Teaching with Documents: Using Archives to Educate

Exciting archival publishing news!

The Archives Society of Alberta has just released its inaugural issue of Fonds d’Archives. This new online, open access, scholarly journal is an exciting departure from other archival publications in Canada and the United States. Rather than treading on the toes of existing journals like Archivaria, Fonds d’Archives “is particularly focused on archival issues from practical, working-level perspectives or theoretical explorations with demonstrated praxis.”

As an archival practitioner, I am especially excited about this new journal (not least because my work features in the first issue – shameless plug here!). I think it will be a wonderful addition to the literature and will enable archivists of all kinds to share their work and inspire their peers. The first issue shares four perspectives (Greg Bak, Tolly Bradford, Jessie Loyer, Elizabeth Walker) on how archives are responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action The article approaches the calls to action from a number of angles and will serve as inspiration for other archivists seeking to make an impact on the path to reconciliation.

I had the privilege of writing the journal’s second article with Ashleigh Androff who worked with me on our variation of Library and Archives Canada’s Lest We Forget Project for the past three years. We developed the project as a partnership between the City of Coquitlam Archives and Douglas College and she is now running it at the University of Saskatchewan (sadly without me), while I continue to run it at Douglas College with Jeff Schutts as part of his first year World History course and second year War and Society course. The article suggests that the methods we used to engage post-secondary students with primary sources, could easily translate to other academic contexts and any number of archival records.

Teaching with Documents

Taking a cue from the article, this post will explore how archival records are used in a number of contexts to educate, inform, and inspire students. Library and Archives Canada’s Lest We Forget Project is one of the best examples I have seen of a national program that uses an extensive collection of archival records to connect students to the past and make a meaningful, personal connection to an important moment in Canadian history. You can read more about the program in our Fonds d’Archives article, or in a previous post on this blog.

The National Archives in the U.S. explains that “when we ask students to work with and learn from primary sources, we transform them into historians. Rather than passively receiving information from a teacher or textbook, students engage in the activities of historians — making sense of the stories, events and ideas of the past through document analysis.” To encourage students to make sense of events through document analysis, they have developed DocsTeach, an online tool for teaching with documents. The site invites students and teachers to explore, discover, and create. There is even an app!

Photograph of Participants in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study; Records of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Record Group 442. [Online Version, https://www.docsteach.org/documents/document/1-photograph-of-participants-in-the-tuskegee-syphilis-study, August 8, 2017]
Through the site, educators can access thousands of primary sources, copy and modify an ever-expanding series of document-based activities created by the National Archives and teachers around the world, or create their own activities using the online tools.

One of the most interesting activity suggestions encourages students to focus on details, be it comparing and contrasting two or more documents or learning how visual cues and context can help to understand a document. Through an array of activity tools, students can connect historical events and learn about sequences, evaluate evidence to draw historical conclusions, learn how to interpret data, or learn spatial thinking using historic maps.

Using Archives to Teach Gender

“Women in Struggle” from the Poster-Film Collective, 1983, featured on the University of Leeds “Using Archives to Teach Gender” website)

One of the best examples I have come across of ‘teaching with documents’ comes from the University of Leeds’ Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies, which should be highly commended for its innovative use of archival records for pedagogical purposes. The Using Archives to Teach Gender website is an extraordinary resource that provides access to over 150 photographs and documents from the Feminist Archive North and the Marks & Spencer Company Archive. The site has been curated to serve as a useful access point for lecturers and students wishing to discover and share content related to gender and feminism. It features a fully searchable database of images that can be downloaded and freely used; practical suggestions on how to connect these archival records to broad themes; links to other relevant websites; and recordings of events that include presentations on the challenges of using archives to teach gender.

“Oh! That explains the difference in our wages!” (Source: Feminist Archive North, included as part of the “Using Archives to Teach Gender” website)

What I find most useful are the practical suggestions on how educators might use the images to stimulate discussion or as a basis for an academic assignment. Students might “compare images from different periods…examine language used…discuss how particular practices, stereotypes and norms have changed.”

The website also serves as a jumping off point for further research in archival institutions. It provides an inviting entry point that might spur further interest and curiosity about the collections held by other institutions. The suggestions for teaching also include ways to encourage students to explore archives in more depth and “to think in more detail about the role of archives/libraries.” The suggestions are designed for an undergraduate audience, but could easily be adapted for other levels.

Archives-based learning

Teacharchives.org is the result of a three-year collaborative project at the Brooklyn Historical Society that brought more than 18 educators and over a thousand students into the archives. The website offers sample exercises with detailed objectives, intended results, archival materials used, and further reading. Each exercise is also accompanied by suggestions on how the exercise could be adapted to suit other historical events, times periods, or archival collections.

The findings of the multi-year project include the observation that “after visiting the archives, participating students were more engaged with and excited about their coursework, showed improvement in key academic skills, and achieved better course outcomes than their peers. Faculty participants learned newly-established best practices for archives-based teaching and became more thoughtful and effective instructors.” What wonderful results!

Meaningful connections

I have seen firsthand how students respond to working with primary sources. In our Lest We Forget Project, both Ashleigh and I were incredibly moved by the care and dedication students demonstrated when confronted with the past through the historical record. One student remarked that she was shocked to realize the soldier she was studying was her age and yet he had died in the service of his country, never able to get married and have children. These are things the student longed for in her life and seeing the service file of this soldier made his sacrifice real to her. This is the power of primary sources. I am encouraged by all of these wonderful projects and websites that seek to make those connections for students, to bring history to life, and to make meaningful connections.

I would be really interested to hear about other archives and education projects out there. Send me a note in the comments field below.