Like many historians who teach the US survey course, I struggle with the question of breadth versus depth as I create my syllabus. As an instructor at a technical college without a history major, I am also aware that my class may be my students’ only college-level history course. Therefore, when teaching the survey, I plan only a single class visit to the archives so as not to sacrifice the class time in which I cover the major topics and issues in US history.
Working in the archives provides a common experience for my students, emphasizes student collaboration, and has a positive impact on class participation and morale throughout the semester. I have been able to make the single visit to the archives work by strategically picking a topic and by figuring out the right way to provide the necessary context for my students.
Finding collections relevant to course content is not a problem—in fact, just opposite. There is so much interesting material that it can be difficult to narrow down both what topic a class will study and what documents they will examine. When first preparing to take my students to the archives, I initially spent a week researching the collections.
After mentioning to one of the archivists my own research interest in popular culture, I was shown a box of entertainment guide books and something clicked. I realized I should structure the visit around the development of vaudeville in Brooklyn as part of our unit on the rise of mass culture during the Gilded Age.
The assignment I created, What is Vaudeville?, works so well because it allows me to teach a topic close to my own research interest (the development of the early film industry in the United States). I am able to incorporate my own expertise and to use my time in the archives to further explore the close relationship between vaudeville and early cinema. Many of the documents I have found are new and useful for my own work.
Since I am thoroughly familiar with the secondary literature on these topics, I was able to design an interesting assignment and adequately provide context for my students without an enormous amount of preparation. Prior to the archives visit, I lecture on urbanism and mass entertainment, focusing on how turn-of-the-century popular theaters tried to elevate their performances for a more middle-class audience. I also assign a short reading from our course textbook, and administer an online quiz to ensure students complete the selection. I’ve learned that it is essential to prepare students before the visit to make better use of our precious hour at the archives.
I also use the walk to the archives to show my students that the history of vaudeville took place where our campus now stands. On the way over, I conduct a brief walking tour to show students that Johnson Street was once lined with theaters.
Because no evidence remains today, students are surprised to know that neighborhood around our school was once an entertainment district. They arrive at the archives already engaged in the topic and ready to conduct their own research.
Although the students make only one brief visit to the archives, they build on the hands-on learning they do there through online assignments. I use the class immediately after the archives visit as a computer workshop session so that students can contribute to our class website “What is Vaudeville?: The Brooklyn Experience.”
As I circulate, students trade images and notes, upload materials to the website, and help each other write descriptions of the theater they studied. This collaborative experience allows students to analyze the information they gather during the archives visit and turn it into a final product.
For nearly all my students, the visit is their first introduction to a special collections library and their first hands-on experience with archival materials. By gathering primary evidence to answer research questions, students practice the essential skills of the historical method, and then share their findings with their classmates via the class blog. This one visit to the archives, with its emphasis on collaboration, has a positive impact in class participation and student engagement for the entire semester.
Peter Catapano, “The Single Visit Model: Fitting the Archives into a Survey Course,” TeachArchives.org, accessed [insert date here], http://wwww.teacharchives.org/articles/single-visit/.