Becoming an Archival Expert

When I teach nineteenth century American literature, I always want students to delve into the archives, and so I demonstrate a few digital searches in class and make it a requirement to include at least one archival source in the final research paper. But I wanted more investment, and not just for their papers. I felt that despite my commitment to bringing archival elements into the classroom, students were not getting totally immersed in the time period in the way that I wanted—in a way that would help them understand how nineteenth century readers might’ve approached the works we were studying, rather than reading everything through a twenty-first century lens.

With a class on nineteenth century American poets coming up (a class I hadn’t taught for four years), I had a great opportunity to make a change in this direction. So I thought, well, what’s one way to get a feel for daily life in the nineteenth century? I hit upon the idea of having students read nineteenth century newspapers. (I’ve written elsewhere about using digital archives in teaching nineteenth century African American writers. The archival expert assignment grew out of things I was noticing about working with newspapers in that class.)

What does poetry have to do with news? For one thing, in the nineteenth century, most newspapers had a poetry section, unlike newspapers today. But that wasn’t even the initial reason I wanted students to try this assignment. I wanted them to see if they saw any connections between the issues making headlines in the newspapers and the issues that poets like Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Walt Whitman, and Paul Laurence Dunbar (among others) addressed in their poems. We read the news today to get a sense of what is going on in the world, what is deemed important; conversely, if something doesn’t make the news, we feel that it may not be as important, or we may feel frustrated because the media seems to dismiss something that feels important to us. (In our own era of “fake news,” of course, all of these issues feel very fraught, and I think students were aware of that as they did this assignment.)

What we did: the assignment sheet

What follows is the text of the assignment sheet I gave the students. If you like it, please feel free to use as-is or to adapt.

This term, you will be in charge of leading one class as the “archival expert.” Your assignment is simple: I want you to read the newspaper. Using three of the library’s electronic databases—America’s Historical Newspapers, African American Newspapers, and/or Accessible Archives—you will make use of digital archives to provide historical context for the day’s poetic selections.

Here’s what to do for prep work, step by step:

  1. On the date you’re signed up to be the archival expert, look at when the poet published his or her book of poems. (So, for example: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper published Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects in 1855.) If there’s no publication date, as for Schoolcraft and Dickinson, then try as best you can to determine a year when these poets would’ve been writing poems.
  2. Determine a location that is relevant to the poet, if possible. For Harper, this could be Baltimore (where she grew up), Philadelphia (where she lived and worked as an adult), or Boston (where she frequently lectured).
  3. Now choose a newspaper that is relevant to the date and the location of the poet. If you want to get even more specific, you can (for example, you could look at an abolitionist newspaper for Harper or a Civil War newspaper for Melville; you could even look at some of the newspapers for which Whittier served as editor). If you can find one, you can also choose a newspaper where the poet published.
  4. Select an issue of the newspaper and read the whole thing: news, editorials, poetry, even the advertisements. (Be forewarned, the print is tiny and there’s a lot of text.) As you read, make note of anything at all—newspaper poems, news items, even weather—that you feel gives interesting context to the poems the class will be discussing.

From here, you have the tools to give the class some interesting historical contexts. During class, be prepared to give us around 20 minutes of historical context, drawn from what you read. Feel free to read us excerpts from articles or poems. Don’t feel like you have to cover everything in the newspaper—two or three things will be enough. Make a Powerpoint, Prezi, or handout to share a few images with us. Give us your reading of both the culture that produced this poet (particularly how the poet fits, or doesn’t fit, into the historical context) and anything you notice about how historical context informs one of the poet’s poems, or a section of the poem. (Don’t feel like you have to force the poet to neatly fit into the contexts the newspapers provide. Even the absence of the poet’s concerns from the newspaper will tell you something about the poet and their poems.) To facilitate a good discussion on what you’ve found, be prepared to ask the class a few discussion questions to get the conversation going.

Written component

You don’t have to write anything formally for this assignment, but I would like a works cited page (in MLA style) and a copy of your notes / outline / Powerpoint / handouts. Emailing all of this to me is fine.

Archival expert assignments will be graded according to how well they:

  • Thoroughly they give us historical context to the poet and their poems (50 points)
  • Demonstrate archival research skills (30 points)
  • Engage the class in discussion (20 points)

How it worked: connections students made

I’ll use three examples from three different presentations to give you a sense of what students did with this assignment. (Other poets we covered in this ten-week class were Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.) Wherever possible, we read complete books, or book-length poems, by these poets, rather than reading selections from anthologies. Schoolcraft and Dickinson were the exceptions, since they did not publish collections in their lifetimes.

The Boston Evening Standard and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha (1855)

Overall, my students hated The Song of Hiawatha, as I figured they might; although they admitted they found the trochaic meter fun to read (and to imitate), they were angered by what they saw as Longfellow’s clueless paternalism with respect to the Ojibwe characters he creates (adapting them, of course, from tales from Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s Algic Researches [1839] that were themselves adapted from oral stories from Ojibwe poet Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Henry’s wife, and those of her mother). An archival expert presentation on Longfellow, then, was an opportunity to understand the context in which this poem was written.

The student who presented on Longfellow chose the November 10, 1855 edition of the Boston Evening Standard, since Hiawatha was published on that date and since Longfellow lived in Boston. There is a notice (unfortunately rather illegible, as you will see below) titled “Longfellow’s New Poem!” in the paper, so we could see that Longfellow was famous enough that the publication of a new book was a newsworthy event.

longfellowpoem

The student also noticed, with irony, an article entitled “The Landing of the Pilgrims,” a romanticized historical piece that makes no mention of Native peoples. Speaking of the pilgrims, the article’s anonymous author says, “Their landing; the history of their future toils, dangers; their struggles and privations; their heroic self-denial and unconquerable trust in God, are among the proudest recollections of our history.”

Transitioning from this article, the student brought up the fact that the Yakama Indian War, a three-year dispute about land rights between the U.S. Government and the Yakama and allied tribal groups in central Washington state, had just begun the month before, in October, 1855. There’s no mention in the newspaper about the progress of this war. Even more glaring was the fact that the Battle of Union Gap, between the Yakama and the U.S. army, had begun the day before and was not mentioned at all. The charitable interpretation is that news had not had time to travel across the country yet; however, we went in another interpretive direction. The student thought about the fact that Longfellow’s poem was so immediately popular, and we wondered if the American public generally preferred to read about mythologized Native Americans, like Hiawatha, rather than real ones, like Kamiakin, chief of the Yakama tribe at the start of the war, pictured in this sketch, below.

kamiakin
Kamiakin, chief of Yakama Tribe, 1855
by Gustavus Sohon, courtesy Washington State Historical Society 

In this issue of the newspaper, Native peoples are ignored or not included. Longfellow’s poem seems to be their only presence in the issue. Twenty-five years earlier, there would have been articles about Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act, but in 1855, Native issues are not at the forefront of the general public’s consciousness, if this newspaper is any indication.

The Salem Register and John Greenleaf Whittier’s Snow-Bound (1866)

Sometimes, the students looked at the poems in the newspapers and made connections and comparisons with the poems we were reading in class. Here’s a poem printed in the Salem Register for February 15, 1866:

littlefeet

(Yes, the date on that says November 12, 1866, which can’t be right, but it is what is printed in the Feb. 15 issue of the Register—I double-checked!)

 We had been talking about sentimentality in Whittier’s poem Snow-Bound the class before, with some of the students coming down pretty hard on what they saw as Whittier’s overly nostalgic view of the rural New England places and people of his childhood. However, reading the poem “Little Feet” put that into perspective. We discussed the different ways Whittier guards against this kind of too-easy feeling and ideas in his poem (particularly focusing on the complexity of the way he elegizes his younger sister, Elizabeth). We also spent a long time talking about the rhyme scheme and meter of both poems, since they are both written in iambic tetrameter and are largely in rhyming couplets. We discussed how Whittier’s diction and his use of enjambment create a complex rhythm and more lofty tone than “Little Feet” is able to achieve. And we also discussed how smart Whittier was to stay away from refrains like “Patter, patter, little feet” in his elegy, which would’ve wrecked the gravitas of his poem.

The Cincinnati Gazette and Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt’s That New World (1877)

Because we had begun the term discussing the child elegy genre in the poetry of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, then revisited it when we read Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Emily Dickinson, students had the analytical tools to approach Piatt’s elegies for her two children in the searing book That New World, but they were still shocked by the grim, direct nature of this poetry, which sometimes feels like a wrestling match between a grieving Piatt and a detached God who doesn’t care how mothers feel about the children he takes.

Since we had been talking so much about death, the student who presented on the November 6, 1877 issue of The Cincinnati Gazette started there, showing us articles about some gruesome deaths by murder (which included the dead body then being put in a church and the church set on fire to destroy the evidence), falling from a wagon, being run over by a train, and fire again. The student asked us to compare how the deaths were reported on in the newspaper with how Piatt talks about death in her poems, particularly “No Help” and “To a Dead Bird.” One thing we immediately wondered was if the death of children from disease or accident was so common that it simply wouldn’t make the news. The only “report” of a child’s death might come through poetry. We thought about what poetry does that news doesn’t, and vice versa.

This class occurred on Election Day, so the student also had us think a little bit about Piatt and politics. After pulling out a few articles and headlines about local politics, the student asked us to think about how Piatt feels about monarchy in her poems “If I Had Made the World” and “A Queen at Home.” (The answer is—she doesn’t like it!) We had a great discussion about Piatt and democracy, even looking back to Whitman to compare how Piatt expresses democratic views in some of these poems versus how Whitman does the same.

 Assessment

Overall, this assignment worked very well. It accomplished what I wanted it to accomplish: the students got more invested in (even excited about) the time period. I liked how the assignment was specific, but also allowed them to go in pretty much any direction they wanted with both the newspaper and the poems. Students had fun with it, often pointing out humorous ads or articles and sharing them with the class. The only times the assignment failed were when students did not follow the instructions or when they made wild surmises about connections between the poet and what was in the newspaper (the latter of which could be gently corrected in class). Overall I would rate this assignment as a success, and I plan to do it again.

“But I don’t have access to these subscription-only archives,” I hear you saying. Never fear, this assignment will also work with open-access archives, like the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America, which has thousands of digitized newspapers to read for free. If you try this assignment, or some version of it, I hope you’ll let me know how it goes!

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Digital Literacy and Women in Knowledge-Building Systems: #MOWomenOnWikipedia

PALS Note: We welcome this contribution from Megan Peiser on using Wikipedia in the composition classroom. Peiser holds a doctorate from the University of Missouri and is the creator of the Novels Reviewed Database, 1790-1820. Find more information about Megan here

Class: Digital Literacy and Women in Knowledge-Building Systems: #MOWomenOnWikipedia

Level: Intermediate Composition

Class Demographics: 15 students. ¾ of class upperclassmen

Classroom: Computer Lab

This past semester my Intermediate writing course also became a history course. Our focus was digital literacy, and I wanted my students to participate in digital writing, to do quality writing that required research, and to have a piece of digital writing they could put in a portfolio at the end of the semester. I also wanted them to participate in a digital writing community. So, we joined a movement to put more articles about women on one of the worlds most visited websites: Wikipedia.org. Wikipedia’s own research shows that women editors make up only 9% of their contributors, that articles about women are severely lacking, and that these articles are more likely to be tagged for deletion than those about their male counterparts. And while students have been warned not to use Wikipedia.org for most of their academic work, it does have significant cultural value. The average college-educated American uses Wikipedia as a resource to check facts, or look up quick information on a new topic. Many users worldwide are getting basic information about current events and history from Wikipedia. So, the lack of representation of women on the site contributes to an idea that women don’t contribute to their communities, that women don’t have achievements worth celebrating, and that women are invisible people in our human record. Our class hoped to help change this for Missouri women.

Prewriting Work

We collaborated with several groups across the course of the semester, including the Missouri State Historical Society and our University Library, to write articles about women from Missouri history. The organization that supported us the most was the Wiki Edu Foundation. They were easy to partner with—all I did was send an email and they set up a dashboard for my class and assigned me a WikiEdu support representative. The dashboard is completely customizable. I chose from modules that WikiEdu had already set up, which included readings, training videos, and practice exercises for my students. I created my syllabus in their “Timeline” feature, using some of the assignments they provided and adding some I wanted my students to work on. I was also able to list reading assignments and set deadlines in the dashboard. Students login with a code WikiEdu provides, and you can also track their contributions to Wikipedia.org. This way, even if another Wikipedia editor changes the students’ writing contributions, you can still view their work to grade it. WikiEdu assignments, like practicing writing in your user sandbox, how to post your article live, how to contribute to article talk pages, and how to cite references, were really useful. I added assignments that focused on analysis of Wikipedia pages that already existed about women and research-based assignments to give students work milestones. The side also provided an “impact tracker” so that our class could see our contributions to Wikipedia in a live-counter.

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While slowly learning Wikipedia.org editing skills in outside assignments, when our class met we held discussion about women in knowledge-building systems. We started the semester with John Warner’s “Why Can’t My New Employees Write?” Inside Higher Ed (June 29, 2016), an essay that focuses on making decisions as one of the hardest parts of writing. It set the tone for the course—I didn’t give much guidance on what would be enough of an article to count for a grade. I let the students decide: was your contribution enough? How should you organize it? Should you add a picture? We also read Jack Lynch’s You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf From Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia (2016) on knowledge-building systems. We watched video interviews with Adrianne Wadewitz, who served on the board of the Wiki Education Foundation and began the movement to get Wikipedia writing into collegiate classrooms. We discussed the hostility women experience when working in online spaces like Wikipedia.org, and how the gender-gap on Wikipedia hurts all of its users because it provides only part of the story. We also discussed carefully the language we use when we write about women online, and how these microaggressions influence the ways worldwide cultures think about and understand women’s positions in the world. Students had no trouble finding real-world examples of these microaggressions and their implications: from the way that female Olympic athletes’ bodies were described to reporting on women politicians.

Writing Articles

Each student chose a woman from Missouri history that did not have a Wikipedia page. They conducted research along Wikipedia’s parameters (secondary sources only, reliable sources—no blogs, or opinion pieces) to show that their person was “notable.” Wikipedia’s notability requirement was also a topic of discussion in our course. Their parameters about a person’s notability are themselves rooted in gender-bias, and students were appalled to learn that their articles could be tagged for deletion if other Wiki-editors didn’t think their person merited a Wikipedia page. It made for great discussion on how systems can be inherently biased toward certain marginalized groups and encouraged the students to work to ensure the stability of their pages.

Because the students had already practiced using Wikipedia.org, they had made the site’s required 10 edits to authorize them to create new pages. We spent time in class conducting research and making trips to the State Historical Society, who helped us overcome some of Wikipedia’s source restrictions by posting images and source information on their website when we needed a link. We had writing days in class where students drafted their articles in their Wikipedia “sandboxes”—draft spaces that aren’t live or searchable on Wikipedia. But they did post their articles early. This enabled other Wikipedia users to give them feedback on their “talk” pages. They peer-reviewed one another’s work and received feedback from Wiki-editors all over the world. The result: 15 fantastic pages on Missouri women.

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Student Wikipedia Pages:

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Edit-A-Thon

Toward the end of the semester, we rotated our class to a “flipped classroom.” Students did readings and watched videos on planning an Edit-A-Thon before coming to class, and in class, they planned. I did not plan. The students together decided what work needed to be done, what jobs to assign one another, and what needed to be written and prepared for presentations at the Edit-A-Thon. I took this information to our campus library, who hosted the event. They were proud to present their accomplishments and to share their work with our community. We had a good showing and added an additional 19 articles to Wikipedia that were about Missouri women, or supported pages about Missouri women.

Payoffs

Students left this course and our Wikipedia assignment with a live writing sample, with experience using local records offices for research, and increased digital literacy skills, especially in their ability to analyze digital sources and check digital writing for gender bias. Their work organizing the Edit-A-Thon gave them experience in event planning and community outreach—both skills that will grow their resumes. Most importantly perhaps, they left knowing they made a difference by increasing the number of women visible on Wikipedia. Many of them have gone on to write more Wikipedia articles and advocate for growing visibility of women in their respective fields and classrooms.

As a teacher, this class reinforced for me the importance of learning with my students. I was not very well versed in Wikipedia editing when I started, and by learning alongside my class, I set the example of how to meet a difficult task, to encounter a problem, and to work through it. Often the students were teaching me shortcuts! The Wikipedia assignment also taught me that providing fewer parameters for an assignment could be an asset. By offering loose evaluation procedures for their articles and allowing the students to come up with requirements for their own assignments, their creativity had room to grow. Students came up with wonderful additions to their articles that I did not or could not have predicted when creating assignment parameters. Their work was more thoughtful and well researched because of the freedom I gave them.

Contributor Bio:

Peiser, MeganMegan Peiser earned her PhD from the University of Missouri in 2016. She is the creator and project manager of the Novels Reviewed Database, 1790-1820 and is currently working on her monograph The Review Periodical and British Women Novelists 1790-1820. As a teacher, she pushes students to uncover their own learning style, and embrace it as a means to empower their taking responsibility of their own education. Her students participate in service learning across the University of Missouri campus and in the Columbia, MO community. You can read more about her teaching and research at meganpeiser.com