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VanHaitsma, Pamela. Student Inquiry through Archives. CE, Sept. 2015. Posted 09/08/2015.

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VanHaitsma, Pamela. “New Pedagogical Engagements with Archives: Student Inquiry and Composing in Digital Spaces.” College English 78.1 (2015): 34-55. Web. 2 Sept. 2015.

Pamela VanHaitsma discusses an approach to involving students in archival research that she developed in first-year-writing classes at the University of Pittsburgh. Maintaining that students explore as well as create archives throughout their activities both in and outside of class, VanHaitsma hopes to connect the kinds of inquiry that archives make possible with the focus on student interest and lives that informs writing pedagogy. She also investigates how digital collection and dissemination options affect the process of using and building an archive (36).

She notes that the term “archives” might designate a range of collections, such as databases students use in research for classwork, broader collocations of information like Wikipedia, and even sites housing student material for plagiarism detection. VanHaitsma chooses to avoid resolving this definitional debate that, on the one hand, recognizes any collection of information as an archive, but on the other, insists on specific content and formal organization. Instead, she wants to “work between the . . . extremes of broad and narrow definitions” (35), drawing on the relationship between collections “from the past” as well as “present-day spaces” where archives might exist or be created (35). The specific assignment she presents calls on students to use collections that fit the traditional model while also developing their own collections in order to ground inquiry in their writing classes (36).

In VanHaitsma’s view and that of other scholars she cites, archival methods and research inherently encourage inquiry, simultaneously evoking critical attention to methodology (36-37). Practicing these methodologies has the added effect, VanHaitsma argues, of drawing both undergraduates and graduate students into the kind of scholarly work done and valued beyond the classroom: Students can “transform from thinking of themselves as students to seeing their insights and their work have value to an academic field” (Wendy Hayden, qtd. in VanHaitsma 37).

In her view, exploring digital archives has added benefits. She cites the collaborative work across areas of scholarly emphasis enabled by access to many different digital collections (37); she quotes James P. Purdy to stress that digital archives “eliminate many temporal and spatial obstacles” as students explore connections across disciplines (qtd. in VanHaitsma 38).

In particular, VanHaitsma points to scholarship that argues for the value of digital tools in helping students contribute their own collections to the growing universe of archives. Daniel Anderson contends that students’ ability to gather and store materials without expert technical knowledge makes them “producers and consumers, or ‘prosumers'” (qtd. in VanHaitsma 38). VanHaitsma provides examples of such “prosumer” behavior across communities and within classrooms, for instance the use of MediaWiki software to generate collaborative collections (38).

Her students explored the topic of “language use in romantic relationships” (40) through two traditional archives of nineteenth-century letter-writing instructions and then through materials available to them today that offered similar instruction. Her goals included encouraging comparison of these rhetorics while also asking students to consider how new technologies affected the dissemination and effects of the information they were examining (40, 42). Students concluded the project with an essay analyzing similarities and differences. Thus, for VanHaitsma, the assignment led to substantive inquiry at many levels. The students’ archives were collected in the Blackboard Course Management system in use at the university; the results were not made public 40-41).

VanHaitsma stresses that substantial learning resulted from her decision to allow students to develop their own archives rather than provide them with present-day materials of her choosing. Teachers, she argues, may not clearly anticipate what students will find useful or relevant; moreover, pre-empting students’ agency in choosing what to include in the archive stifles the kind of active inquiry the assignment is intended to promote.

VanHaitsma notes that students’ choices were not all “overtly instructional” like the letter-writing manuals; although how-to articles were included, students added other diverse options such as YouTube music videos, excerpts from novels, and film clips (43). She provides five examples of essay topics, for example, a comparison of a letter-writing manual to “present-day Chinese TV dating shows” that noted how both “focus on a man’s ‘wealth’ and a woman’s ‘appearance'” (student, qtd. in VanHaitsma 44); and an examination of the manuals through the lens of Jersey Shore, noting the shift from “courtesy” to “language and tactics . . . for hooking up” (student, qtd. in VanHaitsma 44). Two students noted that the earlier manuals did not admit the possibility of gay relationships (44-45).

VanHaitsma illustrates the critical analysis encouraged by the assignment: Students explored both the advantages and limits of both rhetorics as well as the effects of the media used. For example, a student analyzing a clip from the film He’s Just Not That Into You used the term “bombarded” to describe current-day techniques for creating relationships while other students noted that relationships today have been made “too easy” as people turn to online media to convey thoughts that were once written out with great care (46-47). Students also noted the limitations of the nineteenth-century process, contending that there are virtues to today’s more expansive options (47).

However, VanHaitsma’s ultimate focus is not on the content of the archives and essays themselves; rather, she hopes to foreground the degree to which the work of examining traditional archives while simultaneously creating related archives from materials of interest to students promotes “the sort of scholarly inquiry that teacher-scholars have emphasized as a potential for pedagogical engagements with brick-and-mortar archives. . . . ” (48).

VanHaitsma recommends that despite the ease of use of familiar platforms like Blackboard, students will benefit from trying out other systems, especially those like Archive-It and Omeka, which are specifically intended for the generation and dissemination of archives (49). While encouraging the option of taking student-created archives public, VanHaitsma cautions that teachers will need to address “questions about the audiences, purposes, and effects of such publication, as well as copyright issues relevant to archiving artifacts” (49).

Her final caution is for teachers to remember that when they provide archival materials for student study, they may come with “preconceived ideas” about how the materials should be valued. Again, she believes that student agency in selecting and evaluating collected material is paramount to the learning such assignments foster (50).

Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

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