The Archives as Touchstone: A Semester of Student Engagement
The Archives as Touchstone: A Semester of Student Engagement

Working with archival materials has helped me achieve student engagement, a goal central to my teaching philosophy. I incorporate the use of archival materials into the English composition course I teach as part of “Telling Brooklyn Stories,” a semester-long, communication-intensive learning community with Justin Davis’s Effective Speaking course.

Learning communities aim to improve student engagement through enrollment in paired courses. As a cohort, students collaborate on projects that integrate the goals of both courses. In “Telling Brooklyn Stories,” we use high-impact practices such as student collaboration and place-based learning. Ideally, these experiences lead to increased student persistence (course completion).

The students in “Telling Brooklyn Stories” complete these courses, have a positive first-semester experience, and feel connected to each other, to their professors, and to the college and its neighboring environment. These successes are a result of the following student engagement strategies:

  1. Seeking out and making the most of unique resources
  2. Designing a semester-long, scaffolded assignment across both courses
  3. Introducing students to the college and its surrounding neighborhoods
  4. Using interactive technology to support student collaboration

The archives play an integral role in all of these strategies.

Unique Resources

Very few first-year students at my college have the opportunity to conduct hands-on primary source research. In addition to integrating unique archival collections into my course, I also take advantage of the institution’s proximity to my campus and to the expertise of the archives staff.

Before visiting the reading room, students take a walking tour led by a public historian who works at the archives. Students get out of the classroom and interact with the neighborhoods in the short walk between their school and the archives. They also benefit from the knowledge of experts other than their professors.

In a subsequent class, we visit the archives to examine different types of maps of the surrounding area. Students look at manuscript maps from the early 1800s, mid-century transit maps, and more recent maps produced by commercial shopping districts. Hands-on, active learning enables students to see the areas where they live, work, and study from a historical perspective (learn about this visit here).

Although these interactions comprise only 5% of the learning community’s class time, they figure into multiple assignments and class activities for both courses culminating in a final project. Students start connecting information from the walking tour and the archives with assignments and class activities. Thus we ensure that what is a relatively small class-time investment becomes a touchstone experience throughout the semester.

The Semester-Long Assignment

At the end of the semester, students design walking tour stops, create videos of themselves speaking at their stop, and embed those videos in a shared Google map (learn about this final project here). The majority of the work students complete throughout the semester (both in and out of the archives, and for both courses) leads, step-by-step, to this interactive, collaborative final project.

Because we package each assignment as a clear, necessary step towards the final project, students understand the value of each task. Along the way, they take advantage of opportunities to use the archives and walking-tour experiences as both sources and skill training for their work. The scaffolded assignment allows students to hone their research, writing, and public speaking skills. They develop confidence and expertise from their sustained efforts.

Exploring the Neighborhood

Learning communities strive to offer a positive, supported academic and social experience and to orient students to the college and to college life. Although all of our first-year students reside in New York City (and many in Brooklyn), the college’s area is new to most of them. Many reported never having visited the college or its neighborhood prior to enrolling.

For this reason, we wanted to design a first-year experience for our students that would include some interaction with the neighborhoods surrounding the college. In addition to our historian-led walking tour, students are asked to take a 15-minute walk from the college to observe and compare “overlapping New Yorks,” an idea Colson Whitehead expresses in The Colossus of New York.1

Ultimately, these experiences prepare students to create their own walking tour stop. Placing the archives in the physical and historical context of the neighborhood also teaches students that many cultural institutions are available to them within walking distance of our school.

Interactive Technology and Collaboration

The digital tools that students use throughout the semester reinforce the collaborative nature of the course. Students share their work throughout the semester on the “Telling Brooklyn Stories” class blog. They reflect on their experiences in the archives, they post digital images of the maps they examined, and they share photographs from their walking excursions.

The interactive Google map created for the final project makes students’ walking tour videos accessible to a public audience. Students make a very real contribution to each other, to their university, and to anyone with interest in the greater downtown Brooklyn area. The project requires students to demonstrate fundamental research, time-management, writing, reading, listening, and speaking skills. The non-traditional nature of this end product encourages them to exercise their creativity and to take ownership of their work.

My students were prepared for this final project because of their interaction with the archives and with the neighborhood. Working with primary sources is an excellent way to develop students who do not merely consume and regurgitate information. In the archives, my students developed strong observation and research skills which prepared them to make substantial contributions to the creative, collaborative final project.

1) Colson Whitehead, The Colossus of New York (New York” Random House, 2007), 1-11.

To cite this page:
Jody R. Rosen, “The Archives as Touchstone: A Semester of Student Engagement,”, accessed [insert date here],


Jody R. Rosen
Assistant Professor of English
City Tech (CUNY)
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