Issue Fourteen

Water-color image of guinea pig conducting archival research.
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Introduction: Teaching & Research with Archives

From projects like the SNCC Digital Gateway to Colored Conventions, digital technologies are prompting renewed attention to archival research and teaching practices and creating new opportunities for engaging primary sources. At the same time, digital technologies are raising ethical questions about how archives are created, organized, shared, accessed, and preserved. Increased access has coincided with what Wendy Hayden calls “The Archival Turn’s Pedagogical Turn,” as instructors explore how archival encounters can catalyze student-centered, experiential, collaborative, and project-based learning experiences. With this issue, we sought to address several questions: How do scholars locate authoritative information and guarantee continued access in the current media landscape? How do we teach undergraduate students to perform archival research, evaluate digital sources, and even compose and curate their own archives?

As a graduate student researching letter writing, special issue editor Jojo Karlin worked on a digital edition of her grandparents’ wartime overseas correspondence. From this experience, she saw the necessity for contemporary scholars to receive training in efficient and ethical digital asset management, including how to organize digital files and metadata. She realized that conversations about digital archives were occurring among librarians (who often see firsthand the transitions between technologies and the simultaneous organization of analog and digital materials) and among educators who teach with archives and want to leverage new technologies to help students create their own. She wondered how we could bring these conversations together.

As a newly-minted PhD, Danica Savonick recognized that her research on feminist literature and pedagogy was transformed by long hours spent in archives with the syllabi, lesson plans, and assignments of activist educators from previous generations. When performing research on pedagogical archives, what we often encounter is labor: the letters to administrators, budgets, and grant requests (interspersed with grocery lists) that remind us how much unseen work goes into producing the scene of teaching and learning. As she sought to develop similarly transformative archival assignments for her students, she realized how difficult it is to set the stage for a meaningful encounter with primary source documents. She wanted to work on this special issue to learn more about how other teacher-scholars are facilitating archival encounters in their classrooms.

As a former history student, Stephen Klein felt a guilty pleasure for archives even before he decided to become a librarian. Some of his most epiphanic moments of inquiry occurred when combing through archives and discovering a unique primary source that either supported his suspicions or fundamentally altered existing views. Despite maintaining some generalized best practices that he uses in his everyday work-life as a librarian, Stephen is interested in how archiving processes are often specific to the actual, unique objects being archived.

As co-editors we were delighted (and somewhat shocked) to receive an unprecedented number of submissions for this special issue, roughly 3 to 4 times more than an average JITP issue. Given the abundance of submissions, we added a section called “Views from the Field” to highlight short, praxis-based examples of archival research and teaching in action.

Several of the articles in this issue address how digital technologies are changing how we define, curate, and access archives. In “Crowdsourcing Traumatic History: Understanding the Historial Archive” Kirsti Girdharry analyzes Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive to consider what it means to collaborate with the public in crowdsourcing a digital archive. Girdharry analyzes how the digital impacts our understanding of archives, especially those that aim both to historicize and memorialize recent tragedies. In “Realizing the Past: Charting a Course for Sustainable Instruction and Engagement with Archival Materials Using Augmented and Virtual Reality Technologies” Amanda G. Pellerin, Ximin Mi, and Alison Valk describe the opportunities and limitations that augmented and virtual reality provide for accessing archival objects. While these technologies may help democratize access to archival materials, the authors also consider what might get lost in digitizing a rich three-dimensional object. (And for those interested in similar projects, keep an eye out for the CFP for an upcoming special themed issue of JITP on virtual reality edited by Amanda Licastro and Angel David Nieves.)

The majority of articles in this special issue focus on how “teaching and research with archives,” centers the work of collaboration. As scholars have noted, digital projects require many hands on deck—what Cathy N. Davidson calls “collaboration by difference”—prompting the creation of new academic procedures and protocols like “Guidelines for Evaluating Work in Digital Humanities and Digital Media.” Similarly, teaching with archives requires carefully scaffolded collaborations among faculty, staff, librarians, archivists, and instructional technologists that dispel the mythical notion of the genius scholar toiling away in isolation.

Several of the articles take up collaboration by demonstrating how work across institutions can be mutually beneficial. In “The Space Between Researcher, Object, Institution: Building Collaborative Knowledge with Primary Sources,” Mary Catherine Kinniburgh advocates for graduate-level archival training to support students using primary source research for their dissertations and theses. Kinniburgh discusses the Collaborative Seminar she organized in conjunction with the CUNY Graduate Center Library, the New York Public Library, and others, to generate a community of primary source researchers. While Kinniburgh focuses primarily on the humanities, authors Wendy Wasman, Thomas R. Beatman, Shanon Donnelly, Kathryn M. Flinn, Jeremy Spencer, and Ryan J. Trimbath show how institutional collaborations around archival projects can flourish in the natural sciences as well. In “Branching Out: Using Historical Records to Connect with the Environment,” Wasman et al. analyze the digitized archives of Cleveland naturalist A.B. Williams to show how inter-institutional collaboration can mobilize resources for educational use, from primary school exercises to graduate research.

Another cluster of articles describes collaboration in the context of joint efforts among faculty, students, and archivists to co-create digital archives. In “Digital Paxton: Collaborative Construction with Eighteenth-Century Manuscript Collections,” Will Fenton, Kate Johnson, and Kelly Schmidt describe a collaboration between faculty and students to produce a digital archive as a way of introducing students to concepts of knowledge production and archival construction. Drawing on the Collaborators’ Bill of Rights, they describe an assignment that involved students in knowledge production by contributing to the Digital Paxton project. In “Teaching Colonial Translations Through Archives: From Ink and Quill to XML (Or Not),” Allison Bigelow describes an assignment in which students helped to translate and edit colonial documents from the Early Americas Digital Archive. Through the assignment, “students learn about colonial archives by approaching them as public-facing, meaning-making sites of translation, interpretation, and textual editing, and by remediating print materials from the archives into annotated translations.”

Several articles consider these student-centered archival practices in the context of writing classrooms. In “From Page to Screen and Back Again: Archives-Centered Pedagogy for the 21st Century Writing Classroom,” Elizabeth Davis, Nancee Reeves, and Teresa Saxton analyze how archival research can help students better understand composition as a process of remixing, recontextualizing, collaborating, and curating. Through carefully scaffolded assignments, their students developed an “archives-based composition process” that improved their understanding of the social nature of writing and the material properties of texts, both of which are essential components of twenty-first-century literacies. In “‘Diving Into the Wreck’: (Re)Creating the Archive in the First-Year Writing Classroom” Maxine Krenzel and Daisy Atterbury describe a semester-long peer writing exchange across institutions based on poet Adrienne Rich’s archival teaching materials. With digital file sharing, they dislocate the classroom across campuses and ask, “How can the work that students leave behind inspire and enact its own unique pedagogy?”

Many of these articles consider how archival materials—zines, campus newsletters, correspondence—can help students address important questions about who gets to write history, whose stories are included, and whose are left out. In “Narrating Memory through Rhetorical Reflections: CUNY Students and Their Archives,” Wendy Hayden, María Hernández-Ojeda, and Iris Finkel describe a series of assignments in which undergraduates performed research in physical, institutional archives and shared their findings on digital platforms. In doing so, students became “active agents of generational transmission” who learned about history through the process of contributing to institutional memories. In “Collaboration Adventures with Primary Sources: Exploring Creative and Digital Outputs,” Jennifer Needham and Jeanann Croft Haas analyze the collaborative efforts among University of Pittsburgh librarians and faculty to incorporate the institution’s archival collections into the classroom. Through a series of case studies, Needham and Haas show how archival pedagogy can support an environment of student innovation through the production of what they call “creative outputs,” including websites, blog posts, zines, data sets, and visualizations.

Archives have long been central to feminist, antiracist, and justice-oriented research that recovers the historical contributions of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people. Several articles in this special issue extend this work to the undergraduate classroom. In “Engaging Women’s History through Collaborative Archival Wikipedia Projects,” Ariella Rotramel, Rebecca Parmer, and Rose Oliveira show how archivists, students, and faculty can facilitate knowledge production guided by feminist theory. Together they worked to leverage Wikipedia’s global reach “while struggling with editorial criteria that value objectivity and notoriety.” In “Possibly Impossible; Or, Teaching Undergraduates to Confront Digital and Archival Research Methodologies, Social Media Networking, and Potential Failure,” Rebekah Fitzsimmons and Suzan Alteri analyze an assignment that involved students in recovering the biographies of under-represented women science writers of the 19th century. The authors emphasize the potential and possible failure inherent in original research and found that “[s]tudents felt successful regardless of how much information they located; even [those] with no results reported feeling they had learned a significant amount from the project.” Recovery is also central to the feminist and antiracist projects described in a View by Ken Grossi, Alexia Hudson-Ward, Carol Lasser, Sarah Minion, and Natalia Shevin titled “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.” In this View, the authors describe how faculty, students, and an archivist collaborated to help students co-author digital mini-editions for the Digitizing American Feminisms project.

Considered together, these articles demonstrate that historical inquiry is thriving. Students nationwide are learning how to access primary source documents and to consider the mechanisms of power that underscore how archives are constructed and accessed. We hope these articles will inspire researchers and educators to try something new or different, and share what they learn from the experience. And we hope you enjoy reading these articles as much as we enjoyed collaborating across time, space, and institutions to edit them.

About the Issue Editors

Danica Savonick is Assistant Professor of English at SUNY Cortland. She holds a PhD in English and a Certificate in American Studies from the CUNY Graduate Center. Danica blogs regularly about pedagogy and social justice and her work has appeared in American Literature, Digital Humanities Quarterly, Modern Fiction Studies, and Hybrid Pedagogy. Her current manuscript, Insurgent Knowledge, analyzes the activist pedagogies of Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Adrienne Rich, and Toni Cade Bambara. Danica serves on the Steering Committee for HASTAC.org and is lead author of “Gender Bias in Academe.”

Jojo Karlin, a PhD candidate in English at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, is dedicated to ideas about books, letters, and communication. As the Manifold Scholarship fellow, she is helping to develop Open Education Resources on the Mellon-funded, open source, hybrid publishing platform. As outreach coordinator for the NEH-funded DH Box, she co-led a course in Web APIs with Python at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute. An actress and an artist, she continually seeks creative ways of engaging the academy and the public, whether through drawing, performance, or posted letter.

Stephen I. Klein, the Digital Services Librarian at the Mina Rees CUNY Graduate School Library, spends much of his work-life behind the scenes insuring that the pulse of the GC’s library systems continue to work seamlessly for library users. He also spends time ‘freaking-out’ about the crisis of how our cultural heritage is quickly disappearing, because of the acceleration of modern ephemera with the advent of the web as one of the central forums for popular conversation and academic scholarship.

Watercolor showing bookstack with notes scattered nearby. A sign reads "pencils only."
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Table of Contents: Issue Fourteen

Introduction
Danica Savonick, Jojo Karlin, and Stephen Klein

Possibly Impossible; Or, Teaching Undergraduates to Confront Digital and Archival Research Methodologies, Social Media Networking, and Potential Failure 
Rebekah Fitzsimmons and Suzan Alteri

From Page to Screen and Back Again: Archives-Centered Pedagogy in the 21st Century Writing Classroom
Elizabeth Davis, Nancee Reeves, and Teresa Saxton

Crowdsourcing Traumatic History: Understanding the Historial Archive
Kristi Girdharry

Digital Paxton: Collaborative Construction with Eighteenth-Century Manuscript Collections
Will Fenton, Kate Johnson, and Kelly Schmidt

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

Narrating Memory through Rhetorical Reflections: CUNY Students and Their Archives
Wendy Hayden, María Hernández-Ojeda, and Iris Finkel

Engaging Women’s History through Collaborative Archival Wikipedia Projects  

Ariella Rotramel, Rebecca Parmer, and Rose Oliveira

Collaboration Adventures with Primary Sources: Exploring Creative and Digital Outputs
Jennifer Needham and Jeanann Croft Haas

Realizing the Past: Charting a Course for Sustainable Instruction and Engagement with Archival Materials Using Augmented and Virtual Reality Technologies
Amanda G. Pellerin, Ximin Mi, and Alison Valk

Branching Out: Using Historical Records to Connect with the Environment
Wendy Wasman, Thomas Beatman, Shanon Donnelly, Kathryn Flinn, Jeremy Spencer, and Ryan Trimbath

Views from the Field

Teaching Colonial Translations Through Archives: From Ink and Quill to XML (Or Not)
Allison Margaret Bigelow

Diving into the Wreck: (Re)Creating the Archive in the First Year Writing Classroom 
Maxine Krenzel and Daisy Atterbury

Born-Digital Archives in the Undergraduate Classroom
Mackenzie Brooks

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
Ken Grossi, Alexia Hudson-Ward, Carol Lasser, Sarah Minion, and Natalia Shevin

Issue Fourteen Masthead

Issue Editors
Danica Savonick
Jojo Karlin
Stephen Klein

Managing Editor
Patrick DeDauw

Copyeditors
Anne Donlon
Patrick DeDauw
Jojo Karlin
Benjamin Miller
Nicole Zeftel

Style and Structure Editor
Dominique Zino

Staging Editors
Teresa Ober
Lisa Brundage
Anne Donlon
Krystyna Michael
Benjamin Miller
Danica Savonick
sava saheli singh
Inés Vañó García
Luke Waltzer

A scan and transcription of a letter from Christopher Town.
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Digital Paxton: Collaborative Construction with Eighteenth-Century Manuscript Collections

Abstract

Digital Paxton is a digital collection, scholarly edition, and, most crucially for this issue, a burgeoning teaching platform devoted to the archives of Pennsylvania’s first major pamphlet war. In this co-authored piece, Will Fenton will introduce the massacre that sparked that debate, the limitations of the existing approach, and the affordances of his digital humanities project. Following Fenton’s comments on collaboration and acknowledgement, Kate Johnson and Kelly Schmidt will provide a case study in digital humanities pedagogy, demonstrating how they used a class transcription assignment as an opportunity to improve and expand the educational offerings of Digital Paxton. Through their analyses, Fenton, Johnson, and Schmidt will show how their collaboration demonstrates the value of digital projects and transcription assignments for students’ critical thinking and media literacy.

The Paxton Massacre

In December 1763, following years of backcountry warfare, a mob of settlers in the Paxton Township—just outside what is today Harrisburg—murdered twenty unarmed Conestoga Indians along the Pennsylvania frontier. Soon after, hundreds of these “Paxton Boys” marched on Philadelphia to menace a group of Moravian Indians who had, in response to the violence, been placed under government protection. Although the confrontation was diffused through the diplomacy of Benjamin Franklin, the incident ventilated long-festering religious and ethnic grievances, pitting the colony’s German and Scots-Irish Presbyterian frontiersmen against Philadelphia’s English Quakers and their Susquehannock trading partners.

Supporters and critics of the Paxton Boys spent the next year battling in print: the resulting public debate constituted one-fifth of the Pennsylvania’s printed material in 1764 (Olson 1999, 31). Pamphlets, which were inexpensive and quick to produce, were the medium of choice—hence the debate is often called the Paxton pamphlet war. But many other printed and unprinted materials circulated simultaneously, including broadsides, political cartoons, letters, diaries, and treaty minutes. Although this debate was ostensibly about the conduct of the Paxton vigilantes, it quickly migrated to other issues facing colonial Pennsylvania, including suspicions of native others, anxieties about porous borders, a yawning divide between urban and rural populations, and the proliferation of what we might today call “fake news.”

While most researchers explore the pamphlet war through John Raine Dunbar’s scholarly edition, The Paxton Papers (1957), much of the debate cannot be found in Dunbar’s edition.[1] There are dozens of alternate editions, answers, and responses to the pamphlets identified by Dunbar, and, if one examines the originals, one uncovers engravings, artworks, and other forms of materiality that could not be examined through textual transcriptions alone. Perhaps most importantly, the current approach to the Paxton debate, which prioritizes printed materials—namely pamphlets, broadsides, and political cartoons— inadvertently reinforces colonial and cosmopolitan biases. That is, much of the Paxton debate happened outside Philadelphia printers. If researchers are to reckon with the massacre’s geographic, ethnic, and class complexities, they ought to consider manuscript collections that give voice to backcountry settlers and the indigenous peoples at the center of this tragic episode.

Digital Paxton

Digital Paxton seeks to expand awareness of and access to such heterogeneous records. The project began as a digital collection of pamphlets available through the Library Company of Philadelphia and Historical Society of Pennsylvania. As partners in the project, those institutions are responsible for digitizing at their own expense more than half of the records available in Digital Paxton. Subsequent partnerships have brought scans of contemporaneous Pennsylvania Gazette issues at the American Antiquarian Society; Friendly Association correspondence from the Haverford College Quaker and Special Collections; letters from the John Elder and Timothy Horsfield Papers at the American Philosophical Society; and congregational diaries from the Moravian Archives of Bethlehem. Each expansion has underscored that the 1764 pamphlet war included much more than pamphlets.[2]

As important as the diversity of materials is the structure of the collection. The design of online publishing platform Scalar encourages researchers to draw connections between and across collections. Specifically, Scalar’s flat ontology enables all objects (images, transcriptions, sequences of images) to occupy the same hierarchy: no object is more of a subject than another object. In practical terms, this means that researchers encounter Governor Penn’s letters in the same pathway as they do letters between Quaker leaders and native partners, accounts of diplomatic conferences, and the writings of Wyalusing leaders. At a technical level, then, the platform supports the philosophical goals articulated by the editors of the Yale Indian Papers Project: the digital collection as a common pot, a “shared history, a kind of communal liminal space, neither solely Euro-American nor completely Native” (Grant-Costa, Glaza, and Sletcher 2012, 2). This is the allure of the digital edition: when thoughtfully structured, digital editions better accommodate a constellation of material forms, voices, and perspectives than traditional print editions.

Although Digital Paxton is foremost a digital collection, the project includes a scholarly apparatus similar to Dunbar’s Paxton Papers. However, whereas Dunbar’s introduction is singular and possesses the patina of definitiveness, this project is multi-authored, interdisciplinary, and less didactic. Practically speaking, each of the project’s twelve historical overviews, lesson plans, and conceptual keyword essays serve as freestanding entry points to the digital collection. That is, if a history student were interested in Conestoga Indiantown, she might choose to read Darvin Martin’s essay, “A History of Conestoga Indiantown,” use its links to explore the digital collection, and perform additional research using the various linked resources listed below further reading. Or, if a literature student wanted to think more carefully about what “elites” meant in the eighteenth-century, she might begin with Scott Paul Gordon’s essay, “Elites.”

Students may use the project’s introduction or interpretative pathways to traverse the project; however, rather than promoting a singular, definitive approach to the massacre and pamphlet war, Digital Paxton embraces what Adele Perry (2005) and others have called polyvocality. By layering materials and contexts, each is made less definitive, more partial, contingent, and subject to scrutiny. This approach guards against rote thinking: the Paxton massacre is a story of genocidal violence and indigenous dispossession, but it is also a story of identity politics, self-governance, resistance, and active peace-making.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie argued in a famous TED talk, narrative multiplicity acknowledges the complexity and dignity of human experience. “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity,” explained Adichie. “[W]hen we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise” (Adichie 2009). While regaining paradise is well beyond the scope of this project, grappling with the complexities, erasures, and ambiguities of historical memory falls within its purview, thanks to the generous contributions of scholarly and archival collaborators.

Collaboration and Acknowledgement

Given that Digital Paxton is very much a bootstrap operation—cobbled together without any significant external funding—recognition of labor is the least that can be offered collaborators. To this point, the first two points of the “Collaborators’ Bill of Rights” have informed the project’s approach to collaboration and acknowledgement:

1) All kinds of work on a project are equally deserving of credit (though the amount of work and expression of credit may differ). And all collaborators should be empowered to take credit for their work.

2a) Descriptive Papers & Project reports: Anyone who collaborated on the project should be listed as author in a fair ordering based on emerging community conventions.

2b) Websites: There should be a prominent ‘credits’ link on the main page with primary investigators (PIs) or project leads listed first. This should include current staff as well as past staff with their dates of employment (Clement, Croxall, et al. 2011).

Digital Paxton is the fruition—however nascent—of contributions from dozens of archivists, curators, scholars, and technologists, whose labor is subsidized by archives, cultural institutions, research libraries, and universities. Although this project was sparked by personal research interests, little would be available today without the resources, labor, and expertise of those individuals and institutions. Acknowledgement, on the project’s Credits page and in the publications and talks, is one form of (admittedly paltry) recompense.

Collaborators take many forms, and there is perhaps no cohort more vital to this project’s future—and that of the humanities more broadly—than that of student-collaborators. This project embraces Mark Sample’s notion of “collaborative construction,” through which students produce new knowledge in concert with one another, their professor, and the project, broadly conceived. “A key point of collaborative construction is that the students are not merely making something for themselves or their professor,” explains Sample. “They are making it for each other, and in the best scenarios, for the outside world” (Sample 2011).

The second half of this article seeks to put this philosophy into practice using a case study. In the spring 2017, two faculty members, Benjamin Bankhurst (Shepherd University) and Kyle Roberts (Loyola University Chicago), who were co-teaching an undergraduate history course, “Digitizing the American Revolution,” sought to introduce students to digital humanities tools and methods. They opted to create an assignment through which students would learn to transcribe eighteenth-century letters using scanned manuscript materials from Digital Paxton. Each student was responsible for transcribing a page of manuscript. After Bankhurst or Roberts vetted students’ work, transcriptions were loaded into Digital Paxton, with a credit to each student-transcriber.[3]

The project was successful on several accounts. First, it expanded the number of transcribed (and searchable) resources in Digital Paxton. Second, it required teaching materials that can be repurposed in future transcription assignments. And third, it attracted a new community of researchers to the site. This interest is certainly measurable in the students who participated in the assignment, many of whom now regularly share Digital Paxton updates on social media platforms. Perhaps most importantly, Roberts’s graduate students—Kate Johnson, Marie Pellissier, and Kelly Schmidt—took ownership of the project in ways that made it both more effective and more scalable. Using their experience within the classroom and reviews of transcription pedagogy best practices, they offered recommendations on how to modify the Digital Paxton site to facilitate easier transcription, created documents guiding students through some of the hurdles in the transcription process, and offered feedback on improving the exercise as a classroom assignment. Johnson and Schmidt will now describe their experience with the transcription project, and the challenges and opportunities it provided.

A Case Study in Digital Pedagogy

As members of Roberts’s class, we were asked to transcribe a page from Digital Paxton’s digital collection. We enjoyed the process of learning how to identify and transcribe unfamiliar eighteenth-century characters consistently, as well as the sense that we were contributing to a larger project of significant historical value to scholars and the general public. However, along with our undergraduate classmates, we encountered challenges as we struggled to interpret the manuscripts. We felt that we could help expand the project by creating a guide for people planning to transcribe individually or in a crowdsourced or classroom setting.

The assignment began with an introduction to Digital Paxton from its creator, Will Fenton (via Skype). As a class we explored the site together and received a contextual overview of the Paxton pamphlet war. The contextual information helped us better understand the significance of our assignment in relation both to our course and to the work of historians more broadly. Moreover, the personal touch of talking to the website’s creator cultivated greater interest in the project.

The directions for the assignment were simple: transcribe one page assigned from the Friendly Association manuscripts (Haverford College Quaker and Special Collections) and write a three-paragraph essay about what the page contained, whose voice it was written in, and who it excluded, and how it felt to participate in this transcription process as a historian. Students did not use any transcription aids. We each viewed the manuscript page in a web browser (or printed it out), then typed transcriptions using a word processor. However, these seemingly simple directions proved more complicated to students who were uncertain how to format their transcription consistently or account for peculiar eighteenth-century abbreviations. Some students opted to peer-review one another’s assignments before turning them in, which helped improve consistency and their understanding of the materials with which they were working.

For some students, the public nature of the transcription increased their commitment to the assignment. In her essay on “Teaching the Digital Caribbean,” Kelly Baker Josephs discusses how adding the public as an audience for coursework creates a “performance” aspect that changes the course experience (Josephs 2018). We saw this with our class, as several students put more time and effort into the assignment, such as peer reviewing each others transcriptions, expressly because it would be shared publicly on a website.

Student Responses

Each student turned in a short essay detailing the content of their transcription, its biases, and their experience transcribing it. In addition, we had a class discussion on the greatest challenges in transcribing and practices that might improve the transcription process and make the final product more useful. One student, who described working with the source as both “tedious and exciting,” encapsulated the gist of most anonymous student responses to the assignment.[4] The most frequent obstacles identified were difficulty reading the handwriting, deciphering inconsistent capitalization and spelling, differentiating between vowels as well as lowercase “L’s” and “F’s,” and unfamiliarity with the long “S.” While the scans were clear, some students had trouble reading their assigned text because authors often used both sides of the page, the ink bleeding through from one side to the other. One student suggested that reading the text and then rereading it before transcribing made it easier to understand the content. Others said that they needed more knowledge not only of paleography and period syntax, but also context about the history of the time period, region, and specific event in which these papers were situated. Without such broader knowledge, students sometimes struggled to transcribe local place names, like “Minisinks,” and the names of subjects in the documents, especially Native Americans, such as “Scarroyada.”

Nevertheless, many of the same students who struggled to decipher the eighteenth-century English and handwriting still expressed an appreciation for, and a better understanding of, the work of historians. One student wrote, “I’m quite honored and impressed that I had the opportunity to participate in the understanding and detailing of history, especially in the turn of the Revolution.” Several others professed a “newfound respect for historians” and claimed that they felt like they were “doing the work of a real historian.”

Most of the students were not history majors, and for many, this was the first time they had engaged with primary sources. Most of their previous coursework in history had focused on secondary source readings about big ideas and events, which students assessed through essay-writing assignments. One respondent noted that, “working with primary sources feels much more immersive and enlightening, in terms of being able to see a glimpse of what their life was like and the issues they dealt with in their time.”

While the process of transcribing manuscripts was monotonous, students said that work with handwritten letters changed the way they engaged with materials. One student said, “It felt good to work with a primary source such as this letter, and be able to see the firsthand view of the writer and a glimpse of their world.” Several students also welcomed access to Native American voices, who are often silenced in settlement narratives. This recognition encouraged them to grapple with the possibility that some of these documents may not have been telling the whole truth about the event. One student even mused that soon historians might have to decipher audio sources rather than interpret handwriting.

These student responses align with pedagogical scholarship. Notably, William Kashatus posits that close analysis of primary sources gives students a more personal understanding of history. Because primary sources can “evoke emotional responses,” students are better able to “identify with the human factor in history, including the risks, frailties, courage, and contradictions of those who shaped the past” (2002, 7). According to Kashatus, students are better able to recognize the biases in historical records and assess their own contemporary biases, and those of modern-day media, when they have engaged with close-readings of historical sources in the classroom (2002, 7–8). Student feedback from our classroom assignment reflects that students felt they gained a sense of intimacy with historical writers. Avishag Reisman and Sam Wineburg, writing about the new common core standards, have argued that working with primary source materials challenges students to think carefully about what does and does not count as evidence. Reisman and Wineburg argue that primary source materials compel students to “interrogate the reliability and truth claims” rather than to simply “cull” evidence (2012, 25-26). Through transcription work, students must read the text word-for-word, compelling them to think more critically about what is being expressed and not to take a document’s message at face value.

Gathering Survey Data

Although the students’ comments were helpful, we realized we needed more feedback before we pursued any future crowdsourced transcription projects. To that end, we administered an anonymous one-page survey to the participants of a transcribe-a-thon event at Loyola organized by the Center for Textual Studies and Digital Humanities in conjunction with a nationwide event. Approximately 70 students, staff, and faculty attended, 43 of whom elected to complete the survey. Additionally, we administered the survey to 21 students enrolled in a 100-level “Interpreting Literature” class. For the transcribe-a-thon, participants used a subscription-based transcription program called FromThePage.

The survey consisted of nine total questions, with six multiple choice and three open-ended questions. Questions solicited feedback on the ease of participants’ use of the transcription program and the experience of transcribing itself. Two questions asked about the participants’ perceived value of the experience of transcribing. At the end, participants were asked to provide an email if interested in future transcription projects. The anonymous survey results highlighted what elements of transcription work most engaged participants and what challenges or barriers thwarted their participation. Thus, the survey offered concrete data to support ideas that emerged from student feedback in the Loyola/Shepherd assignment. From these conclusions we gained insights into what would make a successful transcription project for interacting with digitized early American documents, and those insights informed the guides we created for Digital Paxton.

One key difference was experiential: students preferred the communal work of a transcribe-a-thon to the solitary work of a for-credit assignment. While the majority of both sets of students said that they found the experience valuable, more transcribe-a-thon participants recorded satisfaction. Additionally, a much higher percentage of transcribe-a-thon participants expressed interest in future transcription projects (82% of event participants compared to 38% of classroom participants).

We evaluated these discrepancies using responses to the open-ended questions, which included a question about what was the most valuable part of the experience. The classroom included some but not all of the additional contextualizing elements that were included in the event, such as the talks and recitations of historical speeches and songs. These elements, combined with the celebratory atmosphere of the event (held as a birthday celebration for Frederick Douglass), helped to affirm the sense that participants were both learning and contributing to a living project. The survey results and our experience with the transcribe-a-thon show us that transcription projects not only get students working with primary materials, contributing to scholarly work, and learning to use digital tools, but they also inspire students to participate in future projects.

Translating Feedback into Practice

Student feedback and survey responses provided some clear takeaways for Digital Paxton. Although incorporating a transcription project into a class’s curriculum and awarding class credit and public access incentivized students’ contributions, assignments needed to be structured to foreground both historical and logistical context for transcriptions. Additionally, assignments needed to emphasize the importance of student transcriptions to the long-term goals of the project. When we began contributing transcriptions to Digital Paxton, the project did not have guidelines for transcriptions or a built-in transcription platform.

We developed a “Transcription Best Practices” guide for Digital Paxton, now available in both the Transcription and Pedagogy sections of the site for educators who want to introduce similar assignments in their classrooms. In it, we attempted to anticipate contextual questions that might arise during an assignment. We used the feedback from the Loyola/Shepherd assignment to pinpoint the most important contextual clues needed. We included images of eighteenth century writing conventions, such as the elongated “s” and the shortening of common words like “which” to “w/ch.”By equipping potential transcribers with the materials they need to understand the papers in their historical and cultural context—the guidelines, site introduction, and historical overviews—we met a need expressed in our survey results.

Digital Paxton’s overview of the conflict provides contexts for an event with which students are only vaguely familiar, but it does not necessarily supply students with definitive answers. Students build intimacy with the text by describing it, having to assess as they go along the choice of language and style used. Writing out the text seemed to improve students’ reading comprehension. By adding transcription guidelines, we further sought to help students avoid getting bogged down by the complication of language or handwriting. In their response essays, students use the text they transcribed as “evidence” about where the author stood ideologically within the conflict and how the conflict unfolded. As one student described, the source was a piece to their understanding of the larger puzzle.

Selecting a platform and developing a process through which future cohorts could contribute to the project were more complicated. After all, our approach—toggling between a web browser and word processor—would not work well for larger classes or transcription projects. We had three key stipulations for a prospective transcription platform: it had to be easily accessible to and usable for transcribers, well-supported, and interoperable with Scalar. We identified two platforms that met most of our requirements: Scripto and FromThePage. Both enabled users to record transcriptions alongside scanned pages, a priority, for students in the “Digitizing the Revolution” course. Scripto offered a free, open-source transcription tool, but it was not being fully supported by the developers, and we did not know if it would continue to be supported in the future. Moreover, Scripto required scanned pages to be migrated from Scalar to Omeka. We selected FromThePage because it was well-supported, did not require an Omeka installation, and Fenton could use his university library’s subscription (Fordham University).

On a logistical side, the survey responses also helped us understand the barriers to using online transcription tools. The most prevalent issue was readability of the scanned text, followed by challenges navigating the transcription platform. While there are limitations to how much can be done to address manuscript readability, especially when it comes to eighteenth-century manuscript material, we took the latter concern into account when we created “Using FromThePage.” In that documentation we sought to create clear, concise instructions on how to use FromThePage in conjunction with Digital Paxton. This effort included screenshots illustrating how to register as a user and how to locate pages available for transcribing, a key issue for participants at the transcribe-a-thon. By anticipating user experience issues, we hope to enable students to lose themselves in the rich texts and contexts on Digital Paxton, rather than spend valuable time and energy troubleshooting the mechanics of the process.

Future Collaborations

While our experiment in student manuscript transcription was not without its limitations, the process of pursuing student involvement and recording student feedback have made Digital Paxton a more effective teaching tool. Thanks to the labors of Kate Johnson, Kelly Schmidt, and Marie Pellissier, the project now includes best practices for transcribing eighteenth-century manuscripts (Transcription Best Practices), an assignment for integrating a similar exercise into a university classroom (Transcription Assignment), and a platform through which any educator may bring Friendly Association manuscripts into her classroom (Transcriptions).

From our research and practical experience, we have found that transcription of primary sources encourages students to read texts more closely, to view writers as human beings (rather than detached historical figures), to confront archival gaps, silences, and erasures, and to view their work as contributory to a collaborative project. In her recent post at the National Archives, Meredith Doviak wrote that with increased digital access to collections, students now have more opportunity to become “active critics and curators of those literary productions rather than mere explicators of them” (2017). Transcription projects can serve as vehicles through which students act as participants in knowledge creation, honing valuable critical thinking skills and a historically-informed sense of media literacy that will serve them well inside and outside the classroom.

Notes

[1] Nearly every study of the Paxton crisis cites Dunbar’s 60-year-old edition, and for good reason: it collects 28 noteworthy pamphlets and provides a useful introduction to the debate. Time has, however, revealed the edition’s limitations, foremost, its narrow selection of materials. Alison Gilbert Olson (1999) has since identified at least 63 pamphlets and 10 cartoons, and the distinction between pamphlets and political cartoons is itself ambiguous, given that many cartoons were nested inside of pamphlets, many of which circulated in multiple editions.
[2] Students can surface new perspectives from indigenous peoples and backcountry settlers by attending to a diverse set of records, all of which are available as open-access, print-quality images. Today, the project features more than 2,500 images, including 16 artworks, three books, 17 broadsides, 128 manuscripts, 26 newspaper and periodical issues, 69 pamphlets, and nine political cartoons, many of which have never before been digitized.
[3] For example, visitors will find a credit to Emina Hadzic at the bottom of her transcription of “Various Memoranda” (http://digitalpaxton.org/works/digital-paxton/various-memoranda-1760—1-1). She was also acknowledged (and tagged) in social media posts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
[4] Quotations in this section come from anonymous student answers to a course survey and are reproduced with names withheld by mutual agreement. “Explore Common Sense Survey,” administered by Kate Johnson, Marie Pellissier, and Kelly Schmidt. February 1, 2018.

Bibliography

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. 2009. “The Danger of a Single Story.” Filmed July 2009 at TED Global. TED video, 18:43.
https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript.

Clement, Tanya, Brian Croxall, et al. 2011. “Collaborators’ Bill of Rights.” Off the Tracks: Laying New Lines for Digital Humanities Scholars. Media Commons Press.
http://mcpress.media-commons.org/offthetracks/part-one-models-for-collaboration-career-paths-acquiring-institutional-support-and-transformation-in-the-field/a-collaboration/collaborators’-bill-of-rights.

Doviak, Meredith. 2017. “Teaching from the Archives.” Education Updates(blog). National Archives. February 9, 2017.
https://education.blogs.archives.gov/2017/02/09/teaching-from-archives/.

Grant-Costa, Paul and Tobias Glaza, and Michael Sletcher. 2012. “The Common Pot: Editing Native American Materials.” Scholarly Editing: The Annual of the Association for Documentary Editing 33: 1–17.
http://scholarlyediting.org/2012/pdf/essay.commonpot.pdf.

Josephs, Kelly Baker. 2018. “Teaching the Digital Caribbean: The Ethics of a Public Pedagogical Experiment.” The Journal of Interactive Technology & Pedagogy 13.
https://jitp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/teaching-the-digital-caribbean-the-ethics-of-a-public-pedagogical-experiment/.

Kashatus, William C. 2002. Past, Present & Personal: Teaching Writing in U.S. History. Portsmouth: Heinemann Educational Books.

Olson, Alison Gilbert. 1999. “The Pamphlet War over the Paxton Boys.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 123, no. 1/2: 31–55. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20093260.

Perry, Adele. 2005. “The Colonial Archive on Trial: Possession, Dispossession, and History in Delgamuukw v. British Columbia.” Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History: 325–50. https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822387046-015.

Reisman, Avishag, and Sam Wineburg. 2012. “Text complexity in the history classroom: Teaching to and beyond the common core.” Social Studies Review 51, no. 1: 24–29.

Sample, Mark. 2011. “Building and Sharing (When You’re Supposed to Be Teaching).” Journal of Digital Humanities 1, no. 1 (Winter).
http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-1/building-and-sharing-when-youre-supposed-to-be-teaching-by-mark-sample.

About the Authors

Will Fenton is the Director of Scholarly Innovation at the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Creative Director of Redrawing History: Indigenous Perspectives on Colonial America, funded by The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, and the founder and editor of Digital Paxton. Will earned his Ph.D. at Fordham University, where he specialized in early American literature and the digital humanities. He is the recipient of prestigious fellowships from the American Philosophical Society; Haverford College Quaker and Special Collections; the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory; the Library Company of Philadelphia; the Modern Language Association; and the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture. His writings have appeared in American QuarterlyCommon-Place, and ESQ and in numerous public platforms, including Inside Higher Ed, Slate, and PC Magazine.

Kelly Schmidt, co-creator of ExploreCommonSense.comis Research Coordinator for the Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project, co-sponsored by Saint Louis University and the Jesuits of the Central and Southern United States. She is a PhD candidate at Loyola University Chicago, where her research focuses on slavery, race, and abolition. Kelly has pursued her interests in museum work, public history, and digital humanities at several institutions, including the Heritage Village Museum, Cincinnati Museum Center, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Kate Johnson is an archival assistant at the University of Northern Colorado’s Archives and Special Collections. She earned her M.A. in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and her B.A. in History and German from the University of Northern Colorado. Her research interests are in women’s history, cultural history, and early America. She has worked in museums and public history institutions for over ten years, including holding positions at the Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, The Women and Leadership Archives, and the Frances Willard House Museum. She is a co-creator of the site, ExploreCommonSense.com and also currently serves as an appointed member of the National Council on Public History’s Digital Media Group.

Distorted image of institutional logo
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Born-Digital Archives in the Undergraduate Classroom

Abstract

This case study describes a first-year seminar titled “Born Digital,” taught by a university library faculty member within a digital humanities curricular initiative at a small liberal arts college. This course explored the concept of “born-digital archives” and asked the following questions: How will future scholars understand the twenty-first century world of fragmented and fragile knowledge production and storage? What can creators do to ensure their content will continue to serve as record of their community? How do archivists adjust to a new paradigm where collecting decisions must be made in an instant?

The course embedded significant training in digital competencies and information literacy skills within a seminar on digital memory and archival theory. We examined issues related to the ethics of appraisal, privacy, digital obsolescence, underrepresented communities, media studies, and collective memory. A series of hands-on lab sessions gave students the technical skills to create their own web archives on the Archive-It platform. For undergraduates, a course on born-digital archives can provide a critical window into understanding modern archival practices and concerns, as well as our personal and collective responsibilities as media producers and consumers. This article addresses the lessons learned when adapting professional practices for an undergraduate audience.

Introduction

“The average lifespan of a webpage is 100 days.” This striking statistic has made its way into several popular magazine articles in the last few years. These articles, published in places like The Atlantic (LaFrance 2015) and The New Yorker (Lepore 2015) are alarmist in tone, but they do dispel the notion that the web is a place of permanence. The mourning period for Geocities may be over, but the recent shuttering of Storify, and Photobucket’s “breaking of the Internet” by blocking image links for thousands of users following a subscription restructuring (Notopoulos 2017) remind us that our content will not be available in perpetuity. Even the source of this statistic was hard to track down due to link rot.[1]

It was experiences similar to this one—the troublesome journey through dead links to verify a citation—that inspired the creation of a first-year undergraduate seminar on the topic of born-digital archives, as a way to engage students in the realities of accessing and constructing a historical record. One of the exciting outcomes of the popularity of digital humanities projects in the undergraduate classroom is the increased engagement with the material and staff of local archives and special collections. For college students born in the twenty-first century, these DH projects create a tangible connection with a past where letters, ledgers, and newspapers were the primary modes of mass communication and record keeping. But what about the artifacts of our time? We produce millions of records on a daily basis in the form of email, social media, and the detritus of a 24-hour news cycle. Will these records even survive 100 days? How will future scholars understand the twenty-first century world of fragmented, fragile, and ephemeral knowledge production and storage? What can creators do to ensure their content will survive as a record of their community? How do archivists adjust to a new paradigm where collecting decisions must be made in an instant? Digital archivists are starting to figure out how to handle the vast volumes of data at risk. Just as importantly, they are working to establish best practices for ethical collecting. Is anything on the web fair game for capture? Is it right to ignore robots.txt? For undergraduates, a course on born-digital archives can provide a critical window into understanding modern archival practices, as well as their own responsibilities as media producers and consumers.

This View from the Field will describe a first-year seminar titled “Born Digital,” taught by a university library faculty member within a digital humanities curricular initiative at Washington and Lee University.[2] Since this course was taught at the introductory level in a multi-disciplinary environment, its methods and assignments could be adapted to a variety of classes. The course embedded significant training in digital competencies and information literacy skills within a seminar on digital memory and archival theory. We began with reflective conversations on the experience of being a “digital native,” and then moved on to exploring the concepts and skills necessary to create a born-digital archive using the Archive-It platform.[3] This case study will share the lessons learned while adapting professional archival practices for an undergraduate audience.

Course Design and Framing

How do born-digital objects and records change the way we approach teaching? There is an abundance of literature on teaching with archival material and digital technologies. A search for model courses returns digital history courses similar to Shawn Graham’s “Crafting Digital History”[4] and graduate-level courses on digital preservation from library and information programs. Creating a seminar on born-digital archives required adapting these graduate-level models to an undergraduate audience unfamiliar with the professional and methodological practices of archivists and historians.

Because our course explored new territory, it was essential to find readings that exposed students to the rich scholarly conversation around archival principles without weighing them down with jargon. Several texts met these criteria and were instrumental in shaping the course. Abbey Smith Rumsey’s When We Are No More (2016) provides a high-level view of our relationship with information. From the ancient Greeks to the development of modern science, Rumsey contextualizes the modern information revolution for students who were born after the invention of Google and reminds us that “we have a lot of information from the past about how people have made these choices before” (Rumsey 2016, 7). For the nuts and bolts of digital preservation, we relied on Trevor Owens’s Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation (2017), available as a pre-print at the time of the course. Not only is Owens well respected in the digital preservation world, his writing is engaging and approachable for undergraduates. Owens’s purpose for the text, offering “a path for getting beyond the hyperbole and the anxiety of ‘the digital’ and establish[ing] a baseline of practice” (Owens 2017, 6) fit well with the goals of the course. Our final course text, The Web as History: Using Web Archives to Understand the Past and Present (Brügger and Schroeder 2017), was essential for modeling the way scholars make meaning from born-digital archives. Ian Milligan’s chapter, “Welcome to the web: The online community of Geocities during the early years of the World Wide Web,” contextualizes Geocities in its time and provides examples of computational approaches to web archives (Brügger and Schroeder 2017).

The learning objectives for the course, listed below, drew from overlapping frameworks.

  • Students will learn and be able to apply the principles of archival theory and practice.
  • Students will think critically about the use and creation of digital records in their own lives and communities.
  • Students will analyze “born digital” archives through the lens of their chosen discipline(s).
  • Students will practice methods for collecting and preserving born-digital archives by conducting their own digital preservation project.

These objectives gesture toward the established digital humanities learning outcomes from A Short Guide to the Digital_Humanities[5] (Burdick et al. 2012), adopted by our curricular initiative. These outcomes emphasize the ability to assess information technologies and practice design thinking. The Association of College and Research Libraries’ Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education served as this course’s backbone (Association of College and Research Libraries 2015).[6] Students were asked to think critically about information in every assignment. From writing an annotated bibliography to creating metadata for their web archive, students moved from savvy information consumers to thoughtful information producers. The lab exercises drew from Bryn Mawr’s Digital Competencies initiative and framework. Students developed “digital survival skills” like file structure navigation, troubleshooting, and digital writing and publishing skills like HTML and CSS (Bryn Mawr College n.d.).

Structure and Assignments

This course[7] took place during a twelve-week term in the winter of 2018. We met for ninety minutes twice a week and divided the week into discussion and lab days. Thematically, the course began with three weeks of introductions to the major concepts of the course: the idea of the “digital native,” collective memory, record keeping, and archives as institutions. The first assignment was a personal essay on these concepts and provided an initial indication of students’ comprehension and writing ability. Starting with this framing gave students an opportunity to share personal information and ultimately created a strong sense of community within the class.

In week four, we transitioned out of the personal sphere with a visit to the university library’s Special Collections and Archives department. After an introduction to the unit and its operations, students formed small groups and selected from a small pool of manuscript collections. For the second assignment, students unpacked each collection to learn about its creator, context, and provenance. The hands-on experience with archival sources readied them to consider individual archival principles like original order and respect des fonds (the idea that archival records should be grouped by creator). We even discussed the role and resources of the Special Collections and Archives department within our institutional context.

After week seven, we devoted each week to discussing one aspect of the records management lifecycle—appraisal, acquisition, arrangement and description, access, and outreach. Students worked toward their final project through a series of assignments: an annotated bibliography of existing born-digital collections and scholarly articles on a potential topic, a proposal for their born-digital collection, a process log, a short presentation, and a final reflection. Their final project was conducted through an educational partnership with Archive-It, a web archiving service. For a fee, we received 15GB of space in an Archive-It account and a live training session from an Archive-It staff member. Students selected ten websites on a topic of their choosing, from NFL protests to cryptocurrency.[8] They crawled each of their URLs to create a snapshot that would be preserved by the Internet Archive. The process log was the primary graded product to ensure that platform difficulties did not unevenly affect students.

Labs and Technical Skills

Throughout the course, we held a series of lab days to learn the technical skills necessary for the web archiving project. Lab days were relaxed and instructions were available on the course website so students could work at their own pace. Grouping students by operating system helped with peer-to-peer problem solving when technical errors occurred. On the first day, we built simple websites with HTML and CSS—essential languages for troubleshooting captured websites in Archive-It. Another lab session focused on the command line, using existing tutorials like “The Command Line Crash Course (Shaw n.d.).[9] This skill came in useful when a guest speaker led a workshop on Twarc, a command line tool for capturing social media data (specifically Twitter), created by Documenting the Now.[10] One of the most engaging lab days was spent making glitch art to complement our discussion of file fixity in digital objects. We modified images and audio by opening the files in a text editor and scrambling the content to demonstrate the fragility of digital files.

All of the labs contributed to improving computer and web literacies. Despite their reputation as digital natives, most of the first-year students did not know much about how the web worked. Working with HTML or the command line was an exciting look behind the curtain. Not only did the labs improve specific skills, they helped students become comfortable learning and troubleshooting digital tools.

Results

Students successfully achieved the goals of this course. The primary challenge from the instructor’s point of view was translating professional concepts to a first-year audience. The projects and lab activities were essential in bringing archival principles to life. The opportunity to work with manuscript collections was a highlight for many students and let them experience the realities of archival work. By using the Archive-It platform, students created something that would live beyond them and the bounds of the course. Working with their own topic was both exciting and challenging. It created a strong level of investment, but required explicit training in generating an appropriate research agenda.

Overall, most students easily met the first two learning objectives of learning archival principles and thinking critically about their own digital footprint. Student performance was uneven regarding the more analytical objectives, such as analyzing existing born-digital archives and creating their own collection. Project-based assignments were new to these first-year students, as was the emphasis on process over product. Student evaluations were positive, with most citing the value of learning about an underrepresented field and gaining a new perspective. However, from the instructor perspective, the best method of assessment would be to track the information literacy practices of the students throughout their college career. As the digital humanities curriculum initiative transitions into a digital culture and information minor, hopefully this type of assessment will be possible.

Conclusion

A course centered on archival research, whatever form it may take, is an ideal vehicle for teaching a range of scholarly practices and content areas. It is important for current students to be able to assess and understand the digital content they consume and produce every day. A course on born-digital archives opens the possibilities beyond specific manuscript collections or institutional records to anything on the web. Students held a range of opinions on the trustworthiness of the government and private institutions as preservers of the cultural record, but they all recognized the value in taking ownership of your data and preventing gaps and biases in collections. Their reflections consistently mentioned the importance of community-created and -controlled archives. Hopefully this case study inspires other instructors to make use of born-digital archives in their teaching.

Notes

[1] “The Signal,” the Library of Congress’s blog on digital stewardship, cites a Washington Post article (Ashenfelder 2011) as the source for this statistic, but their embedded link results in a 404 for an individual’s blog. Tracking down the Washington Post article in a subscription-based newspaper database indicates that the quote was attributed to Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, though no context or evidence is given.

[2] More information is available at https://digitalhumanities.wlu.edu/.

[3] Archive-It is a subscription-based web archiving service offered by the Internet Archive. The university library sponsored an “Educational Partnership” account for this course. Archive-It works with a variety of partners, including K-12 schools. They can be found at http://archive-it.org/.

[4] Available at http://site.craftingdigitalhistory.ca/.

[5] Available at http://jeffreyschnapp.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/D_H_ShortGuide.pdf.

[6] Available at http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework.

[7] The course website is hosted on the GitBook platform and synced with the instructor’s GitHub account: https://mackenziekbrooks.gitbooks.io/dh-180-born-digital/content/.

[8] The final projects can be accessed here: https://archive-it.org/organizations/1374.

[9] Available at https://learnpythonthehardway.org/book/appendixa.html.

[10] Documenting the Now is a collaborative effort to build community and tools around social media preservation. It can be accessed at https://www.docnow.io/.

Bibliography

Ashenfelder, Mike. 2011. “The Average Lifespan of a Webpage” The Signal. November 8, 2011. http://blogs.loc.gov/thesignal/2011/11/the-average-lifespan-of-a-webpage/.

Association of College and Research Libraries. 2015. “Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education.” February 9, 2015. http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework.

Brügger, Niels, and Ralph Schroeder, eds. 2017. The Web as History: Using Web Archives to Understand the Past and the Present. London: UCL Press. http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1542998/1/The-Web-as-History.pdf.

Bryn Mawr College. n.d. “Digital Competencies” Accessed June 29, 2018. https://www.brynmawr.edu/digitalcompetencies.

Burdick, Anne, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp, eds. 2012. Digital Humanities. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

LaFrance, Adrienne. 2015. “Raiders of the Lost Web.” The Atlantic, October 14, 2015. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/10/raiders-of-the-lost-web/409210/.

Lepore, Jill. 2015. “What the Web Said Yesterday.” The New Yorker, January 19, 2015. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/01/26/cobweb.

Notopoulos, Katie. 2017. “Photobucket Is Holding People’s Photos For ‘Ransom.’” BuzzFeed. July 7, 2017. https://www.buzzfeed.com/katienotopoulos/photobucket-just-killed-a-chunk-of-internet-history.

Owens, Trevor. 2017. The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. https://osf.io/preprints/lissa/5cpjt.

Rumsey, Abby Smith. 2016. When We Are No More: How Digital Memory Is Shaping Our Future. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

Shaw, Zed A. n.d. “Appendix A: Command Line Crash Course.” Learn Python the Hard Way. Accessed November 25, 2018. https://learnpythonthehardway.org/book/appendixa.html.

About the Author

Mackenzie Brooks is Assistant Professor and Digital Humanities Librarian at Washington and Lee University. There, she teaches in the Digital Culture and Information minor and coordinates Digital Humanities initiatives. Her research focuses on digital pedagogy, scholarly text encoding, and metadata.

A photo of shelves of paper files in an archive.
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Narrating Memory through Rhetorical Reflections: CUNY Students and Their Archives

Abstract

This essay analyzes the importance of connection in teaching with archives: connections between our goals for our projects; between students and their research projects; between the past and the present; between students, faculty, and embedded librarians; and between the physical act of archival research and the digital writing to record that research. In this essay, two faculty and one librarian detail their projects assigning archival research in physical archives: the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives at the Tamiment Library at New York University and the Hunter College Archives. As our undergraduate students researched in physical archives and shared their research through digital platforms, they became active agents of generational transmission by publicly sharing the life histories and experiences of former CUNY students involved in activist movements. Through analysis of these collaborative, digital archival assignments, we show the role that students can play in transmitting institutional memory while learning about and engaging with primary sources.

“Internet searching doesn’t hold a candle to that visceral feeling of an old primary document. All of my senses were triggered on this archive visit, and I was only there for half a day. I would like to return to the archive—this archive, any archive—without an assignment or mission attached and just have some fun exploring.” —Elyse Orecchio[1]

“During our visit to Tamiment Library, I was moved by the fact that each box contained individual memories of an American volunteer in the Spanish Civil War. I wondered how much of one person’s life could fit in these boxes, and how these documents could help narrating the friendships among young soldiers, the making of improvised families, the experiences of the displaced children, and how some these lives might have survived the war. I wondered, finally, how much legacy can these archives preserve?” —Marcelo Agudo

In a class session announcing a visit to the Hunter College Archives, several students in a class of juniors and seniors admitted that they had never even been inside the Hunter College Library—or any library. We might all shudder at the thought, but it is quite common for students to have no reason for entering a physical library or speaking with a librarian face to face. It is not that students Google everything: they have extensive remote access to scholarly journals and primary sources through electronic databases, and digital holdings now outpace physical holdings at libraries. Furthermore, librarians are available through digital platforms to assist students with their research. As student reflections from our courses show, the experience of entering a library, working with physical primary sources, and interacting with librarians face-to-face became a positive practice that not only introduced students to a new method and approach to research, but also resulted in new attitudes towards libraries, librarians, and the relevance of institutional memory.

The central question of this essay focuses on the role of students in institutional memory: what does it mean for undergraduates to do the work of narrating memory? Here we elaborate our archival research assignments: María Hernández-Ojeda’s Narrating Memory assignment taught in her courses on Spanish literature, and Wendy Hayden’s Rhetorical Reflections assignment, taught in her courses on rhetoric and writing. We both assigned undergraduates at Hunter College-CUNY to perform archival research in physical archives and report on that research on digital platforms (all WordPress based sites): Narrating Memory, Rhetorical Reflections in the Hunter College Archives, and Archival Research and Rhetoric. Iris Finkel, Reference and Instruction Librarian at Hunter College, redefined the role of the librarian in classroom instruction as she assisted students and faculty with research assignments in both physical and digital archives and used her digital humanities expertise to help students and faculty understand the norms and creative approaches to digital presentation. Although the three of us began these projects separately, here we bring them together in order to illustrate the theme of connection in teaching with archives: connections between our goals for our projects; between students and their research projects; between the past and the present; between students, faculty, and librarians; and between the physical act of archival research and the digital writing to record that research.

Over twenty years ago, Randy Bass (1997) promoted active learning pedagogy that incorporated primary sources and new technologies. Bass illustrated how new technologies facilitated engagement and fostered collaboration among students, using examples of assignments where students interacted with “electronic primary source archives (on the World Wide Web, or CD-ROM)” (1997, 15). Through hypertext, then a revolutionary new feature of interactive media, students were readily able to explore outside the source to find other meaning-making connections. Using technologies such as email, listservs, electronic discussion lists, and teleconferencing, students discussed primary sources outside the classroom. Students collaborated, made new connections in the material, and communicated knowledge that added a different perspective. Students moved from knowledge “consumers to producers” (Bass 1997, 33). We show how emerging technologies continue to empower student voices.

Recent scholarship shows that more teachers are assigning physical archival research to undergraduates, a trend Hayden (2017) has called “The Archival Turn’s Pedagogical Turn.” Students have been assigned to research in institutional archives (Brand, Kendall, and Sanders 2012; Johnson and Mulder 2011), community archives (Grobman 2017; Mutnick 2018), and in larger repositories (Devos et al. 2012; Mock 2015). In addition, archivists are reaching out to teachers to form partnerships with specific classes, such as the Brooklyn Historical Society’s TeachArchives.org (Golia and Katz 2018). Recent books, including the collections Pedagogies of Public Memory: Teaching Writing and Rhetoric at Museums, Archives, and Memorials (Greer and Grobman 2016), In the Archives of Composition: Writing and Rhetoric in High Schools and Normal Schools (Ostergaard and Wood 2015), and the textbook Primary Research and Writing: People, Places, and Spaces (Gaillet and Eble 2016), reflect a focus on archival pedagogies in rhetoric and composition studies. This research demonstrates that teaching with archives facilitates active learning. In addition, teaching with archives provides an ideal opportunity to teach information literacy. And from a digital humanities perspective, archival material can be analyzed and repurposed in new ways for new audiences, as our projects demonstrate.

In previous articles, Hayden (2015; 2017) has enumerated the benefits of teaching with archives related to what Susan Wells (2009) calls the “gifts of the archives”: archival research teaches students 1) to resist simple answers to their research questions, 2) to contribute to ongoing conversations in a discipline through publishing undergraduate research, and 3) to connect with their research topics personally. In this essay, we focus on the third, to show what CUNY students learned by researching past CUNY students, and how encounters with archival materials can facilitate student-centered learning experiences in other institutions and contexts.

Composition and Rhetoric graduate students at the CUNY Graduate Center have produced several dissertations on the importance of CUNY to histories of the discipline (Molloy 2016; Savonick 2018). Anthony G. Picciano and Chet Jordan (2018) recently published CUNY’s First Fifty Years: Triumphs and Ordeals of a People’s University, which documents CUNY’s history in the context of free and open-admissions universities. The CUNY Digital History Archive not only aims to document the unique history of CUNY and its role in larger movements in higher education but also invites researchers, teachers, and students to collaborate on developing the archive and its uses for archival and digital humanities assignments in CUNY courses (Brier 2017). The CUNY Digital History Archive reflects both CUNY’s emphasis on archives and on publishing on digital platforms. All of these projects document CUNY’s history and the teachers and students who have shaped it. Students in our courses add to these histories while constructing a unique history of activist students and their roles in larger social movements. And it is important to us that undergraduate students rather than faculty do this work, both to highlight the value of archives and to involve undergraduate students in documenting institutional memory.

According to Ekaterina Haskins (2007), we need to go beyond memory work that is done by those in power. Haskins (2007, 402) notes, “relegating the task of remembering to official institutions and artifacts arguably weakens the need for a political community actively to remember its past.” When current CUNY students use archival research to narrate the memory of former CUNY students, they participate in a “continuous transmission of shared past through participatory performance” (Haskins 2007, 402).

Students in our courses performed research in the institutional archives at Hunter College and the Tamiment Library at New York University, exploring topics such as the efforts of Hunter women to establish free kindergarten in New York City, to organize the Lenox Hill Settlement House, and to become involved in CUNY student activism during the two World Wars and the Spanish Civil War. And in a “meta-analytic” topic, some students have researched and analyzed the research processes of past student researchers at Hunter, whose typewritten, whited-out drafts give insight into the revision processes of earlier generations of students. Whether they were collecting stories of women returning to college, documenting the involvement of students in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War, or processing archival collections, they were becoming both active agents of generational transmission and digital archivists themselves. These students not only recovered the voices of CUNY students, such as the “returning woman” and Abraham Lincoln volunteers, but they also extended the original goals of these past students in a new digital context, creating their own digital archives, either in written or multimedia form, blending the voices of the past and present students of CUNY.

Goals

Archives enable unique pedagogical approaches to the topics of our courses. María’s undergraduate courses concentrated on twentieth-century Spanish literature, where the Spanish Civil War (SCW) is a constant presence in class discussions, whether through the exiled poets of the 1927 generation, the novels of tremendismo, or the issues of memory and identity in today’s literary Spain. The SCW served as  a common subject uniting historical and fictional narratives in the course. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA), which include primary-source documents related to a group of Americans who volunteered to serve in the SCW, helped bring the past to life for contemporary CUNY students. The Lincoln Brigade, the American battalion that participated in the Spanish Civil War within the International Brigades, included about 2800 men and women who left the US between 1936 and 1938 to fight fascism in Spain. The Lincoln Brigade’s commitment was an act of disobedience to the US government, which remained neutral, while other Western nations signed a non-intervention pact when the Spanish Civil War began in 1936. Some of these volunteers were CUNY faculty and students themselves. In the Narrating Memory project, today’s students connected with the stories and experiences of American volunteers in the SCW and began to understand why fellow CUNY students left everything and sailed to Spain to fight a war the US government largely ignored.

Wendy’s undergraduate courses incorporated the Hunter College Archives to show the centrality of recovery of lost voices to the field of rhetoric. Researching activist students, teachers, and writers in a local context allowed students to enter scholarly conversations about historiography and institutional memory. The archive project introduced students to a new method of research and information literacy skills.

Initially, we both hoped assigning archival research would allow undergraduates to make their own historical discoveries, learn the skills of archival research, and reflect on the complexities of history as a subjective concept. The work that students produced in these courses exceeded our expectations.

The Archives

New York City provides teachers access to many physical archives, such as the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Lesbian Herstory Archives, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, among others. We concentrate here on the pedagogical opportunities offered by institutional archives: the Hunter College Archives and the ALBA collection at the Tamiment Library at New York University.

The Hunter College Archives include collections dating back to Hunter’s founding in 1870 as the Normal School. Student projects have focused on Hunter College student communities, such as the newsletters Returning Woman (1981–1998) and Lesbians Rising (1976–1983); on writers and teachers at Hunter College, such as Kate Simon (1959–1989) and Helen Gray Cone (1859–1934); and on Hunter students’ roles in larger movements, such as the Women’s City Club (1915–2011) and the Lenox Hill Settlement House (1892–2015). In addition to researching existing materials in the archives, they added to the archives with documents from their own clubs, worked with unprocessed collections, and created a finding aid, all to tell the story of the students of CUNY and their roles in larger social movements.

The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives at the Tamiment Library contain materials related to American involvement in the Spanish Civil War. The Tamiment Library is a nationally-recognized space for scholars interested in researching labor history, civil rights movements, and left political ideology. The collection holds about 50,000 books, 15,000 periodicals, and about one million pamphlets and ephemera. The Tamiment Library contains letters, books, photographs, news, interviews, and other compelling information that is imperative to understand the contribution of the Lincolns.

Librarian Collaboration

At the Tamiment, María initially worked with former Public Services and Instruction Librarian Kate Donovan and currently works with Public Service Librarian Sara Moazeni, and Reference Associate Danielle Nista. The librarians reviewed the course syllabus and became familiar with the course goals prior to the first class visit. After introducing the students to the ALBA collection, the librarians provided an information sheet and instructional activities for students to discuss in groups in order to familiarize them with the archival material. In February 2018, librarian Danielle Nista arranged four sets of documents (posters, diaries, and photos) for our analysis. She organized four groups of approximately five students so they could rotate and discuss each item to provide a broad introduction to the archives.

At the Hunter College Archives, former head archivists Julio Hernandez-Delgado and Louise Sherby developed an introductory session where students read several articles on Hunter College history before their visit. During the class visit, the archivists led a discussion of the assigned articles, introduced the collections, and demonstrated how to use a finding aid. More than a “how to” session, the introduction was a discussion of the history of the college as documented in the archives. Students used that discussion to formulate research questions. Iris developed a library guide to the archives that includes general information about the types of materials held in archives, instructions on citing archival material, and links to online exhibitions.

As the project developed, Iris joined Wendy’s classes as an embedded librarian, and in that role integrated a digital humanities focus. Beyond the embedded librarian’s traditional responsibilities such as helping students with research and navigating physical and digital archives, for these archival assignments Iris guided students in using WordPress to communicate their work to a broader audience, thereby acting as knowledge producers. Iris introduced students to digital tools such as the timeline software Tiki Toki and Weebly, a content management system more user friendly than WordPress. She commented on students’ blog posts to point out information gaps and suggested resources to help fill those gaps. From her position within the classroom, Iris established relationships with students and met with them both in groups and individually during class time. Through this process she was able to determine the best fit for individual projects based on each student’s comfort level with new technologies and features of tools. Overall, collaboration among embedded librarians, archivists, students, and faculty was integral to the success of student projects and to the class.

The Assignments

The class visit to the Tamiment helped students to understand the role of the archive in their final project, and from then on they visited the archive on their own. Each student chose one Lincoln volunteer as the subject of their final essay and researched archival material to elaborate their motives to fight in the war. The final paper, posted individually on the Narrating Memory website, represented the culmination of the semester-long research they undertook at the Tamiment.

Students in the rhetoric courses were assigned to find a document or documents in the Hunter archives and tell that document’s story in relation to any theme in the course, such as women’s activism, silencing, writing, education, or civil rights rhetoric. They documented their findings and their research process on the Rhetorical Reflections blog (named by the students). They often detailed how they went into the archives interested in one topic and had to abandon that topic because it lacked material or because they found a more interesting topic. Wendy emphasized in class that they should document their entire process, even when it did not lead to anything. As Lynee Gaillet (2017, 109) points out, “Primary investigation often involves following a fun trail of clues … or a serendipitous find. Unfortunately, however, academicians often manage to stifle this most interesting aspect of our research in publications and rarely explain the process we find so engaging to either readers or students.” Based on these ideas, we asked students to include as many details as possible on their process, even when they found documents not relevant to their research topic, so future students can learn from their process and better locate materials relevant to their own projects. The class focus on process led to a publication in Young Scholars in Writing by student Esra Padgett (2015), whose article “Feminist Research as Journey (Or, Like, Whatever?)” asserts, “Rather than pinning down an answer, [this] essay attempts to follow the trajectory of the research itself, observing how perspectives can shift drastically depending on one’s method of inquiry.”

The digital aspects of our assignments aligned with digital humanities objectives of learning to locate, present, support, and cite research and scholarship. Through these assignments, students engaged with technology and considered different modes of presentation to support their scholarship. In addition to learning new ways to engage with content and enhance their digital literacy, students developed visual awareness through the process of finding appropriate images and media to complement textual content, and sometimes to represent content without text.

Both projects foreground the role of active learning. While we could teach students about the Spanish Civil War or rhetorical traditions using other methods such as assigning anthologies of primary or secondary sources, these methods would not engage students the same way. The true motivation to learn about the course material begins in the archives. From the moment students came into contact with the documents on the ALB volunteers at the Tamiment, everything they studied became meaningful. For example, we found that student writing improves through the projects, whether because of their passion for the topic or the blog format. Students also recognized the relevance of their writing style and accuracy, as their work was accessed by outside readers, some of whom have a connection with the material. All of the students began to understand how their voices were contributing to efforts to interrogate public memory. Writing, here, became a direct form of activism, as well as an academic exercise.

CUNY Connections

The archival visits generated a variety of connections for students and by students. Students connected with the stories and experiences of American volunteers in the SCW and began to understand why fellow CUNY students left everything and sailed to Spain to fight a war the US government largely ignored. Student Ashley Martinez found that the archive lacked information about David McKelvy White, a professor of English at Brooklyn College who unexpectedly left his teaching position in 1937 to fight in the SCW, so she expanded her search well beyond the Tamiment: “I have embarked on a nationwide search for information. I have found letters and stories [McKelvy White] wrote at the NYPL, additional documents from the Ohio Historical Society, which sent me the letters between David and his father, the Governor of Ohio, as well as documents he wrote during his political activism years after the SCW.” While Ashley began her project from an impartial position, keeping McKelvy White’s memory alive turned into an urgent task, a need to memorialize his life. Like many of the fictional characters discussed in the course, such as Lola and Javier Cercas in Soldiers of Salamis (Cercas 2001), Carlos Sousa in The Carpenter’s Pencil (Rivas 1998), or Minaya in Beatus Ille (Muñoz Molina 1986), Ashley became a young receptor of history, an interlocutor to an older generation keeping the memories of those who fought in the SCW alive.

Several students chose to research someone with a connection to their own life and academic interests. For instance, student Cody Butler wanted to study the life of Fernando Gerassi, the father of his professor at Queens College, John “Tito” Gerassi. Leon Ramotar wanted to learn about Hunter College alumna Helene Weissman, who joined the ALB as a medical administrative aid and interpreter. Pre-med student Kathleen Jedruszczuk wrote her final essay on the renowned Dr. Edward K. Barsky, a surgeon, political activist, and graduate from City College. In her project, Kathleen explained, “Reading about Edward Barsky’s life made me realize that he was more than just ‘aid to Spain’; he was an aid to humanity. Anyone who risks their life for people, goes to jail for the people, and becomes a doctor to help those people is an aid to humanity.” Student Rebecca Halff focused on Robert Klonsky and the relevance of Brownsville, Brooklyn, a diverse, working-class, and Jewish community with strong communist leanings, as a catalyst to join the ALB.

Through their research, students placed themselves into the stories told in the archives, both implicitly and explicitly. For example, Elyse Orecchio and Janice Johnson, both non–traditional-aged “returning women,”  researched the archives of the Returning Woman newsletter at Hunter and reflected on the connections they found. Janice perused the collection until she found work by a Puerto Rican woman like herself who was returning to college. Janice stated, “I was able to look and reflect on my own experience as a returning woman. I am that woman in the newsletter. I am the returning woman, the returning Hispanic woman, the returning student.” Elyse related, “I didn’t expect to get emotional when I looked through the first few issues of the newsletter. There was a lot of supportive, motivational writing that acknowledged this idea that you have a million other things going on, but you are doing this great thing for yourself.” Janice decided to create her own website that showcased her primary archival documents and video interviews with classmates—including Elyse—on the struggles of women returning to college.

The online format of the projects allowed students to write for audiences beyond the classroom and enabled explicit connections with those audiences. For example, student Haley Trunkett wrote her essay on May Levine Hartzman, a New Yorker who worked as an operating nurse during the SCW. She met her husband, Jacob Hartzman, in Spain, where he was an ambulance driver. Their son Peter provided information to Haley. Student Laura Montoya received feedback from Georgia Wever, the coordinator of the Friends and Family of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives. Laura wrote about Jewish involvement in the SCW, and in particular, the story of volunteer Mark Strauss. In her comment, Georgia Wever wrote:

Dear Laura, What an interesting and inspiring story of a great person. With very little information, you manage to capture his humor and courage. I am disappointed that I never met him. I attended many reunions and banquets of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade at which all the veterans would stand, but I don’t recall him. I regret that you did not locate anyone who knew him because I would like to know more about his life after Spain. Perhaps someone will read this essay on our listserv and leave a reply. Thank you again for the affection you put into his story.

Students also wrote to former students and their families. For example, Carl Creighton wrote to the family of the president of the Hunter College Suffrage Clubs, who knew nothing of her suffrage activities. Elyse emailed the Hunter student who wrote the paper she found in the archives and received a response that connected the past and the present. As Deborah Mutnick (2016) explains, “Part of the archive’s appeal to my students is what Lucy Lippard refers to as the ‘lure of the local.’ Students encounter documents that reveal the history of the very streets they walk, and they gain a sense of empathy for the historical actors they study.” For our students, the people whose stories are told in the archives were more than only “historical actors,” but real people they interacted with through digital connections.

Melissa Hutton’s project in Wendy’s fall 2015 class prompted us to think of the blogs themselves as an archive. She responded to scholarship on digital writing by analyzing the writing and research practices of her peers as documented on their blogs. She concluded, “These blog posts are a perfect example of primary documents being born digitally and facilitating a place for online research.” Melissa’s work inspired revisions to the archive assignment. For example, Wendy added a requirement to link to other student blog posts on similar topics and tag the blogs with descriptors such as “World War II” for blogs discussing women’s activism during the war, thus  turning the website into a student-written and -researched history of a tradition at Hunter. In fall 2018, Wendy is approaching the archive assignment differently by having her first-year writing students read student blogs first, and then work with the same documents previous students did and develop new questions about those documents and compare different archival research processes. The blogging technology thus creates an archive of students’ research in archives, useful to future students researching in archives.

Conclusion

In the digital world, research can seem a disembodied and impersonal task for undergraduate students. We found that the physicality of archival research, far from being a burden to students, is the very thing that makes them connect with their research and their institution. Inviting a librarian into the classroom personalizes research and encourages students’ confidence in their work as they receive support to facilitate their research and present it in an appropriate format.

From a librarian’s perspective, the lessons students learn from archival research, particularly understanding the differences between primary and secondary sources and how one can provide support for the other, make them stronger researchers even when they are not researching in archives. Melissa and Iris discussed how this distinction between primary and secondary sources needs to be redefined in a digital context. For example, a student blog post may not be an authoritative source to cite, but Melissa noted the value of these blog posts to researchers in the field of library studies or composition studies: “While regarding student blog posts as secondary sources might not be wholly credible for authenticating an academic paper or constructing a historical narrative, viewing them as primary sources gives them new meaning as legitimate firsthand student accounts. … Student blog posts acquire a currency hard to find in finely-combed scholarly sources. In this case, student blog posts provide us with interpretations of rhetoric and archival research instruction.” They might be used as an archive to explore student research processes from an academic perspective or as a mode of communication between scholars. If someone were doing research on the ALB or on the struggles of women returning to college, the blogs on Narrating Memory or Rhetorical Reflections may be a useful window into those topics.

Researching CUNY students and professors through the ALBA collection and the institutional archives at Hunter placed students within a tradition of student activists as they contributed to the process of memorialization. The act of telling the story of someone unknown and becoming an intermediary of both primary and secondary internet research also meant their work was meaningful in ways that traditional research papers may not be (Keegan and McElroy 2015; Mutnick 2016). Students in our courses became active agents of generational transmission for the ALB volunteers and the history of CUNY by transmitting their life histories and shared experiences.

Our students directly benefited from the collaboration between their instructor and librarians, as well as Hunter College and the Tamiment’s commitment to making their collections available. The accessibility of archives to students, researchers, and the general reader can make them a democratic and pedagogical tool. Unfortunately, many archives are suffering from serious funding cuts and increasingly limited access. The future of archives depends on valuing historical materials and reimagining their purposes in the present. Eighty years after the SCW began, we continue to learn about the crucial role that the ALB volunteers played in the fight against fascism. Delmer Berg, the last Lincoln alive, died on February 28th, 2016. Thanks to the younger American generations who narrate their legacy, voices like Berg’s and those of former CUNY students will remain in history, and in our memory.

Notes

[1] All student work mentioned in this essay is used with permission. Students indicated that they would like their full names used to credit their work.

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About the Authors

Wendy Hayden is Associate Professor of English at Hunter College, CUNY.

María Hernández-Ojeda is Associate Professor of Spanish at Hunter College, CUNY.

Iris Finkel is Reference and Instruction / Web Librarian at Hunter College, CUNY.

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