dissemination of knowledge, archival work in the undergraduate writing classroom also engages students in developing what the National Council of Teachers of English defines as 21st century literacies, including collaborative problem-solving, information management, and multimodal textual analysis and production skills. We were also inspired by the London Recut project, which uses digital film archives to allow communities to co-curate and remix archival material based on affinity and interest. As Recut’s Andrew Chitty notes (2011, 418), “Opening up film and video archives for use (not just viewing) by the wider public may create new narratives and interpretation, but it might also create new uses discovered by the users themselves.”

All of our courses were engaged in a kind of “meta-remix” composing process in that we asked students to mash up, combine, and translate primary source materials in a variety of ways, whether through historical reenactments, creation of mini collections/exhibits, or inspiration for digital textual design plans or their own zine compositions. These meta-remixes pressed students to find sources that provoked them to rethink their preconceptions rather than simply finding sources to use as evidence for preconceived arguments. In what follows, we provide individual case studies of our courses and conclude with some final thoughts on the benefits of archival work in writing courses.

Saxton’s ENGL 1102: “Scandal in the Archives” in First-Year Composition II

I was drawn to the archives and the archival Teaching Fellowship because of the ways in which archival materials demand investigative and engaged interaction. Susan Wells (2002, 58) has posited that the archives “prompt us … to resist early resolutions of questions that should not be too quickly answered”; this resistance might take the form of refusing answers, unearthing new depths or expanses for research, or necessitating new forms of expression to encapsulate its contents. My hope was to find materials that might inspire students to dig deeper into their sources to better analyze and contextualize them, but also to become comfortable with more open-ended research.

I coupled the archive’s lack of closure with the similarly open theme of scandal. Scandals, by their nature, offer a sense of mystery; even from the same smattering of facts, the connections between those facts and conclusions from them vary. Scandals disrupt modes of meaning and, as such, are interesting sites to examine rhetorical and contextual meaning. As Adrienne McLean notes, scandals are “discursive constructions as well as events, and it matters who controls the selection and omission of their narrative details” (2001, 2). Moreover, the culture in which the scandal occurs matters; what might be a scandal in 1900 might not elicit a reaction in 2018. In this way, scandal allows for a thorough investigation of who controls the narrative and how it is received; scandals, the students learn, resist fixed facts but instead show the ways in which meaning is constructed.

The archives and the focus on scandal forced my students to grapple directly with this openness but also to rely on their classmates to build a new network of knowledge. For example, the first scandal we investigated followed the archived media flurry surrounding the disappearance of an 18-year-old servant, Elizabeth Canning, in London in January 1753. Despite the hundreds of witness statements, thousands of pages of speculation, and incredibly detailed court documents, there is no authoritative document revealing the truth of what happened to Canning during the 28 days she was missing. Working in teams, students shared responsibility for the hundreds of pages of texts on the event. Yet, even with the accumulation of information, my students noted that their sources required them to read with a critical and active eye to determine what was important. Such analysis was built through collaboration as each group had to work together to create meaning—filling in factual background for their peers but also offering theories of how best to understand the event.


Figure 1. Students encounter a carefully preserved edition of Henry Fielding’s treatise supporting Elizabeth Canning as well as Crisp Gascoyne’s defense of Mary Squires. (Image courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library/University of Georgia Libraries.)

In addition to researching the scandal, the students were asked to inhabit the texts, taking on the roles of Canning supporters, defenders of the accused Mary Squires, or undecided “jury” members. Borrowing from the Reacting to the Past model, students searched the documents to find evidence and viewpoints that would cast doubt or bolster Canning’s story. Because of the breadth of the archive, group members were forced to collaborate, sharing information and determining a “narrative” of the event or, in the jury’s case, questions about the most puzzling parts of the evidence. This research culminated in a day of gossip as the Canning and Squire supporters attempted to sway the jury. The exercise asked students to take control of the archives and experience the scandal. Ultimately, students reported feeling overwhelmed by the ways archives pushed them to decide what was important in the reading and when their research was “finished” but such ownership of the work also inspired them to more and better research. Likewise, they were able to experience how the Canning scandal spiraled through the act of gossiping. The nature of scandal and the extensiveness of the archive resulted in a break in the pyramid structure of the classroom hierarchy and isolated writing; instead students built a network of information they then accessed in the process of creating new analyses of how the Canning event was reported.

Throughout the semester I repeatedly struggled with how to facilitate student interactions with the physical archive; however, student responses indicated that the physicality of the text was crucial because of its unique ways of provoking questions and revealing gaps in knowledge. Because the 60 total students could not all fit in the archives at the same time and because the archives had more limited access hours, my class used a combination of physical and digital archives, beginning in the special collections and moving into online replications or additions. While the blended method has significant logistical and access benefits, the students preferred their interactions with the hard texts. Looking at the online versions of 1913–1915 newspapers that covered the Leo Frank case, one student complained that the search functions “ruined” the research. The online versions cut out the surrounding articles to show only the searched-for material. The time in the archives, however, had shown the students that not all articles pertaining to the case mentioned Leo Frank but the extensive coverage would often give head-scratching in-depth coverage of a wide range of characters, such as the “Epps boy” who may or may not have seen Mary Phagan on a trolley or the long character pieces on the lawyers involved in the case. The search function, by taking over the investigation, limited the contextual range and sense of discovery the archives provided.


Figure 2. Image on left shows a full-page view of The Atlanta Constitution; image on right shows the screen view of a targeted search. The targeted search cut out three related articles. (Image courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library/University of Georgia Libraries.)

For each scandal, the students strove not just to understand the archives but also to comprehend the ways in which the archives interact with a larger sense of history and culture. The performative aspects of embodying the Canning case forced students to consider contemporary and historical values. Likewise, the class read and created adaptations to continue these discussions. We read a 1947 novel adaptation of the Canning case—Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair—and a 1937 film adaptation of the Frank case: Mervyn LeRoy’s They Won’t Forget. In working with these adaptations, students were able to note how each creator approached the archive; Tey shared an anxiety about young women’s sexuality with the original Squires supporters while LeRoy worried about the impartiality of Southern courts as did the northern journalists covering the Frank case. From these adaptations, the students recognized the importance of perspective and audience and the weight that interpretive power can have on the present. They, too, were asked to perform this curation of the archive—creating their own adaptation of one of the scandals. Throughout the semester, the students were asked to remix or immerse themselves into the scandals; in doing so, they engaged in deeper levels of analysis and application in their writing.

Reeves’s ENGL 1102: “Aliens in the Archives” in First-Year Composition II

My objective was to show students the collaborative and symbiotic nature of writing, how composition begets composition, and encourage students to become not just consumers but also active members of writing communities. To do this, I turned to the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Collection and its store of pulp magazines and apazines. Pulp magazines proliferated in the first half of the 20th century and were made up of genre fiction printed on cheap wood pulp paper. In these circulations science-fiction fan culture started. Like all fan cultures, community was a key component, and in this community, the written word became a means of connection. Fans started out writing letters to the editors, then moved to writing letters to each other based on the published fan letters, and graduated to the creation of apazines. Apazines, or amateur press association magazines, are handmade magazines with parts written by individual members, which are then sent to a predetermined editor, who collates the entries and then mails the completed apazine out to members. Science-fiction apazines became an important way for fans and budding fiction writers to communicate about their favorite authors and pulps, plan fan conventions, and make personal and professional connections. Ultimately, the pulps and magazines offer students the chance to look beyond academia and see how composition has shaped culture and how they might join such conversations.


Figure 3. This issue of Super Science Stories, November 1941, is of particular interest to my students as it includes the first story renowned author Ray Bradbury was paid for. (Image courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library/University of Georgia Libraries.)

This science fiction fan community and its connections between pulps, apazines, and authors was new territory for my students. As this contextual investigation is not the focus of FYC, I curated my students’ archive visits. Prior to our first visit, I divided students into six groups, with each focusing on a specific pulp writer. When they arrived at the library, the pulps that contained their author’s writing were waiting for them. For this first visit I had them focus on the pulp as an item. They examined the construction, paper and font type, use of color and art, and type and placement of ads. As a group they analyzed what these elements told them about the time period in which the pulp had been published and the intended audience. Such close interaction with the materiality of the text disrupted students’ conceptions of “acceptable” writing communities and forms, providing a clear example of how writing communities create their own ethos and voice.

This wide-ranging first visit was coupled with an in-depth read of a full pulp. The students returned to the reading room on their own and read their pulp from cover to cover in preparation for two short papers: a starred review of the pulp and an analysis of the part their pulp played in building a writing community. Before they began this second paper they were introduced to the libraries’ apazine collection. As Hayden (2015, 421) notes, one way to include the productive pedagogy of the archive in first year composition courses is through “smaller-scale projects … [involving] primary research or work with particular documents or collections.” As with the first visit, I curated their interaction with the apazines, so they would be looking at issues that had connections to their pulp. Both the apazine and the pulp collections have thousands of entries and no guiding information. While the possibility of not finding what you are searching for is an important part of archive learning, the goal of this class is to improve student writing through the archives—being able to navigate the archives is secondary. To do otherwise at this level and with these time constraints would result in students’ frustration, failure, and resentment toward the archives and composition.

After the short papers were completed, students made two collaborative apazines and engaged directly in the communal process observed in the archives. The first apazine was made up of responses to archive resources. As a class, students drafted the rules of their apazine (i.e., entries can’t be over 500 words; Courier font only; graphics required), designed cover art, and voted on a title. Each student then revised one of their earlier papers, which became their apazine contribution. On the due date, each student brought 22 copies of their entry to class, which were then collated, and each student received a hard copy of the class apazine. The rest of class period was then spent in reading and conversation about the apazine. The second apazine was composed of responses to and interactions with their peers’ apazine writing. A student might write a response to a review of a story they hated but their peer loved, express admiration for a well-analyzed connection, or build on the research started by a peer. Each student entry had to be in conversation with an entry from the first apazine. In this way students were not just consumers of archival material but were producing writing that will itself be archived—at the end of semester, the apazines were donated to the University of Georgia’s Lamar Dodd Art Library. By making their own network of connected writing, students were able to experience the social nature of writing and produce a new archive of zine art.

Printed pages, bound with a ring; top page includes a landing spaceship and a bulldog mascot.

Figure 4. Finished class apazine. The title, “Dawn of the Dawgs,” is an amalgamation of science fiction and University of Georgia culture.

Davis’s ENGL 4832W: “Rare Books and Book Technology” in Writing for the World Wide Web

The relevance of archival research for many of the upper-level writing courses I teach was clear from the start of my time as an archival Teaching Fellow, but the course that I ultimately structured around a major archival research component was Writing for the World Wide Web. Writing for the web is not simply about content creation. I have to prepare students for a future in which machines join us as readers and writers in networks, engaging in processes of pattern recognition. Writing for the Web has to focus not just on content production but also on how to work with and against algorithms, software, data, and metadata, as well as helping digital media authors understand themselves as participants in a network of distributed cognition.

The Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Collection presented a wealth of material that would intersect nicely with one of our texts, Naomi Baron’s Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World. My goal was to foreground the problem of writing for online readers—readers who, as Baron’s research indicates, aren’t so much reading as scanning, skimming, and clicking quickly away to the newest, the now-est, the next. I focused on this problem of “not-reading” (or, in web lingo, TL;DR) in this course as the major design problem for writers in the digital age to solve, a problem that will, if we do not think carefully and critically about how to foster effective reading onscreen, have significant consequences for literacy and knowledge. In past semesters, I have drawn extensively on Murray’s conception of the “Four Affordances” of digital media to foster a design thinking approach to digital textual composition. In this course, I put Murray and Baron’s ideas into conversation with the history of the book as a material object in hopes of creating productive thinking about digital textual design. In addition to Baron’s text, I included Nicole Howard’s The Book: The Life Story of a Technology, in order to provide students with an accessible history of the book and to emphasize the connection between technologies of reading and writing. This combination provided the framework for an examination of the examples of book technology and its evolution contained within UGA’s Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Collection. Essentially, the course would foreground the way technologies enable particular kinds of textual production which, in turn, produce particular kinds of reading and writing practices—practices that ultimately have wide-ranging cultural effects.

I developed a design project that asked students to use rare books from the collection as inspiration for an innovative digital textual design concept. The Hargrett holds a wide range of texts—everything from early print incunabula to conceptual artists’ books—that would require them to reconsider their understanding of what a book is, as well as the kind of literacy practices that different types of texts cultivate. The project involved several components including a depiction of the text’s design (visuals, description/explanation, written manuscript of text); an analysis of how the design plan remediated features of the inspiration text and drew on digital media affordances; and a critical reflection on their design process. Additionally, we needed to connect the dots between the inspiration texts from the archive. To achieve that aim, we created a digital exhibit using Omeka, not only because it allowed us to create a public-facing product, but also because it introduced students to metadata, both conceptually and practically. Collectively “curating” and framing an exhibit of the archival material and working with the common vocabulary of Dublin Core Metadata standards would give us a final collaborative project to present to the Special Collections Library faculty as well as other interested faculty members and students.

My own work as an instructor consisted largely of facilitation and research: I searched the archives, in consultation with a Hargrett librarian, for an initial collection of material that would represent a range of rare book items. On our first visit to the library, I gave each student an item to review along with a worksheet that asked them to consider several questions about the material aspects of the book they were examining and how it fostered or constrained different kinds of reading practices.


Figure 5. The prompt worksheet for Spring 2018 Writing for the Web students’ first visit to the Special Collections Library, asking them to explore and consider material properties and reading practices as they examine rare book items from the Hargrett Collection.

For our second visit, I asked students to tell me the kinds of texts they found most interesting from our first visit and, additionally, to provide an initial idea for their project that would help guide our archivist and me in curating a second collection of material for another round of hands-on exploration. We provided students with a tutorial on how to search the Hargrett collection themselves so that they could request additional material for viewing on their own. We also visited the Digital Arts Library Project, a collection of “legacy computers and video game systems as well as a collection of electronic literature pieces, digital interactive narrative pieces, and video games” (Digital Humanities, n.d.), and a copy of Raymond Queneau’s (1961) Cent mille milliards de poemes, a print precursor of digital media’s procedural affordance. Eventually, each student found a rare book (or two) that served as the primary inspiration for their design concept and they were each responsible for entering the information about the book (along with their own images taken during their time with the book at the library) into the Omeka site I set up at my web domain (having given each of them contributor access). For that exhibit, I also worked with the students to develop a conceptual frame for the project that would ground the exhibit in the concepts and scholarship that we were working with throughout the semester and, on the last day of class, we presented our work to an audience of interested colleagues. The event gave students a chance to engage in dialogue about their ideas and design process.

Title reads 'Translating, Transitioning, Transcending: Rebinding the book for digital reading.'

Figure 6. The collaboratively-produced promotional flyer for Writing for the Web’s end-of-semester exhibit of the design concepts inspired by rare book material.


Our experiences suggest that archival work in the writing classroom facilitates greater interaction between the material properties of written texts and the students, while fostering collaborative curation. These collaborations add to or create new collections that are, in a sense, adaptations of the original archives. Reframing archival material in these ways makes new connections or linkages between seemingly disparate materials and reinforces the social and networked nature of knowledge production and a re-conception of how to use source material for remixing and remaking.

While our courses took us in diverse directions in terms of archival material and foci, the materiality of the archival texts played a large role early on for all of us. Pulps are characterized by colorful, larger-than-life covers that demand attention, as do the daring conceptual artists’ books and texts produced during the early days of printing press technology. These texts forced the students to reconsider how materiality affects reading practices. More eye-catching in a different way, the postcard that depicted Leo Frank’s lynching put students in physical contact with brutal history. This type of active learning pushes students outside their comfort zone and puts them in situations that require them to consider class content and apply that thinking toward course goals and their lives. Students began to see themselves as “scholar adventurers blowing dust off documents that could contain mysteries, answers, or maps of the past” (Norcia 2008, 107). It’s clear this technique relies heavily on critical and analytical thinking, which in turn improves and fosters strong writing skills (Bernstein and Greenhoot 2014; Gingerich et al. 2014). Perhaps even more important, it exposes students to a whole new world of composition. The inclusion of apazines, letters, and art projects in the archives showed students the legitimacy and value of such unconventional writing.

As each class progressed, students used the skills gained from archival research to recalibrate and restructure composition. Working with a physical text, as Kara Poe Alexander (2013) found when she incorporated scrapbooking into her first-year writing course, teaches “students the concept of affordance and demonstrates to them how materiality impacts design, composition, and rhetorical choices; it also provides a low-key, low-stakes entry into multimodal composing and reflexivity on the rhetorical decision making process.” A material example of the mingling of words and art/bookcraft gave students the tools they needed to compose their own multimodal projects and move from the page to the screen, without losing what made the original art projects unique. While Reeves’s students took advantage of the do-it-yourself nature of zines to produce their own, Davis’s students were unable to actually produce the digital texts they designed, lacking the advanced programming and coding skills necessary to bring those conceptual plans to life. This foregrounds again the social and collaborative nature of digital textual composition in which skilled programmers and visual artists might be required to actually produce an interactive digital text, just as a community of specialized craftsmen was needed to produce early print texts.

Ultimately, through both research and writing, the insistence on a more open, flexible network of knowledge remained key. This is perhaps best illustrated through one of the texts that several students in Writing for the Web found particularly compelling—a copy of Queneau’s (1961) Cent mille milliards de poemes. This mid-twentieth century precursor to the digital hypertext demonstrated the way that a single text can be remixed and reconfigured to provide an interactive experience for readers. That concept of interactivity became a key goal for Davis’s students’ design projects as they discussed the ways that the rare book material from the archives provoked a sense of pleasure in discovery and exploration. Janet Murray identifies this kind of pleasure in the text as an effect of careful design in her definition of the Procedural Affordance of digital media: “Procedurality and participation are the affordances that create interactivity and visible procedurality combined with transparent participation creates the experience of agency for the interactor, a key design goal for any digital artifact” (n.d.). In each of our classes, the experience of working with archival materials provided an experience not unlike that of “reading” Queneau’s text in which the ability to recombine and reconfigure the sonnets results in a sense of endless possibility for construction and reconstruction of meaning.

In her argument for “textual curation” as a unique “category of compositional craft,” Krista Kennedy cites Johndan Johnson-Eilola’s (2005, 134) contention that “Creativity is no longer the production of original texts, but the ability to gather, filter, rearrange, and construct new texts” (quoted in Kennedy 2016, 176). As in the Pop-Up Archives Project Jenny Rice and Jeff Rice facilitated at the University of Kentucky, our students curated experiences of archival material whose goals were “neither preservation nor a totalizing narrative” (2015, 247), but recontextualizations that, as in the conception of curation in the art world, put forward new arguments. Thoughtful curation requires immersion into larger conversations about issues and discernment about what is relevant and important in order to generate further discussion by “customiz[ing] archives toward their own ends” (Enoch and VanHaitsma 2015, 221). This year our students created their own handmade apazines, designed concepts for interactive digital texts, and performed reenactments of historical scandals. In each instance, they were asked to use historical materials throughout the compositional process, from the starting point of invention, all the way to the delivery of their ideas through curated performance, exhibits, and portfolios that present new understanding or expose new lines of inquiry.

We have come to consider archives-centered writing instruction as a pedagogy of remix, curation, and appropriation in which students are faced with a set of materials that may be vast and yet incomplete—an archive filled with gaps and unanswered questions that, like Queneau’s sonnets, can overwhelm with a sense of infinite possibility and insistent lack of closure. As scholars of digital culture have long insisted, remix is the foundation of knowledge construction and creative production. We each asked our students to discover ideas and compose new texts through a communal process of appropriation and reconfiguration that resulted in an awareness of what Neal Lerner (2010) has framed as the incompleteness of histories (203) and in, we hope, a reconsideration of what writing and textual form mean in the 21st century digital age. For student writers, exploring a variety of historical texts can decenter their conception of what constitutes writing or textual form, as Wells (2002) notes when she claims that “[a]rchival study of other kinds of texts also broadens our own sense of how difficult it is to write in new and untried ways” (59–60). That awareness is critical as we continue to chart the waters of digital writing at this particular technological moment. Digging into the past, we find in the archive a pedagogy well-suited to the future of writing.


Alexander, Kara Poe. 2013. “Material Affordances: The Potential of Scrapbooks in the Composition Classroom.” Composition Forum27 (Spring). http://compositionforum.com/issue/27/material-affordances.php.

Bernstein, Daniel, and Andrea Follmer Greenhoot. 2014. “Team-Designed Improvement of Writing and Critical Thinking in Large Undergraduate Courses.” Teaching & Learning Inquiry 2 (1): 39–61. https://doi.org/10.2979/teachlearninqu.2.1.39.

Center for Teaching and Learning. The University of Georgia. n.d. “Faculty Services & Programs: Special Collections Libraries Faculty Teaching Fellows.” Accessed June 15, 2018. http://ctl.uga.edu/pages/special-collections-libraries-faculty-fellows-program

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About the Authors

Elizabeth Davis is the Coordinator of the Interdisciplinary Writing Certificate Program at the University of Georgia. In her teaching and research, she focuses on experiential learning in the writing classroom, digital rhetoric and storytelling, and ePortfolio pedagogy and assessment.

Nancee Reeves is a lecturer at the University of Georgia, where she teach literature and writing. Her research interests include science-fiction and how it shapes and is shaped by social policies.

Teresa Saxton is a lecturer at the University of Dayton, where she teaches classes on writing and eighteenth-century literature. Her current pedagogical projects are interested in bringing together the archives, public writing and advocacy.

Student writing prompt that reads: "Our past, undoubtedly, influences our future. Looking back at your past, was there any experience (physically, emotionally, mentally) that greatly impacted the kind of student you are today? What was the nature of this experience; was it bad, good, embarrassing, etc.? Try your best to reconstruct that experience. If proven to be difficult, use your imagination and develop an idea similar to that experience - draw from that idea, and construct an essay around that thought. Paint a map for your readers, who will also be witnessing this journey with you."

“Diving Into the Wreck”: (Re)Creating the Archive in the First Year Writing Classroom


“I came to explore the wreck,” Adrienne Rich begins in her poem “Diving into the Wreck,” and tumbles to the depths of her questions about efficacy—of speaking, of writing, and of teaching—during a time when students activists shut down campuses across the country, striking for anti-racist education policies from curriculum design to admissions. With a desire to connect our students at Brooklyn and Queens College with the history of student activism at CUNY, we developed a semester long peer-peer writing exchange to take place between our composition classes where our students developed and exchanged writing prompts inspired by Rich’s archival teaching material. By having our students document and record the unfolding of their written exchange, we argue that this type of collaborative project offers a new way of conceiving how participants in a classroom can build, envision, and record new ways of learning. As every classroom leaves behind an archive of writing, notes, and lesson plans, we ask, what do we do with the written materials we and our students leave behind, the materials that signal the embodied work of building a space of learning? How can the work that students leave behind inspire and enact its own unique pedagogy? This paper will present the unfolding of our students’ writing exchange, ultimately demonstrating that the archive of materials left behind by Rich and our own project can further inspire students and instructors to question what is possible while living and working in the ever-shifting space of the writing classroom.

I came to explore the wreck.

The words are purposes.

The words are maps.

I came to see the damage that was done

and the treasures that prevail.

-Adrienne Rich, “Diving Into the Wreck”(2013, 22)

Student writing prompt that reads: "Our past, undoubtedly, influences our future. Looking back at your past, was there any experience (physically, emotionally, mentally) that greatly impacted the kind of student you are today? What was the nature of this experience; was it bad, good, embarrassing, etc.? Try your best to reconstruct that experience. If proven to be difficult, use your imagination and develop an idea similar to that experience - draw from that idea, and construct an essay around that thought. Paint a map for your readers, who will also be witnessing this journey with you."

Figure 1. The image above shows a writing prompt created by a first year writing student at CUNY for the intra-classroom writing exchange between Brooklyn and Queens College.

“I came to explore the wreck,” Adrienne Rich begins her poem, and tumbles to the depths of her questions about efficacy—of speaking, writing, and teaching—during a time when student activists shut down campuses across the country, striking for antiracist education policies from curriculum design to admissions. When, as instructors of writing at Queens College and Brooklyn College, CUNY, we realized that we’d independently assigned our first-year writing classrooms selections from Rich’s recently published archive of teaching materials, we knew that beyond reading and analyzing her writing exercises, syllabi, or notes, our students would need to produce an archive of teaching materials of their own. We wondered, what could the process of recording and collecting their own work teach our students about the archive itself?

Designed as a collaboration between our students, ourselves, and Adrienne Rich’s teaching materials from Basic Writing at City College, we created an intra-classroom writing exchange in Spring 2018 which drew on the recent publication, ‘What We Are Part Of’: Teaching at CUNY: 1968-1974, (Parts I & II), published by Lost & Found: the CUNY Poetics Document Initiative in 2013. The project involved a total of forty-nine students, twenty-five at Queens and twenty-four at Brooklyn; half of the twenty-four Brooklyn College students were in CUNY’s SEEK (Search For Education, Elevation, and Knowledge) Program. Working simultaneously with other primary documents circulating during Adrienne Rich’s time at CUNY, our classes used digital file-sharing technology to eventually create an archive of their own writings. While discussing that no archive is ever complete–that any written record is a reconstruction of a lived context–we approached the archive as an evolving and contingent pedagogical map. Adrienne Rich’s poem “Diving Into the Wreck” was an important locus for this conversation because of the ways we were able to evoke the poem in the classroom as a living archive in a critically contingent digital space such as PennSound. Both classes listened to audio recordings hosted on UPenn’s poetry archive, giving students the chance to hear a recording of Adrienne Rich reading “Diving into the Wreck” at Stanford in the 1970s. The resonance of the poem’s themes in our own classrooms emphasized how the archive is kept alive and determined by the spaces in which it is contained. Ultimately, this allowed students to envision themselves as doing the work of both institutional critique and self archiving.

Tracing the Archive through CUNY’s History of Teacher & Student Activism

Lost & Found: the CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, published by the Center for the Humanities at The Graduate Center, CUNY, publishes “extra-poetic” material such as correspondence, journals, notes, transcriptions of letters and syllabi and pedagogical residue related to New American Poetry. Lost & Found “finds” the archive in sites which concretely include personal and institutional collections, raw materials gathered by editors, in interviews with living writers and selections from their material records, documents which circulate among poets, scholars, educators and fans, and in recirculated volumes which find their homes in collections, in libraries and in the classroom. More abstractly, the project locates the archive in person-to-person contact, verbal and non-quantifiable exchange, affective registers and especially in friendship.

The extent to which the classroom and the archive are considered together in the Lost & Found project cannot be understated. The publication collects pedagogical materials from a generation of poet educators teaching at CUNY in the 1960s and ‘70s. The Center for Humanities curates suggested groupings on their website for contemporary educators engaged in the building of syllabi for courses across CUNY and beyond with themed collections such as “Feminist Practice and Writing”; “Teaching Pedagogies/Methodologies”; “Resistance”; “Friendship and Politics”; “Radical Poetics”; “Queer Poetics,” and more.

Series IV’s “What We Are Part Of”: Teaching at CUNY: 1968-1974, Adrienne Rich (Parts I & II), collects the material traces of poet Adrienne Rich’s teachings at City College, and the series’ pedagogical focus continues with Series VII’s publication of investigations into other CUNY poets and educators: June Jordan: ‘Life Studies,’ 1966-1976, Audre Lorde: I teach myself in outline, Notes, Journals, Syllabi, & an Excerpt from Deotha, and Toni Cade Bambara: “Realizing the Dream of a Black University” & Other Writings (Parts I & II).

In the volume we introduced to our CUNY classrooms, we discussed how the notes, syllabi, and writing assignments created by Adrienne Rich exist not only as a record of poetic inquiry and pedagogical theory that Rich engaged with while teaching at City College, but also as a testament to the relationships formed through Rich’s commitment to deploying the “classroom” as a performative space in which writing, protest, and embodied action intersected. In designing an assignment sequence of our own, we noted the contingency inherent to the notion of the “classroom” for Rich: with classes closed frequently during the period due to student strikes and institutional flux, letters exchanged in the mail and individual meetings off-campus became the learning environments for Rich’s composition students.

(Dis)Locating the Classroom

The ontological designation that comes with naming helps us understand that Rich often called the classroom into being through an act of naming alone: to declare an exchange a “classroom” makes it so, whether in a basement cafeteria or by way of the U.S. Postal Service. In fact, where Rich locates the classroom is as important as how and where she dislocates it, for to her the classroom is also “cell–unit–enclosed & enclosing space in which teacher & students are alone together / Can be a prison cell / commune / trap / junction–place of coming-together / torture chamber”(Rich 2013, vol. 1, 15). In our own writing exchange, the use of file-sharing technology facilitated the exchange of student writing outside and between our two classrooms. Each classroom was able to create a folder of student work in Dropbox that functioned as an online dossier. So while our classrooms were separated across two different physical campuses, our students’ works were collected in this temporary digital classroom.

Printout: Notes, Statements, & Memos on SEEK 1969–1972. Introductory: What we are a part of. Classroom as cell—unit—enclosed & enclosing space in which teacher & students are alone together. Can be prison cell, commune, trap, junction—place of coming-together, torture chamber. But also part of much bigger nationwide cultural revolution: "Compensatory" education increasingly important aspect of "higher" education. a) movement for social change—break down false barriers of class & color to make all education truly open to all people who want it. b) movement for educational reform—such programs are surely going to effect changes in nature of teaching at all levels. c) At present, we are involved in THE key area of university teaching new territory—few if any proven "methods". Many inherited prejudices & rigidities stand in our way. a) in the educational hierarchy which has a vested interest in old methods. b) in students who have been taught that the classroom is something apart from "life" except that it will eventually either help you or prevent you from getting paycheck—are unaccustomed to relating classroom experience to larger whole.

Figure 2. Image from Adrienne Rich, “What We are Part Of”: Teaching at CUNY: 1968-1974 ed. Iemanjá Brown, Stefania Heim, erica kaufman, Kristin Moriah, Conor Tomás Reed, Talia Shalev and Wendy Tronrud, (Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative Series IV, 2013), 15.

In a memo on SEEK from 1969 or 1970 (exact date unknown), Rich goes on to suggest that the classroom is “also part of much bigger nationwide cultural revolution,” elaborated as such

a. movement for social change–break down false barriers of class & color to
make all education truly open to all people who want it b. movement for educational reform–such programs are surely going to effect changes in nature of teaching at all levels […]. (Rich 2013, vol. 1, 15).

To locate the classroom in the exchange between teacher and student and simultaneously in the nationwide cultural revolution is to bring politics to the classroom and the classroom to the world. Rich knew that to teach in the classroom was to engage the world from close proximity, a paradox because such engagement allowed her to tap into much more far-reaching social and political engagements than she’d found through poetry alone.

CUNY Students and the Archive

Focusing on Rich’s Writing Exercises, the first written component of the assignment sequence asked students to respond to a “Dream Course” exercise in which Rich prompted her students with the following:

Writing exercises drawn from various classes 1969–1974: "Write a description of a course you would like to take some day—on any subject, or covering any kind of material. Talk about how you feel this material could best be taught, and what you would hope to be doing in the course. (It might be film-making, writing, history, some technical skill, contemporary issues, art, etc.) Talk about how you'd like this course to be run, under what conditions you would most enjoy and profit from it—how much classroom time how much reading and writing, how much individual work with a teacher, field trips, etc. If you know books you would like to be reading in such a course, name them, telling why you chose them. Also tell why this particular course would seem valuable to you, what you hope to gain from it for your life."

Figure 3. Image from Adrienne Rich, “What We are Part Of”: Teaching at CUNY: 1968-1974 ed. Iemanjá Brown, Stefania Heim, erica kaufman, Kristin Moriah, Conor Tomás Reed, Talia Shalev, and Wendy Tronrud, (Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative Series IV, 2013), 7–8.

This first part of the assignment sequence asks students to put themselves in Rich’s classroom and imagine how the stakes of writing changed when the campus was transformed by protests. Our students were asked to read the “5 Demands” distributed in 1969 by a group of Black and Puerto Rican students at City College asking for equal representation and anti-racist admissions processes, as well as flyers, pamphlets, and notes that circulated across CUNY. Some of these materials can be found in the CUNY Digital History Archive, an online archive that collects digitized materials from CUNY’s history beginning in 1847 with the creation of the Free Academy in New York City and continuing to the present moment. To help students conceptualize their relationship to wider CUNY history, the CDHA offers a rich entry into the history of CUNY’s infrastructure, policies, and impact as a public institution, a history that implicates each student and determines their experience of education in the present. For instance, in order to access the “5 Demands,” students had to locate a link titled the “Creation of CUNY–Open Admissions Struggle” from a longer timeline, which ushered them to a page presenting wider archival materials from the late 1960s (oral histories, articles from student newspapers, and faculty memos). The CDHA’s Project History, which we also explored in the classroom setting, emphasizes that the CHDA emerged out of “gaps in the knowledge of CUNY faculty, students, staff, and alumni about that history,” a mission that resonated with our class’ focus on the archive as a means of generating engagement in the present with activism in the past.

Typewritten list of demands and justifications. Demand 1: A School of Black and Puerto Rican Studies. Demand 2: A Freshman Orientation for Black and Puerto Rican Students. Demand 3: That the SEEK Students have a Determining Voice in the Setting of Guidelines for the SEEK Program, Including the Hiring and Firing of SEEK Personnel. Demand 4: That the Racial Composition of the Entering Freshman Class be Racially Reflective of the High School Population.


Typewritten list of demands and justifications, continued. Demand 5: That All Education Majors be Required to take Black and Puerto Rican History and the Spanish Language. Followed by a summary of the events of the April 1969 City College occupation.

Figure 4. Unknown, “Five Demands,” CUNY Digital History Archive, accessed September 26, 2018, http://cdha.cuny.edu/items/show/6952.

The next component of the assignment sequence had students compose their own writing prompts to be exchanged through the same Dropbox folder with a student at a different campus. Giving students the option to use the Dream Course they designed as inspiration for their exercise, we randomly assigned partners to students at Queens and Brooklyn Colleges. Two weeks later, after our students received their completed assignments, each class discussed their initial reactions to their partners’ responses and to the assignment sequence more broadly. Finally, our students reflected on their experience on their own and turned in a portfolio of the whole exchange, including a final reflection essay.

Documenting the Present

The exchange took place in a dialogic space in which students used their own assignment to deepen their understanding of Adrienne Rich’s pedagogy as emerging out of a moment when students were calling their education into question. After discussing the “5 Demands,” current Brooklyn and Queens students prompted their partners to speak about contemporary debates including discussions around tuition-free higher education. One student wrote to his partner:

Writing Prompt: "The topic of tuition, free tuition, how high or low tuition should be, is constantly being discussed by students, professors, institutions, as well as law makers, and politicians. For this assignment you are asked to give your take on this debate. What do you believe you should be paying for a degree? Should students who cannot afford College be forced into taking out loans that will take them years to pay off? Be sure to not only discuss your opinion but why this will be most beneficial for everyone."

Figure 5. The above image shows a student prompt created for the writing exchange.

In asking each other to use writing as means of interrogating the wider education system in their current moment, these students performed—and, in turn, affirmed—continuities between the historical conditions of Rich’s archive and the present moment. Linking student activism in the late 1960s to debates around Free Tuition at CUNY in early 2018, another student used the assignment to prompt questions about education and access:

Writing Prompt: "Write a 1-2 page response, size 12 Times New Roman, double spaced. Describe what would your life be like if you did not have a college education and in what ways would it affect your life as it is now. Explain and give examples on how your attitude towards education would be and how would you view people who do not have the privilege to have an education."

Figure 6. The above image shows a student prompt created for the writing exchange.

Adrienne Rich’s Writing Exercises are opportunities for “reflection and action,” each assignment prompting students to tease out a “relationship to his [her/their] world, to his identity, to his sense of time and space, his trust in and suspicion of others, his ways of identifying others” (Rich 2013, vol. 1, 30) By  designing their own writing prompts and then documenting the unfolding of an epistolary exchange, students came to a new way of conceiving of how participants in a classroom can build, envision, and also leave a record of the work that can move beyond the space and time of a single classroom.

Remarking on the experience of working with partners they have never met in person, a student at Brooklyn College observed that the structure of the assignment performs the process of community building and activism: “[The exchange] could be seen as a performance from Adrienne Rich’s notes on teaching…it could resemble the strike from the 70s and us having to always engage even with students we have not interacted with.” During the university-wide strike, solidarity meant connecting students from different CUNY institutions through a circulation of flyers, memos, and other written material; community was created through shared embodied demonstrations and exchanges across CUNY’s disparate campuses. As this student points out, this project forged connections between students from Queens and Brooklyn, which helped students feel embedded in CUNY, a public university comprised of twenty-five campuses across New York City’s five boroughs. Now as the complexity of our students’ exchange is embodied in—and reduced to—a folder of written documents, our students experienced how the archive is always incomplete in so far as it is only a fragment of a dynamic and living context; furthermore, the archive is always changing as it is part of an ongoing dialogue between the moment of its creation and the work it inspires today.

Next Steps

When we envision future iterations of this assignment, we realize we as instructors need to account for how the habits and codes we used to relate to students influenced the structure of the exchange. As one student suggests, allowing students to contact each other on their own terms—rather than through the instructors—would emphasize the importance of writing for one another rather than depending on the instructors’ authority. Beyond putting students in direct contact with one another in both public and private platforms for exchange, we conceptualize a means of engaging a wider public by collaborating more directly with existing digital platforms such as Lost & Found, CDHA, and PennSound. Since these public archives served as key pedagogical material and framing devices for students, we envision the next steps of this project as not just engaging with but contributing to their form and content. Projects that allow students to engage with the historical record through a practice of self-archiving challenge us to restructure existing hierarchies and rethink where and how learning takes place. By envisioning a type of study rooted in investigating and enacting the process of building an archive, this project produces an immaterial space within the university where students shift the power and become the interlocutors for each other.

It is in this not-yet-mediated space of connectivity and exchange that we were able to honor and continue the work of CUNY’s student-activists; it is here that we can build new archives of learning in and beyond the classroom, to “reexamine all that we’ve been doing, try untested things, put ourselves on the line, be willing to take risks” (Rich 2013, vol. 1, 16).


Rich, Adrienne. 1973. Diving into the Wreck: Poems, 1971–1972. 1st ed. New York: Norton.

Rich, Adrienne. 2013. “What We Are Part Of.” In Teaching at CUNY: 1968-1974, vol. 1–2, ed. Iemanja Brown et al. New York: Lost and Found.

Lost & Found. n.d. “About Lost & Found.” Accessed June 15, 2018. https://www.centerforthehumanities.org/lost-and-found/about-lost-and-found.

About the Authors

Marguerite Daisy Atterbury is a writer and doctoral student at The Graduate Center, CUNY. Her research centers on 20/21st C. poetry with an interest in gender, race and coloniality. She is the co-director of NM Poetics, an annual summer program founded in 2010 to support conversation around aesthetics and politics in northern New Mexico. Her work engages audiences through various media including film, installation and performance as well as more traditional outlets of production and publication. She received her MFA from the Milton Avery School of the Arts at Bard College.

Maxine Krenzel is a doctoral student in English at CUNY’s Graduate Center. Her research interests are in composition-rhetoric theory, focusing on the history and pedagogy of first year writing programs, as well as feminist theory and autobiography. She teaches writing, literature, and ESL courses at Brooklyn College.

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