Undergraduates in the Archives – Powell 2
2What are the benefits of doing so, pedagogically and intellectually?
Timothy B. Powell
Director, Native American Projects – American Philosophical Society
Senior Lecturer, Department of Religious Studies – University of PennsylvaniaEditor, Gibagadinamaagoom: An Ojibwe Digital Archive
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The most obvious benefit to Penn students is the opportunity to work on a project designed to be used by Native American community members and to hear the voices of elders. Penn, unfortunately, has no Native American faculty working in the field of American Indian studies, and the state of Pennsylvania has no Indian reservations. As a result, students generally have no contact with the people they are studying. Because many have never met a Native American, they are prone to thinking of Indians as extinct. By getting students to look at archival materials from an indigenous perspective, they learn to think about such basic terms as “American,” “history,” “literature,” “knowledge,” and “writing” in new ways. Even if the students do not major in American Indian studies, the intellectual experience of understanding a very different cultural epistemology and ontology is inherently valuable.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 From a pedagogical perspective, the students learn research skills in archives that will serve them well no matter what careers they chose. In my experience, most undergraduates do not have the opportunity to work with archival or museum collections. Many students seem to enjoy the courses more once they have been to the American Philosophical Society and have seen Thomas Jefferson’s hand-written draft of the Declaration of Independence, or have held a drum owned by Sitting Bull in their hands. It makes history and culture come alive in a way that textbooks rarely do. I find that it requires a lot of preliminary work—selecting and skimming documents, scanning photographs, etc.—to prepare a class for doing research in the archives. This semester my students will be going through hundreds of pages of oral history transcripts about an Ojibwe Medicine Man. The students will try to match the transcripts to historical documents and photographs in order to make them more useful to the community in northern Manitoba, where the recordings were originally made more than seventy-five years ago. I find that the students’ work is more thoughtful and more inspired when they realize that it may possibly benefit Native Americans, rather than just be read by one person: me.
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