A Class Field Trip to the Archive

I actually Googled how to re-start a blog today. Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of what I discovered—as with all writing tips—was obvious, unhelpful, and confirmed my belief that it is always about overcoming one’s anxiety. However, a common theme that emerged was looking forward: archive those old posts, catch up with what’s been happening, start afresh, look forward, enjoy the blank slate and so on. It didn’t feel very me somehow. When I cast my eyes back across the blog posts I have written so far, I recognize a continual return to this blog’s motivating impulse as it emerged during a graduate seminar on Digital Materialities: the archive. I’ve reviewed multiple digital archives, explained their role in my research, and even chronicled how I’ve begun developing my own digital archive for the John Temple papers. In studying nineteenth-century literature, I am always looking back in order to look forward. As I face a summer in which my priority is revision rather than generation of materials from syllabi to articles, I also acknowledge that the confines of the Ivory Tower tend to mean much retreading of old ground. And so, in such a spirit, I’d like to tell my readers today about the archive in the context of teaching: a new angle on a familiar subject. This past semester, I was very excited to engage my students in exploring and conceptualizing the archive, partly because I recognize the need to demonstrate how my research methodologies also have pedagogical potential and partly because I had heard rumblings from my department about “information literacy”. What could be better, I thought to myself, than actually getting students into the archive, handling its materials, before they went on to work with sources available through the digital realm?

The entryway to the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut

We are very lucky at the University of Connecticut to have the Dodd Center. I simply cannot say that enough on this blog! One collection that I hadn’t worked with before was the Alternative Press, which includes materials from various activist movements. Its archivist, Graham Stinnett, recommended that my students read a piece by Verne Harris, who directed the South African History Archive and is now the archivist for the papers of Nelson Mandela. The article we read provided detailed information about the difficulty of archiving in South Africa’s past and present but its engagement with this specific context also introduced the students to Harris’s theory of the “archival sliver”, namely the archive’s ability to record only a sliver of a nation’s experiences. Having read and discussed this article, students visited the Dodd Center in order to work with a specific object from the Alternative Press collection and to enjoy a tour of the facilities. Many of them wrote enthusiastically about the decontamination freezers and the large crack in the vault’s concrete floor, symbolizing—as Graham suggested—the archivist’s constant fight against time. The students were challenged by the Alternative Press materials: while they handled the anti-war, LGBTQ and feminist materials with the ease of a generation that believes in progress, they were provoked to proclaim a desire for destruction by the white supremacist content of some publications. The materials produced by prisoners and mental health patients also held some shock factor for the students, many of whom wrote sensitively about these still suppressed voices.

Honestly, this set of student essays—working with Harris, as well as their own written accounts of the archive visit, in order to theorize the role and responsibility of the archive in the twenty-first century—demonstrated intellectual engagement I rarely see in a first-year writing classroom. Some essays looked to the frightening prospect of governmental surveillance; others considered the complexities of censorship and accessibility; several productively re-considered the old adage of “learning from history”. One student, a very welcome skeptic, reflected on the construction of historical narratives through the archive by comparing it to modern reality television shows. Perhaps I found most interesting those essays that tackled how archiving and using archives complicate our understanding of temporality, allowing us to approach the past in direct rather than mediated ways. In class discussion, I shared with them my own take on thinking about the past through the palimpsest and the “deep” past, emphasizing how we look through all succeeding events when considering a past occurrence. I wanted to counter the perspective of a thoughtful essay that explored the archive through the metaphor of a jigsaw puzzle; I wanted to suggest that we cannot abstract ourselves from history in order to view it from above. Of course, as a teacher, what I really wanted was for my students to push back and to feel passion for how they saw it. My joy this semester as a teacher was because this was precisely what they did do.

I’d love to hear from other teachers who have taken their students to archives. How do you frame these visits? What resources, including scholarly articles, enable your students to approach the archive critically? What types of assignments and activities do you design for archival visits? I hope the comments for this blog post might themselves become a productive archive.