Posted by: emilysuzanneclark | May 4, 2017

Taking Classes to the Archives

Cross-posted at Religion in American History

Readers might remember that I like to post about teaching. A big part of my teaching is primary sources and that increasingly includes archives. I first blogged about taking a class into the Jesuit archives back in November 2015, shortly after having my American Christianities class work in the archives. That was my first time taking my class on an archival field trip, and since then I’ve taken four more classes back. I’m hooked, and it seems they are too. Many have told me that they hope the assignment remains on the syllabus for future classes.

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Two students digitizing photos, from spring 2016 Native American Religions.

Back when I took my first class into the archives, I blogged and raved about Anthony Grafton and James Grossman’s piece in The American Scholar about how student experiences in archives help them develop “habits of mind” and begin to form their scholarly selves. Now, when I take my class into the archives we’re not doing full-blown research projects, but we might be getting there. Since that initial foray into archives and pedagogy, I’ve taken my spring 2016 Native American Religions class into the Jesuit archives, along with a first-year seminar called Race in America (fall 2016 and spring 2017), and my American Christianities class again (spring 2017). With the exception of Native American Religions each class spent one week on an archival project; Native American Religions spent about four weeks. Each class I’ve learned more about how to effectively teach with archives, and each time, I have loved it.

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Short digitizing break to smile for the camera! (That class was the only one I photographed.)

I won’t summarize the American Christianities archive experience, as that was recounted last time. This semester we did more or less the same project. The Native American Religions class project had a digital humanities component and really needs a stand-alone post. The project had its successes and its not-so-successes and I’m stoked to try it again with two sections this fall! (If you’re really curious, click here.) Instead I’d like to focus here on my Race in America first-year seminar class. They looked at 5 boxes from the “Radicals Collection,” an unprocessed hodgepodge. A while back there was a Jesuit who was fascinated by radical groups in the region and begin to collect newspaper clippings, pamphlets, photographs, etc. on various radical groups. There are four boxes of material on the Ku Klux Klan and one on various white supremacy groups in Idaho and the rest of the region (Neo-Nazis, skinheads, Aryan Nations, and more). In groups of four, they each took one of those boxes. Being an unprocessed collection meant there was no archival guide and no clear organization for the material. I encouraged the class to enjoy that aspect. They had recently finished Paul Harvey’s Bounds of Their Habitation: Race and Religion in American History and I reminded them that he had to sift through tons of material to tell that story. Their task was similar: figure out the story of their box. Each group turned in a 3-4 page reflection on the experience that focused on four main questions: What kind of materials did you look at? What did those materials have to say? What do they tell us as scholars? How do they fit in their historical and cultural contexts? They were fascinated by the KKK’s local popularity, as the Jesuit amassed a lot of material about the Klan in Portland, Seattle, Spokane, and the rest of the Pacific Northwest. The Klan-produced material helped them see how the organization marketed and presented itself, and the newspaper coverage highlighted both acceptance of the Klan and pushback. The newspaper clippings on the strong presence of the Aryan Nations in the late 20th century (1970s and 1980s) reminded them that though the KKK is not widespread in the region anymore, the power of white supremacy is certainly still around. (To prepare them for this project, we read Kelly J. Baker’s “Robes, Fiery Crosses, and the American Flag: The Materiality of the 1920s’ Klan’s Patriotism, and Intolerance”from Material Religion.)

As a fun bonus for those still reading, here’s my take on best practices with archival projects (which might one day be its own blog post). Others might have a different take, and each project is going to be a little different.
1. Allow time and room for play. I sometimes feel like class time can be rigid, which is not a bad thing on its own but it can get monotonous. Spending time with archives switches things up and gets students out of their desks and into a new space. Those two things alone set a different tone and atmosphere that encourages creativity and curiosity. Archives, then, become a great place to explore.

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Two students and the wonderful archivist (David Kingma) digitizing photos, from spring 2016 Native American Religions.

2. Select manageable amounts of material. Too much material can overwhelm students who are not used to archives and lead to exclamations of, “we can’t read all this!” I remind them often that reading everything is not their task, but rather to begin crafting a story based on the material in front of them. I also don’t like giving them too few documents, but rather the right amount to keep them busy and interested. In other words, I try to leave them with even more questions.
3. I’m a fan of group work for archive projects. They can divide and conquer more material, they work through difficult/challenging/strange documents together, and they explain the material to each other. If you do group projects though, I recommend having each student fill out a short peer team assessment form that has them evaluate how they and the rest of the group cooperated together. It typically helps ensure a healthy group dynamic and it encourages them to be thoughtful about how they work with their peers—something they’ll need to know, regardless of their chosen careers. (Confession: I stole my peer team assessment form from the fantastic Katie Faull.)
4. Befriend your library and special collections staff! Not only are they wonderful people, but also they are the best wellsprings of knowledge about the material. And, chances are, they enjoy working with undergraduate students! With an archival project, collaboration is your friend.

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