Last Friday's SAA 2014 Conference morning schedule featured back-to-back sessions on a big interest of mine: teaching with documents.
I've blogged here before about being a National History Day judge, which I've done about seven or eight times before. I see NHD as being an effective way of engaging children with advanced concepts in fact-seeking, problem-solving and logic. But until these sessions I always held that belief as a matter of faith. As I'll explain below, there is an emerging body of scholarship explaining exactly how effective it is. (If I ever get to delve into this scholarship, I'm sure my own phrases like "fact-seeking" will seem vague and clunky afterward.)
The first session, "Reach Them and They Will Come: New Approaches for the Archival Educator," came from the practitioner perspective, emphasizing effective practices through experiences and anecdotes. Lee Ann Potter of Library of Congress (who has also contributed to the amazing DocsTeach program at the National Archives) led off the session as a true educator, passing out pictures and bringing some show-and-tell props. Potter emphasized the material aspect of teaching with documents and urged attendees to use Hollinger boxes, mylar sleeves, gloves and even magnifying glasses to demonstrate the work of research and engaging a young and impressionable K-12 audience.
The remaining speakers (in both sessions) reflected mainly on the practice of incorporating documents into undergraduate courses. Jeffrey McClurken from University of Mary Washington and Susan Lawrence from Ohio State discussed courses that allowed students to conduct their own research into archival medical records or contribute to a new digital history project such as a website of digitized political cartoons. (With my History M.A. background, it was pleasing to see some historians at the podium.) As useful as these examples were, the best parts of both panels addressed the merits of undertaking such projects in the first place.
Sarah Werner of the Folger Shakespeare LIbrary, who hosts classes from D.C.-area universities, discussed how classes set in archives can help students feel more comfortable with the idea of using a world-class institution in their own work. Her programs emphasize the collaborative nature of research, as Werner helps guide the students towards educational resources rather than producing information instantly on demand. Similarly, Malinda R. Triller Doran of Dickinson College emphasizes types of information, and the ways information is communicated, in her work with students.
As much as I enjoyed these examples, the first panel left me hungry for research and evidence. Where is the proof that these courses are effective? And what exactly are they effective at doing? Those questions were addressed in a second Friday morning session, "Learning to Teach and Teaching to Learn: Instruction and the Use of Primary Sources." The panelists included Mattie A. Taormina, Anne Bahde and Heather Smedberg, authors of Using Primary Sources (2014), and Elizabeth Yakel, author of "AI: Archival Intelligence and User Expertise" and a principal investigator in the Archival and Education Research Initiative. Having fresh research in hand, each panelist had valuable insight into this field.
Taormina led the session by reporting that, despite a recent trend toward classroom instruction with archival documents, there is a lack of training or best practices for archivists participating in these activities. Of the training that does exist, from the National Archives and rare books schools, that training is geared towards instructors, not the archivists themselves. This may become a professional problem as archives jobs are posted requiring educational experience, yet there is little guidance for how archivists can properly train or prepare for these requirements. Taormina has been involved in some working groups to address this problem, but is still seeking more involvement from organizations including SAA.
Anne Bahde discussed a case study in which she participated (which I believe she said will result in a case study journal article). In an effort to instill "primary souce literacy" in undergraduate students, a U.S. history survey course included a six-class "history lab" with one exercise per class, each with a unique set of goals.
Elizabeth Yakel presented a condensed version of an extensive literature review on the topic of education with archives. (I'd love to track down her slides sometime and extract the bibliography!) Apparently the amount of literature has exploded in the last three years; Yakel's slides included a graph that spikes beginning around 2011. The body of research documents positive cognitive, affective and behavioral impacts on students, although these studies were short-term and there is no longitudinal evidence to gauge a long-term impact. (Yakel wondered if this emphasis on short-term results was related to a common need to boost test scores, eliciting much grumbling from the audience.) Another limitation of the existing research is a dearth of studies relating to K-12 students.
Heather Smedberg broke down these questions even further by distinguishing between different information literacy componences: goals, objectives, and intended learning outcomes. The question of professional standards came up once again. The metrics for these activities cannot be defined, Smedberg said, until there is more standardization among teaching practices. Smedberg continued by citing precedent for these types of standards, such as student learning competencies defined by the Association of College Research Libraries (ACRL). ACRL is interested in "meta-literacy," which sounds like a worthy goal, but until a professional archival society engages this topic, ACRL's work is not immediately transferable to archivists.
After taking in both of these panels, I still have several questions about the future of education with archives. Thinking about historians who want to incorporate this technique into their curriculum, I can anticipate their first problem: how to get the practice accepted among their peers and in their departments and into the planned course plans for undergraduates. Will archivists just be skilled coordinators, or will they evangalize for this technique?
Another question is whether or not education is a core function of archives. Educators are becoming a key constituency, but is serving them good practice in outreach and reference, or is it more? Does it wade too far into the realm of interpreting history? Perhaps more cynically, can archivists embrace this educational role, or will they use this recent trend to increase their usage statistics? At some points during the panel discussion I began to worry that archivists might jump on the teach-with-documents bandwagon to justify their own existence, rather than becoming true believers. I think we should ask even bigger questions. Can archival intelligence and information literacy combat the effects of information poverty, or even boost faith in public institutions?
There is so many questions here to pursue, but fortunately it seems that the right people are starting to consider them very seriously.