Archive Project: Taking Students Out of the Classroom and Into History

Over the past year, I have constructed various projects for my literature survey courses. Last fall, I had students define a term related to Early American literature and present what they learned. In the spring, I had students read a novel or play by an author we were looking at in the course and present information about the book to the class. Last summer, I had students find archival materials in the Auburn University Archives and Special Collections. Students had to find four to five items, transcribe the items (or describe them if typed or pictures), provide questions about the items, and most importantly provide a narrative discussing how the items relate to one or more texts we were reading during the semester. (For the original assignment, look at my post “Working With Archives in the Literature Classroom.”) Today, I want to share how that project went, what students found, and alterations I plan to make moving forward.

Archives provide a unique space for students in any course to tie the information they learn inside the classroom back to antecedents beyond the four walls that surround them. That was my goal with this assignment. I wanted  students to see that the texts we were reading in the classroom (David Walker, Thomas Jefferson, William Apess, Lydia Maria Child, Herman Melville, etc.) do not exist within a confined space. They exist within a broad context that even encompasses their space here in Alabama. I chose to do an archive project during the summer because I thought it would provide the ideal opportunity to test out and see if the project would be something feasible for two or more sections in a fall or spring semester. Based off of what the students found and what they produced, I am going to assign the project again, with a few tweaks.

On the first day of class, I introduced the project to the class, and as would be expected, I did not get much of a reaction. This non-reaction kept causing me to question whether or not to actually go through with the project. I did something similar before, where I found items in an archive, had students transcribe them, and had students relate the items to the class. That project did not go as well as I had wanted it to, so I was already a little reticent when starting this project.

To assist students, I scheduled a day for the entire class to go to the archives so they could become acquainted with the space, the workers, and some of the materials. This trip, again, made me feel reticent because students appeared overwhelmed at the task of having to find materials let alone transcribing those items and relating them to our course. I showed students a couple of items and discussed ways to relate them to the texts we read in class, but again, this didn’t seem to work well. Part of the trepidation, I think, arose because we went to the archive early in the semester, before we read too many works. With that in mind, I tweaked the schedule and set up a later date for the class to meet and work in the archives for a whole period. That session went much better. The director pulled some boxes, and students had a better idea about what they wanted to look for,

In the archives, students found some interesting materials. They found a journal from John Horry Dent that described the how he wanted his slaves treated, what he wanted in an overseer, and how he wanted his property maintained. Other students found a letter from Nathan Whitefield’s wife where she talks about William, an injured slave. She asks her husband whether it would be better to just let William suffer instead of paying for a doctor because the doctor would be worth more that William cost. Another group found Antebellum slave laws from around the Birmingham area. All of these sources, and more that the students discovered, related to texts like Child, Walker, Northup, Frederick Douglass, ¬†and others.

Some students looked into papers centered on the Creek Tribe in Alabama and Georgia. These papers, many from Benjamin Hawkins, covered treaties, civilizing the Creek, discussions about land, and other items. Students found many connections between these materials and works by authors such as William Apess, Mary Rowlandson, Samson Occom, and notably Elias Budinot. Typically, in an American literature survey course, we read texts by Native Americans in the Northeast (Apess, Occom) or texts about Native Americans in the Northeast (Rowlandson). Using the archives allowed students, with the introduction of Boudinot as well, to see that the issues that Apess and Occom write about are not confined to one section of the country; rather, the issues, along with enslaved individuals running to maroon and Seminole communities in Florida, existed in their region as well.

Ultimately, the project went well for a first attempt. Moving forward, I am planning to go to the archives two, maybe three, times during the semester. As well, I am planning to devote at least one class period to having students work with items that I provide. They must transcribe the item in class and relate it, somehow, to what we have read thus far. This may be a way to alleviate some of the apprehension. As well, I plan to provide more detailed instructions for what I expect in the finished product. They must provide a written portion as well as a presentation. These must be placed online, probably using WordPress again, for a general audience. I am still thinking about ways to get students to understand that they are not just writing for me in their finished product. I keep stressing this, but it doesn’t seem to sink in. Any suggestions here would be greatly appreciated.

img_3865If you are thinking about doing a similar project, I would, first and foremost, suggest meeting with the director of your university archives or a local archive. As well, I would suggest looking around in the archives periodically to see what materials the archive houses. I stopped by Auburn’s archive last week and found a new collection that I did not even know about, the Yerby-Lawson papers. Digging around some, I came across a speech by John Yerby from around 1850. In the speech, Yerby talks the importance of cotton production, specifically to the southern states. He also talks about the labor of “Negroes” in the process. He does not use the term “slaves,” which is something students could examine. Yerby presents an economic argument for the importance of continued cotton production and increasing production. He discusses how Europe depends on cotton, even for poor workers there. This speech could relate to Solomon Northup’s discussion of cotton production or to authors who confront the peculiar institution in their writing.

Have you assigned a project like this before? If so, how did they go? Please let me know in the comments below.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *