Water-color image of guinea pig conducting archival research.

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.




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