On Teaching

On Teaching – Mixing It up in the Archives: Making a Syllabus on My Own

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As a Visiting Assistant Professor at the College of William and Mary, I inherited a course from a senior colleague who encouraged me to make the course my own.  The course was titled “America and the Americans”—the possibilities were endless.  Conceptually, the course was a mandatory upper-level American Studies theory and methods seminar for the minor and major. Over the semester, students explored crucial concepts and methodological approaches to the study of the United States through the interdisciplinary approaches of American Studies. To do this, students examined some of the major schools of thought and works of cultural criticism that have informed American Studies as a field since its establishment in colleges and universities in the 1950s. Students gained an understanding of the ways that different scholars in American Studies approach their work, the theories, methods and subjects that have preoccupied those in the field—and then were asked to put that knowledge and interdisciplinary skill set to work in their own research.  Again, delightfully, the possibilities for making this course “my own” were endless.

As I approached the syllabus I drew on some frustrations I had with research papers received in other courses. At times students quickly changed their topic in the last month of class as the result of frustration, poor research, or panic.  Quickly, I realized that this wasn’t the fault of my students but instead it was because I had failed to hold them accountable for the research paper throughout the entire semester. How could I do this? To help keep us all on task, I set deadlines along the way for assignments that students could post on a course blog. The blog was an easily navigable interface where student submitted everything electronically—definitely a benefit for me.  But more importantly the blog became a place where I could scaffold students’ learning. On the blog I crafted short micro-writing assignments such as a reading journal, a film blog, abstracts, and an annotated bibliography. I set these assignments up in an interval fashion where each assignment built upon the previous assignment. A research journal accompanied these more formal writing assignments enabling the students and myself to track progress and give feedback throughout the semester.  The blog helped me link time spent outside of the classroom in the archives or library to experiences inside the classroom.

Even more helpful and nontraditional than the blog, I taught the course with two embedded course librarians—a research librarian and university archivist. I required the students to visit the College’s Special Collections Research Center and incorporate an element of that hands-on research experience into their final projects.  Students were required to meet with Martha Higgins, Research Librarian, and University Archivist Amy Schindler as they wrote their research papers.  They had access to the blog and the ability to comment. This class worked extensively with Special Collections Research Center in an effort to do three things: introduce students to archival materials, make library instruction more relevant to their creative processes, and finally to see what American Studies scholars do in archives differently.

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“American Studies in the Archive: a Remix”

I found this contact with the librarian and the archivist, in addition to time spent with me, to be extremely helpful and fun for the students.  It enabled them to establish intellectual relationships with librarians and archivists to help sustain them in their research.  Embedding such resources in your course helps students understand that simplistically, yes, there are people in the library who help them check out books, but there are also librarians and archivists who are there for more in-depth contact to assist with research.  Students start to understand that there are people in different settings that can be resources and are there to be part of the academic life of the university.

This strategy illustrated for the students the varieties of research and interests on campus—it exposed them to the culture of interdisciplinary thought.  My classroom became a gateway to an exciting climate of intellectual exchange.  As a result, I felt it was very important for the students to present their findings in a public forum. Students presented their findings at an end of the semester gathering they entitled “American Studies in the Archive: a Remix.” It was a great way to get the “word” out that American Studies students were using the College archives in new and innovative ways—and the projects indeed covered a range of topics and interdisciplinary approaches.  Titles included: “Mental Illness in 19th Century Virginia: An Analysis of the Significance of the Eastern State Hospital and Disability Studies,” “Middle Class Values in American Board Games and Card Games: Morality, Mores and Materialism in the Victorian Era,” or “Feeling Patriotically Inclined: A Look at Female Students at the College of William and Mary and Their Home Front Efforts During World War II.”  What I found, ultimately, was that by the end of the semester the syllabus had become less and less my own work.  The more I let go and asked others to assist me in weighing in, the better the projects became. The beauty of this collaborative learning experience—interval writing assignments, student creativity, feedback from the University Archivist, and guidance from the Research Librarian—made this a community syllabus and helped convey that when American Studies students, a professor, an archivist, and a librarian mix up the archive, good things happen.


Betsy Schlabach headshot resized1Betsy Schlabach teaches American History and African and African American Studies at Earlham College. She received her doctorate in American Studies from Saint Louis University in 2008. She is the author of Along the Streets of Bronzeville: Black Chicago’s Literary Landscapes (University of Illinois Press, 2013).




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