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Teaching with collections in a large-format undergraduate class

By Jeannette Vaught

When I had the opportunity to design my Introduction to American Studies: Cyborg Americans course, I knew I wanted to tackle a challenge: exposing over 100 undergraduates to archival holdings on campus.

Jeannette Vaught, Lecturer in American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, prepares for her students’ visit to the Ransom Center. Photo by Pete Smith.
Jeannette Vaught, Lecturer in American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, prepares for her students’ visit to the Ransom Center. Photo by Pete Smith.

To me, one of the most important tasks that faces an instructor in the humanities is guiding students to the actual work of research, which often happens only once students are in smaller seminar settings.
With the help of the Harry Ransom Center’s new Instructional Services Coordinator, Dr. Andi Gustavson, I knew it would be possible to design an assignment that could work in a large-format survey course and bring students to the Center. Wanting to make use of the rich pedagogical benefits of this on-campus cultural institution depended on Andi’s expertise and guidance as we navigated the process of designing and implementing this course from the beginning.

 

Why in-person primary research?

It’s common practice in American Studies lecture courses to focus on primary source materials as a core method of engaging students in cultural history.  Most often, these are presented in course readers and visual presentations as facsimiles of original texts, material culture, or images.  I wanted to go a step further and bring the students to see the actual, physical objects of history: the experience of seeing primary materials in person is an entirely different experience than encountering it reproduced on a sheet of everyday paper, or even only as a digitized image.

It was important to me to be able to introduce students to this kind of in-person research at the same time they are first learning about what American Studies is as a field, rather than waiting until they’ve been drawn to a seminar.  Even if these students didn’t yet have the analytical tools to fully engage with artifacts in an archive, putting them in the middle of big questions and engaging directly with the objects encouraged them to think and ask their way into analysis from the inside.

Vaught sharing collection materials with students. Photo by Pete Smith.
Vaught sharing collection materials with students. Photo by Pete Smith.

Challenges

The biggest challenge for this course was the sheer size of it: clocking in at 110 students, it would be impossible to bring them all into the Ransom Center together.  Andi and I came up with the solution to break the class into four manageably sized groups to visit the Ransom Center. These groups were just shy of 30 students each.

Since we had four groups, I designed the course to have four units, and assigned a group to visit the Ransom Center once during each of these units.  Once in the Ransom Center, these groups split further into subgroups to work on the assignment collaboratively.

 

The assignment

Andi Gustavson, Instructional Services Coordinator at the Ransom Center, shares insight about collection materials. Photo by Pete Smith.
Andi Gustavson, Instructional Services Coordinator at the Ransom Center, shares insight about collection materials. Photo by Pete Smith.

The course Cyborg Americans was designed as a cultural history of science course in American Studies, which gave Andi and me the ability to use the varied cultural scientific collections at the Ransom Center.  I chose several objects, ranging from texts to photographs to material culture artifacts, which corresponded to each unit of the course. Materials came from various collections, including photographs by Edward Muybridge, images from the New York Journal-American, designs from Norman Bel Geddes, and materials from Robert De Niro’s collection.

Andi arranged for materials to be displayed in the Ransom Center’s seminar rooms when student groups visited the Ransom Center according to those course units.  Ransom Center staff digitized images of these objects, which I posted on our class page for students to access after their visit.

Once there, students broke into groups around particular objects that were most compelling to them, and Andi and I were able to provide targeted information about these objects to get the students thinking about what questions to pursue, and how each of these objects could be analyzed according to themes they were encountering in class.  Each visit was a vibrant discussion and brainstorming session, as they broke into groups and began grappling with the physical realities of their chosen artifact and the larger context of course material.

Screen grab of the course’s wiki, which was populated by student content.
Screen grab of the course’s wiki, which was populated by student content.

The Canvas team at The University of Texas at Austin’s Learning Sciences created a special wiki site for the class, which had four pages – one for each unit.  I asked students to think of this wiki as a virtual museum, and each unit page was like a room in the Museum of Cyborg Americans.

They were tasked with populating the museum with a curated exhibit of their unit. I asked them to envision a public audience that would learn about the history of technology and American culture by wandering through this exhibit.  Each subgroup chose an artifact, wrote a small museum tag for it that explained the object in the context of the course, and posted the image and tag on the course wiki.

By the end of the semester, we had four wonderful rooms where students had successfully added content value to the course by connecting their in-person experience with historical objects at the Ransom Center to the course—and practiced translating this analysis to a wider public.

 

Undergraduate students in the course Cyborg Americans. Photo by Pete Smith.
Undergraduate students in the course Cyborg Americans. Photo by Pete Smith.

Outcomes

Lionel S. Beale,1828–1906, <em>How to work with the microscope</em> (1868).
Lionel S. Beale,1828–1906, How to work with the microscope (1868).

Emily Medina, a music major, worked with a group of students to analyze plates from a nineteenth-century microscope textbook in the context of the cultural changes Americans experienced as germ theories gained a foothold in medicine.  In their museum tag, her group perceptively wrote, “The lens transforms into a tool that strengthens the naked eye, molding curious observers into ‘cyborgs’ of the American public. Beale [the author] constructed this work on behalf of the public, to guide individuals seeking clarity and to give some essence of control on seemingly imperceptible attackers.”

Emily highlighted the importance of seeing these texts in person. “Sometimes it can be difficult to visualize the things we learn about in class, but when we were able to see these primary materials it really made everything come together nicely. I know we will definitely be back to do research for other classes.”

I’m proud that we designed an assignment that worked in a large-format survey course, and brought students into the Ransom Center from a range of science, business, and humanities majors who may otherwise have never had encountered the collections during their time at The University of Texas.

 

Editor’s Note: With the initial success of this class, Vaught offered the course in Summer 2016. She’s also currently teaching it in Fall 2016. It’s one of the largest classes visiting the Ransom Center this semester.


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