Talk About Teaching and Learning
April 25, 2017, Volume 63, No. 32
From Awe to Activity: Pedagogies in Special Collections
A research seminar in South Asian studies has spent a good portion of this semester in the Kislak Center for Special Collections. Students have examined letters of travelers to India, photographs, diaries, cookbooks, cinema pressbooks and even comic books from the popular Amar Chitra Katha series drawing upon Indian mythology. During these sessions, students held in their hands the types of materials that “real” historians work with every day. They returned on their own to pursue additional research on these items in the Kislak Center reading room and assembled their findings into a digital exhibition using the Omeka platform. They saw, in a way that cannot be easily described, that history isn’t just a list of events in a textbook—that knowledge is constructed from different types of sources, and that they, even as students, also have a role to play in the study of the near and far past.
On a first visit, students in classes like this regularly begin by reacting with surprise: “Wow! We can touch this stuff!” They may be impressed with the quantity, range and value of materials this university possesses. Awe and amazement—the wonder of seeing and studying the “real” stuff—connects students to scholarship in powerful ways. The curators and librarians charged with stewarding these collections regularly impress visitors with remarkable treasures, from medieval to modern and from across the world. Along with the recently-renovated Kislak Center, there are important collections in nearly every corner of campus: the University Archives, the Penn Museum and Museum Archives, the Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing; the Fine Arts and Museum Libraries, the Annenberg School, the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, the Biddle Law Library and the Historic Library at the Pennsylvania Hospital.
In the past, getting students to the “wow” moment when they could see and even handle these materials was a major challenge for instructors, and sometimes an insurmountable one. But now most special collections departments, and certainly those at Penn, encourage classes to make use of their resources. To get undergraduates in to see, for example, 500-year-old manuscripts, Penn faculty simply need to contact library or archives staff, make arrangements, consult and request materials, and ask their students to show up, leave their coffee and food behind, and clean their hands. That’s it.
Of course, the awe-factor only gets students, and instructors, so far. Beyond the initial, often powerful, encounter with these remarkable “primary sources” that are the vital matter of research the key question is how can instructors, faculty, and librarians show students how we might interpret and question the sources? How can the encounter help students to see that they themselves can become makers of knowledge?
Effective teaching activities begin by nudging students to look at sources carefully and consider their various histories. This begins with the physical objects in front of them: book, poster, letter, archival box, photograph, Book of Hours, comic book.... A list of basic questions can get students started: What is the date? Why is this so big, or so small? Are there illustrations? These suggest the importance of careful attention to details students might otherwise assume they know already. Students begin to make meaning from material facts—they can realize that they then need to learn about paper, or printing, or binding materials, or handwriting. Larger questions about historical contexts follow. Instructors can shape a discussion that leads the students to question why these materials matter and to examine what they can learn from “real” objects. Students in the Kislak Center have had many productive conversations about the limits of images presented via PowerPoint or on the internet.
The challenge of learning how to look is a cross-disciplinary one. The instructor for a freshman seminar on the history of chemistry brought his class to the Kislak Center three times over the course of a semester to show them a series of books that reveal the changing look and meanings of “chemistry” and to encourage discussion of how changes in these books reflected changes in thinking about the discipline of chemistry itself. A course in the School of Design uses special collections to consider the form of books—size, shape, layout, typography. Students look one week at late medieval manuscripts with text and commentary and early printed books with woodcuts and marginal notations. In another week students examine Arts and Crafts printing of the late nineteenth century and modernist typographical responses to it. And finally, these students focus on contemporary “artists’ books” that radically reinvent the book form. Students incorporate all these forms into their own projects, using these old and new books to expand their own assumptions about what a book is.
Other classes use special collections in still more in-depth ways. An English class on the “Pamela craze” of the eighteenth century (the popularity and controversy surrounding Samuel Richardson’s novel) holds every class meeting in special collections seminar rooms. Rare book collections are a regular “actor” in these meetings. Students pick archival sources for their own class presentations and prepare their own questions for discussion. The act of looking at particular books becomes a launching point for larger projects. Working with these materials allows students to become producers of knowledge.
Although a number of these projects are most appropriate in specialized small classes, with enough thought and preparation, undergraduates at any level can use special collections in innovative ways. In a popular history and sociology of science course on the history of medicine, with enrollments approaching 100 students come to the reading room over a period of two weeks. They attempt to diagnose their own symptoms, which they have recorded in a diary, by reading Renaissance medical treatises and medical “receipt” books. They work at reading early modern English and take digital photographs that they can study further at home. For another class session, the Kislak Center staff assembles a large group of early modern and modern cookbooks from Penn’s collections in a seminar room. Students look through these books to select a recipe, an ingredient, or a pair of ingredients to track across time or across cultures.
Approaches to special collections can and should be as varied and wide-ranging as the disciplines themselves. And close looking can encourage thinking across disciplines and across periods. The result can be collective discovery, in which all parties—faculty, students, librarians, curators—see pieces of the past, exclaim “Wow! That’s cool!” and then progress together toward interpretation.
John Pollack is a library specialist for public services, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.
This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences, the Center for Teaching and Learning and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.