Undergraduates in the Archives – Werner 2
2What are the benefits of doing so, pedagogically and intellectually?
Undergraduate Program Director – Folger Shakespeare Library
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 I think the biggest benefit of bringing students into special collections through this course is that students own the process of discovery. In many undergraduate humanities courses, students learn about a subject through reading about it and, sometimes, conducting research on a topic of their choosing. But their research is rarely significant in terms of discovering new knowledge or generating a new perspective on something. Anyone who has taught a Shakespeare course can attest to the fact that even the best student papers do not often contribute something new to the field of Shakespeare studies; they might be interesting, and insightful, and they might be genuinely exciting to the student, but they are not new. But when students work with primary materials in special collections, they can be working with something that no one else has considered before. Sure, many people have written about More’s Utopia, but no one else may have produced a history of the particular copy of the third English edition of his book, which can now be found at the Folger with the call number STC 18096 Copy 1. More importantly, I have not done that either. In creating the biographies of their books, students are on their own, doing utterly original research. I can provide guidance, and so can generations of scholars before them, but students will not have that sinking feeling of realizing that somebody else has already written what they want to say, and has written it better.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 That ownership of their research shifts how students see themselves as scholars. They are each experts on their own book, and everyone teaches everyone else when it comes to sharing insights into the nature of the book trade, the shape of authorship, or the variety of book use. Students produce long research papers on their final biographies, having revised earlier drafts, rethought their assumptions, and spent countless hours in the Library and at home working through their books’ stories. There is a consistent level of engagement with the material that I have not seen in other advanced-level seminars I have taught. Their papers routinely go above and beyond the expectations I have set for the projects; I have learned to suggest word limits as minimum expectations, not maximum cut-offs, since when I ask for a 3000-word paper, there are always students who have produced such rich research that they need 5000 words to do it justice.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 I suppose some might question the scholarly benefit of pouring all that energy into one copy of one edition of one book. But by limiting their attention to one copy, students have the room to fully explore the range of connections and complications for that book, and with that knowledge, students are able to extrapolate to the production of other books and to the ways in which knowledge passes from one generation to the next. The history of who read and collected the 1597 English Utopia over the centuries sheds light on our reading and use of the text today. More importantly, the skills students learn exploring one book can be used to explore any book, even a book made after the hand-press period. And because students are genuinely excited by the sense of discovery, they absorb and retain those ideas, bringing them to their other courses and to their lives following graduation. Being able to discover and to be real scholars as undergraduates opens up doors to them long after our class is done.