FYC into the archives

In the spring, an archival librarian gave a presentation to instructors in the composition program here about using the university’s Special Collections in composition courses. My friend Sarah closed out her first year rhetoric and composition course with an archival research essay in the spring, and when I talked to her, I absolutely loved her ideas, so for the last assignment this summer in my FYC course, I assigned an archival research essay. I thought I’d write a post and share some ideas and the process.

I saw this project as accomplishing the following objectives:

  • Students engage with research out of curiosity instead of thesis-chasing. With most research assignments, no matter how much I stress starting with curiosity, many students start out out with a thesis, or a vague idea of a thesis, and gear their research toward that thesis from fairly early in the research process. This can lead to selectively choosing counter-arguments (it’s easier to just ignore the ones that they can’t figure out how to rebut); finding “facts” to back up an argument, at the expense of focusing on the intellectual conversation and debate; and limiting invention to what one already believes and knows. Of course, I’m painting with a large brush here, and these problems don’t have to arise, but they’re pretty frequent. With this project, I asked students to enter historical and archival research with curiosity, and to develop an argument with what they find, rather than start with an argument. And students had to do this because they were dealing with material they were largely unfamiliar with.
  • Students develop a larger sense of invention. Throughout the term, I try to stress that writers look at the world as writers, and when they see things, they think about how it fits into arguments, debates, and discussions and what they might have to say about it. I especially stress this with the rhetorical analysis assignment: that the rhetorical analysis is not just an analysis, but an analysis about something interesting used to make a claim or argument. I try to model this by modeling my own curiosity and engagement with artifacts I see. This assignment helps to model this more: find something you’re curious about, and develop various connections and ideas about it.
  • Students develop a sense of history here, perhaps denaturalizing what they assume is “normal” and ahistorical Penn State student behavior; additionally, students see that the past is something that is important to the present and can be used for a variety of purposes. Our research in the archives was limited to student traditions at Penn State, which allowed students to see how students lived and experienced Penn State in the past. I ask them to make the history they are researching important to readers and to make an argument about it, or to use the past to make an argument about now.
  • Students have fun. This was, of course, important. I mean, this stuff is interesting!

Set up
The archivist and I met two times before the project started (of course, we had met earlier about her presentation to composition instructors). During our first meeting, we discussed a possible time line for research, how we’d have students initially visit the archives, what resources were available, and what topics were possible for student papers. We decided to limit the research to student traditions, and have the archivist select materials to have on a special cart for the course that students could request to see when they came in. We set up a time line: I’d introduce the paper topic, then students would visit the archives as a class, where they were introduced to a special exhibit on student traditions, briefly shown an overview of the materials available to them, shown how to use the online archives for the student newspaper and yearbooks, and shown models of the types of research questions they might ask. Then students had to visit the archives on their own, develop a proposal, email it to me. I put some books on course reserves for secondary sources, and over the next week, students turned in two research logs as they researched and worked on their papers. I also conferenced with each student about their paper; some came with questions about their research or the paper, others with starts of drafts. What was amazing about these conferences was, for the first time ever, every student came with clear, prepared questions about their paper or topic.

How it went
These papers were highly successful, I think, in both student engagement with their topics and in paper quality. Students researched a variety of aspects of student traditions at Penn State:

  • The history of the Nittany Lion mascot
  • Gendered regulations for young women at Penn State
  • Cross dressing at Penn State in the 1890s
  • Competitions between classes in the early 20th century (called class scraps)
  • Dances in the early 20th century
  • Rules that freshmen were expected to follow in the early 20th century

Students struggled with figuring out how to make what they were researching matter to readers. I encouraged them to consider not just that this would be interesting, but why it would be interesting for students to read about today. Some came up with strong arguments about gender norms today, or about school spirit. Some waxed nostalgic, or made claims about the meaning of certain traditions. The struggle over how to make this matter was productive: students showed patience with themselves and the research, explored and discussed different approaches, and wrote successful papers.

We spent the last two days of class with brief, informal presentations about their research, requiring a visual (students could take pictures of what they saw in the archives). And these were a lot of fun: we all learned a lot about Penn State history and student life history, and students got a chance to share what they learned and what they thought about what they learned.

Overall, I think my students had a lot of fun with this topic, and so did I. I asked students for feedback on the assignment, and most of them praised some aspect of it: the helpfulness of visiting the archives, the interesting topics available, the fun it was exploring student history at Penn State.

The assignment sheet

Here’s a PDF of the assignment sheet as I developed it for summer term (I took off the librarian contacts in case they don’t want them up on the blog): Archival Researched Essay assignment sheet

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3 Responses to FYC into the archives

  1. Andrew says:

    This is totally awesome. I almost wish I had a section of 15 to teach, in order to run this assignment. Sounds really fun.

  2. Nels says:

    I wish we had archives that had this kind of stuff available.

  3. Michael says:

    Thanks, Andrew! Request a section of 15 πŸ™‚

    Bummer, Nels. I have to admit a lot of privilege here for this assignment: a school with a fantastic and accessible special collections, and a school so obsessed with itself that it keeps so much about Penn State history.

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