Tagged composition and rhetoric

A photo of shelves of paper files in an archive.

Narrating Memory through Rhetorical Reflections: CUNY Students and Their Archives


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.


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.


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.


[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.


Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives. 2018. Accessed June 10th, 2018.

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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.

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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About the Authors

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

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

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

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