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English 015 in the Archives

As any first-year composition teacher knows, students sometimes struggle to generate topics for their writing assignments. Students are often drawn to topics that they think carry a sort of cultural currency, topics that everyone can recognize as somehow important (abortion, the legalization of marijuana, whether or not NCAA student athletes should be paid, etc.). I am not saying that I’ve never gotten a successful paper on any of these topics—I have. However, these kinds of topics can create a specific set of problems for first-year writers. When students try to discuss issues on a national or international scale, they often find it difficult to effectively explain their argument in a 3-5 page paper. Additionally, they sometimes struggle to establish ethos. They can do extensive research and cite credible sources, but they are still a college student. These writing tasks become more challenging when they feel like their chosen audience (students often decide to direct their papers towards politicians and legislators) might not take them seriously. I want my students to experience writing from a position of authority, not to feel like they have to deemphasize or make up for their personal experience (or lack of relevant experience). As a result, I decided to try something different with my English 015 classes. With some guidance (thank you, Michael Faris!), I created a set of assignments that ask my students to rely on their experiences at Penn State to generate topics by conducting research with primary sources in the University Archives.

Here’s how this works: I am currently teaching a set of three assignments that I am calling the Archival Narrative, the Archival Research Paper, and the Community Argument. This series gives them the opportunity to explore a topic in depth, to practice different styles and forms as they write about what they have learned, and ultimately to make that historical information matter by using it to inform their discussion of a current issue facing our campus. Before we visit the archives, I explain the assignments and my goals for their writing. The university archivists (who have been incredibly generous with their time and expertise) give us a presentation explaining what kinds of documents are held in the archives, the process of researching with primary sources, and the particular rules and regulations about working in that space. At this point, many students are skeptical: you mean we actually have to sit down in that room and look through a bunch of old stuff? I explain that, yes, this is a very different type of work. Rather than making up their minds about a topic and doing a keyword search for sources that support their position, they have to explore the artifacts in the archives, find interesting information, and use what they learn to develop an argument.

I ask them to begin to think about a piece of Penn State history that they find interesting. Is there a tradition that they participate in but don’t know the history of?  Are they curious about the people our buildings and streets are named for? Are they a part of an organization or group that they could learn more about? Is there a particular period or historical event that interests them and might lead them to discover what Penn State was like at that point in time? What sets them apart as a Penn State student—can they look for other students like them in the history of our institution? I encourage students to develop an idea before they visit the archives; if they don’t have at least some sense of what they are looking for, the amount of material available can be overwhelming. I do, however, stress that a sense of curiosity and open-mindedness is important—exciting stories can come from unexpected sources. Some of the students go in with a very clear idea, and some need to look through a few folders or boxes before they really latch on to a topic. After they have visited the archives once or twice, their attitudes usually begin to change. They don’t all come around—but many students admit that the research is “kind of fun” and that they can see what all the fuss is about (the fuss being me, begging them to believe that archives are exciting).

It has been fun. It has opened up new conversations in my classroom—we talk about why our institutional history matters, how tradition functions on campus, and the difficulties of telling someone else’s story responsibly and respectfully. Students teach each other about the history they have uncovered, and they enjoy becoming the resident expert on the Nittany Lion mascot or the first women to attend Penn State. They start to look at their community differently, and they come up with interesting and relevant ideas like restarting the tradition of classes competing against each other in games of “pushball” in order to create student activities that don’t revolve around drinking, encouraging third-party political student organizations and their continued involvement in election-season activities on campus, urging THON organizers to reconsider how they publicize the event in order to keep the focus on the Four Diamonds Fund rather than the student participants, or asking that the Penn State student body understand the real story behind the “We Are…” chant and think more critically about its uses today. The research process is difficult, but they learn some valuable skills along the way. Most importantly, my students are engaging with their writing in a different way; when the topic at hand is something that matters to a community they have an investment in, their experience matters too.