This summer, I am teaching an American literature survey curse through 1865. While I have taught this course multiple times, I have been contemplating and incorporating new assignments into the classroom the past couple of times I have taught it. One such assignment calls for students to use digital archives of the Freedom’s Journal to find a an article, summarize it, then tell their classmates how the piece relates to the paper’s overall goals or to other texts we have read in class up to that point. While this assignment only takes a class period, I have also had students construct creative projects to define and relate terms to the rest of the course. Today, though, I want to talk about an amalgamation of these two projects that I am thinking about assigning this summer.

I did not start looking at archival material until the last couple of years before I finished my PhD, mainly when I started working on the dissertation. Then, I obtained scans of archival material from various places, and most were handwritten. I had the hardest time, at first, deciphering Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s and Lydia Maria Child’s handwriting, but the process taught me how to use archives to further my research. Eventually, I transcribed the Sedgwick manuscript and had an annotated edition published.

I wish I had more contact with archives at an earlier stage in my academic learning and career. The vast amount of information housed within archives provides scholars and students with a multitude of avenues to make connections and explore themes in course. With that in mind, this assignment will get students into the archives to find materials that correlate to texts, authors, and themes we discuss in class.

Note: The project is below. I am using Auburn’s archives, so the items I mention are specific to our collection. I would suggest having archivists talk to students during a class period and helping them look for items early in the semester. 

Presentation and Web Project

Objective—The objective of this assignment is to expand upon your knowledge of American literature and culture through 1865 and for you to share that new knowledge with your fellow students. To do this, each group will find 4-6 items from Auburn University’s Special Collections & Archives. You must work with your partner to create a presentation (video, Prezi, infographic, etc.) and a written product to share with the class. The presentation can derive partly from the written product.

Written Portion—This portion will appear on the Wiki in Canvas. The written portion must contain the following information.

  • List of items you found in the archives
  • Transcripts of the items with accompanying images (take a picture or scan of the item). If it is something that does not require transcription (photograph, report card, ledger, etc.) then describe the item in 4-5 sentences.
  • One-two page narrative (single spaced) discussing how the items you found relate to texts, authors, or themes we have discussed in class.
  • A list of five questions for us to think about in regards to how the items relate to what we have covered in the course.
  • Works cited page that contains the items you found in the archives and any sources you chose to use in the presentation.

Presentation—The presentations will be on the last two days of class. Your group will have seven to ten minutes to present to the class your items and how hey relate to what we have covered during the semester. You must have some product for your presentation. This can be a video, a Prezi (with voiceover), an Infographic, a Moovly, or any other delivery method. Your presentation must contain the following information.

  • List of items you found in the archives.
  • Discussion that explains how the items relate to texts, authors, or themes we have covered in class.

Peer/Self Evaluation—You will be required to evaluate your partner’s contribution to the project and to evaluate your own. To do this, I will distribute (either on paper or through Canvas) a form that has you rank you and your partner’s contributions to the project. I will average out the results to get this portion of the grade.  

Before committing to this project, I made a couple of trips to the archives to see if I could find items that would relate to an American literature through 1865 course. Below are two of the items I found and how they would relate to the course material.

FullSizeRender (13)This letter, from Payton Burford to his father is dated May 13, 1848. The letter contains numerous items that would relate to an American literature course. For one, P.D. is a student at Centenary Institute. In the letter, the name of the school is not mentioned; however, I found a report card for him from 1848 in the same folder. Payton talks about a protracted meeting in the area. Students could, of course, discuss this aspect with authors such as Jonathan Edwards, John Marrant, Oladuah Equiano, and William Apess. Along with the mention of the religious meeting, Payton asks his father to “tell Matilda and Symdonia” to study and to write him letters because “letter writing will improve them more than anything else.” We could explore this comment in relation to women’s education and texts by Sedgwick, Child, Margaret Fuller, Susana Rowson, and others. Finally, students can relate to Payton’s letter because at multiple points, he asks his father for money to help him pay for expenses while at school.

IMG_3347Another folder I examined contained correspondence from and to Benjamin Hawkins, an Indian Agent to the Creek Indians. The items are actually typed transcripts of items housed in other collection because the folders contain the work of a scholar who worked on Hawkins and the Southeast tribes. Even with this, the letters highlight events during the War of 1812 and the start of the Seminole Wars. On of the letters, addressed to then Major General Andrew Jackson, talks about the annuities that the government owes the Creek, a deputation of Creek he permitted to visit “the Executive of the United States,” and comments on the Seminole and Maroon population in Florida. Hawkins tells Jackson that he sent men to tell the Seminole to stay out of the current affairs and that he also sent “an armed detachment under Capt. Bernard a half breed after runaway Negroes.” Again, here are multiple items here that students could explore in relation to the course. They could look at the the Cherokee Memorials, the Cherokee Phoenix, or even slave narratives and relate them to Hawkins’ letter to Jackson.

These are only a couple of items I found. Have you done a similar assignment? If so, I would love to hear how it went. Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter: @silaslapham.

2 Comments on “Working With Archives in the Literature Classroom

  1. Pingback: The Smoldering Embers in Our Presence | Interminable Rambling

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