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Projects from HIST 213:
First Wave American Feminism, Spring 2013

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Student Projects


In Fall 2012, Carol Lasser, Professor of History, and Ken Grossi, Oberlin College Archivist, began planning together to create a framework that could bring beginning history students into the college archive. We were inspired by the Pedagogy Workshop for Liberal Arts Colleges, "Teaching the Archives," sponsored by the Alliance to Advance Liberal Arts Colleges (AALC), and held at Smith College, November 2-4, 2012.

Historians and archivists know the powerful impact that original documents can have on students, the excitement generated when young people first see, smell, feel and touch textual artifacts. At Oberlin College we are fortunate to have an archives rich with almost two centuries of materials, from minute books and manuscripts, to correspondence and class notes, from photographs to rare photocopies. The pedagogical rationale for providing students with access to these materials is clear: even novices will better appreciate the practice of history when they explore the raw materials from which experts craft their arguments and narratives; even beginners should have the opportunity to appreciate the structure, the choices, the complexities, of the craft by grappling with the multiplicity and ambiguity of the materials in their original form, the thrill of discovery, the frustrations of the search for interpretive strategies. Confronting the archival sources would, we believed, help students see from the inside how history is constructed, how historians make choices.

Yet we wondered whether we could effectively bring entry-level and intermediate classes into this world? Lower-level courses may mix primary and secondary reading assignments, original sources and monographs, but how within the time constraints of a semester already jammed with content, could we give students a sense of the archival experience? How could we support their work in learning to interpret both text and context? We decided to experiment with my Spring 2013 introductory-level course on First Wave American Feminism, knowing that the Oberlin College Archives had abundant materials documenting early women's education, clubs, settlement work, temperance, and more. We then determined that we would compromise some of the excitement of "the hunt" by pre-selecting particularly rich collections and flagging potentially enchanting pieces within them so that our students could be assured a rewarding experience within the materials. Although we limited the scope of discovery, we hoped students would still grapple with provenance and packaging, undertake annotation and contextualization.

In the Fall 2012 semester preceding the course, Ken Grossi, and the Archives staff, Louisa Hoffman and Ann Salsich, energetically identified a range of collections, and carefully selected documents that seemed particularly promising points of entry. Early in the Spring 2013 semester, we introduced the project and created students teams of three to work together on a collection to which they were attracted. Each team was tasked with collectively writing an introductory essay; and each individual was to transcribe, introduce and annotate a single document. The results were astounding, both in terms of the quality of the projects, and in the engagement of students with the work. We were so impressed that we decided to ask the students to document their achievement by making their materials, often drawn from little used collections, more broadly available to a wider world by web publishing.

The projects as they appear are the products of the hard work of the Spring 2013 students of History 213, combined with the extraordinary efforts of the Oberlin College Archives. They offer one way to think about teaching and learning history, as well as an approach to combining the "real" and the virtual-the dusty manuscripts and the 24/7 world of information today. I ntroductions and annotations have been edited for clarity and consistency by Jennifer Graham, '12 in conjunction with Professor Carol Lasser. James Scott, the Archives webmaster, designed the web pages for the online presentation of the student projects.