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Teaching With Digital Archives in the First-Year Writing Classroom

Teaching With Digital Archives in the First-Year Writing Classroom

When this semester started, I started exploring the possibility of incorporating the use of digital archives in my first-year writing course, titled Border Stories: Power, Poetics and Architecture. In ideal circumstances, I would have loved to take my students to the physical space of the archives, but I decided against it because it would have required more advance planning and coordination with archivists that I did not have the time or the scope for in a writing classroom. Although the class lesson on digital archives happened before universities shifted to remote learning, I think digital archives can be a useful tool for instruction during virtual learning. Besides, I was not too sure whether the physical archives in Pittsburgh would be relevant for the course themes, and therefore digital archives seemed to be the best alternative option.

My thinking about utilizing digital archives in my course was guided by a few questions: What can digital archives teach my students about writing? How can the study of digital archives advance the understanding of my students about borders and vice versa? How as an instructor would I communicate to my students the multiple benefits of using digital archives in their research while being cognizant that digital archives mirror only a specific model of knowledge production and are not all-encompassing? Although it might be fairly common to teach using digital archives in history classrooms, where the theoretical assumption is that students would be interested in exploring the past, the case of a writing classroom or an introductory gen ed history course is somewhat different because there are students from all disciplines who might not have a demonstrated interest in history to understand how it shapes contemporary realities.

I decided that I would introduce my students to digital archives in the research unit of the class, where they would have the option of writing a paper exclusively focused on artifacts in the archive. However, my goal as an instructor was much more than introducing my students to archives and consuming them as passive users. Before the research unit, I had asked my students about some of the challenges they thought they would have during the unit. One of the most common answers was that they would have difficulty in finding “correct” information or “unbiased sources” from their Google searches or library databases.

Part of the reason why I thought digital archives were a good entry point to address these concerns about “correct” and “unbiased” sources was to make them reflect on underlying structures of digital infrastructures, algorithms and knowledge production. For instance: What search results would a digital archive produce about an event, such as Partition of India in 1947, when the keyword “women” is replaced by the word “gender” or “gender violence”? What is metadata? How is metadata about an artifact created?

Anchoring myself in these questions, I chose two digital archives that I thought spoke directly to the theme of borders: the South Asian American Digital Archives and the 1947 Partition Archive. My goal was to walk my students through these archives, giving them an idea of how principles of selection, organization and exclusion govern the logic of an archive; the source of funding or sponsorship; the archivists who are engaged in this task; and how the nature of digital archives vary (community-based digital archiving or archiving of a special collection in a library).

Having a set of preselected digital archives for a classroom lesson/activity is helpful because it ensures that students are not lost in a maze of information and digital content. Additionally, since there is a public component of a digital archive platform, it’s important to draw students’ attention to interactive features such as how webpages are organized and opportunities to get involved in the act of archiving itself, through internships. The latter is especially important because as a teacher-mentor, I believe that taking an interest in the professionalization of my students is a part of my responsibility.

After introducing these two digital archives, I also provided a list of other digital archives that students could explore and distributed an archives worksheet that included the following questions:

  1. Choose any one or two of the digital archives that was shown to you in the class. From these archives, choose one or two documents/photographs/objects that you are interested in exploring more. Write down all the information that is already recorded about that artifact.
  2. Keep track of how you searched for this object in the digital archive. Basically, what keywords did you type in or what did you click on that resulted in your finding this source?
  3. Describe the object in the archive in detail — the texture of the paper, any marks, content of the archive. If it’s an audio/video clip, observe the dynamics between the interviewer and the interviewee.
  4. How is/are the object(s) connected to a broader question that you might have about a topic of your interest?

They spent about 25 minutes on this in-class activity. I noticed their sheer joy at having located an artifact that was more than 100 years old and the frustration when the search results did not always produce what they were looking for. Later some students told me that they were addicted and they were thinking of ways to get involved, while some others thought that digital archives only created an illusion that they were accessing the past because it was a past that was only curated and presented to them in a certain way, though they were appreciative about the accessibility of digital archives. Some were drawn to the artifacts in the archives, while some interrogated the rhetorical components of digital archives as a space. There was excitement, there was skepticism and then there was a mean position where both were present in equal measures.

As an instructor, when I saw my students immersed in debating critically about what digital archives could offer and how it was important to proceed with a cautionary optimism, it was a deeply satisfying moment for me. As I was reading the research papers of my students, which are built on their exploration of digital archives, I decided that I would continue to teach this in the future.

As I reflect now on what I would do differently, if I were teaching with digital archives again, I would probably collaborate with librarians and digital and community archivists to draw attention to the material infrastructures of digital archiving technologies, such as how artifacts are scanned, transcribed and uploaded. How does copyright work in digital archiving and usage, and what are the considerations that go into the making of community-based digital archives such as SAADA (for instance: Is every artifact contributed by the community worthy of being archived?) so that students can engage in a larger dialogue about the materialities of writing itself and how that shifts across platforms and technologies.

Have you used digital archives in your classroom? Please tell us about your experience in the comments below.

Sritama Chatterjee is a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of English at the University of Pittsburgh. She can be found on Twitter @SritamaBarna and on her Medium blog.

Image credit: Sritama Chatterjee

Published at Wed, 29 Apr 2020 21:30:00 +0000

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