Guest Post: “Can’t We Just Write a Paper?” Digital Galleries and Archival Research for Undergraduates

Thomas Edge head and shoulders
Thomas Edge joined the Department of Ethnic Studies at Bowling Green State University as an instructor in 2011. Prior to that, he taught at Northwestern University, Trinity College (Connecticut), and Elms College. Dr. Edge is a proud graduate of the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where he completed his doctorate in 2008. His published works include an examination of the racial politics and the 2008 presidential election, and a history of the NAACP in Charleston, West Virginia.

Two years ago, inspired by the work of my colleague Jolie Shaffer with her graduate students, I decided to engage my undergraduate students in archival research projects using the Omeka system. These projects, involving students taking Introduction to Ethnic Studies and Introduction to African American Studies, combined traditional library research with the creation of online digital galleries to highlight their work and analysis.

For purposes of these projects, students were divided into groups of five to six members apiece, and assigned a research topic for the semester. During our first semester of work, I gave one broad topic to the entire class. Subsequently, I found it was helpful to the students to maintain one overall theme, then assign each group a specific subtopic. For example, students this year in Introduction to African American Studies focused on the contributions and perceptions of Black women. Within that topic, different groups were required to look at their political organizing before and after 1950, economics and employment, music and literature, film and television, and the Black family. This helped minimize overlap in the artifacts they chose and exposed them to a wider variety of library materials.

Indeed, these Omeka projects helped address one of the chief concerns I have with my undergraduate students today: their lack of knowledge of library resources. For too many students, the library is solely used as a computer lab or as a place to find reserve materials. Through these projects, we collaborated with the Browne Popular Culture Library, the Music Library & Sound Recordings Archives, Government Documents, and the Center for Archival Collections. Each group needed to identify six artifacts that reflected their topics; the Library staff digitized those artifacts for the students, who then used Omeka to create their own sites around the assigned theme.

Students were encouraged to engage a wide variety of materials in their research, including scrapbooks, pamphlets, songs, sheet music, postcards, Census reports, television shows, advertisements, and comic books. They were not just required to find something that was connected to their theme, however. Groups also had to offer analysis of material culture. Here, I found it important to take some time and work with them on media literacy. With our students so inundated by social media, we sometimes assume a degree of media literacy that is often lacking. They are aware of how to find and consume media, but not always of how to analyze it. Working with students around themes of race and ethnicity, then, we set aside class time to discuss how to “read race” in different types of artifacts. It was important to emphasize that students could look for both positive and negative depictions of a particular group. While they were often able to look at a racist image and intelligently discuss what made it racist, at times they needed to be pushed further in analyzing positive imagery, including images that groups created themselves to challenge dominant discourses about perceptions of their identities.

When students first learned about the project at the beginning of the semester, many were intimidated by the idea of creating their own digital gallery. The Omeka system helped alleviate some of these fears. With help from our talented Library staff, the students received excellent training in how to use the program and regular support throughout the semester. In the end, the two biggest challenges had nothing to do with the technology. First, students needed to learn how to conduct real archival research, in which the topic is fairly open-ended and there is not one “right” artifact to find. Second, deadlines were a key. We now have a set schedule in which they are introduced to some of the materials they can use for the project; given basic training in using the Omeka system; assigned a hard deadline for requesting artifacts to be digitized; and returning to the library for a refresher course on Omeka. This leaves the students more than enough time to collaborate on their galleries, while also giving the library faculty and staff a chance to digitize the requested materials.

I have been quite pleased so far with the results from my undergraduates. As with any assignment, of course, there is a wide range of outcomes. The best work showed a desire to delve deeper with their analysis, from a comparative approach to Black women’s music that linked artists across different generations, to examinations of photography in the Black Panther Party newspaper that included a breakdown of gender roles and the use of color. My proudest moments, however, came from those students who were able to use these skills again in other classes, including classes they took with me. For every student who asked, “Can’t we just write a paper,” I have had many more who thanked me for challenging them and for giving them a real say in the content of their own work.

Introductory-level classes can do far more than cover the basics of the field; they can also imbue our students with technological and research skills that carry over into all of their future studies.

One Response to “Guest Post: “Can’t We Just Write a Paper?” Digital Galleries and Archival Research for Undergraduates”

  1. Section 4: Juola’s Assumptions and Building vs. Adapting | ASU digital humanities