Basic Writers in the Archives
Basic Writers in the Archives

I agreed to bring an unlikely group of students into the archives. My students tested into “remedial” English; our research shows that they read, on average, at a ninth-grade level. They started their first semester in a course that meets six hours per week to work on reading, writing, and basic research skills.

It’s a tough class, and it needs to be — the following semester they enroll in my standard first-year composition course, in which they read increasingly difficult texts (up to and including scholarly articles) and write a research essay.

Because I teach them in a year-long learning community, my students had the opportunity to work in the archives for two semesters and to incorporate archival materials into their first-year composition research projects.

My students wrote – a lot – about the subjects they researched in the archives, but our work there was really about close reading. Who was this document written for? Why was it written? When was it written and what was that time like? What strategies did the writer use to reach the audience and achieve the purpose?

Essentially, we performed rhetorical analyses of archival documents such as flyers and letters relating to the Brooklyn chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). That is, we looked at the strategies the creator employed to reach the reader within the conventions of a particular genre, including appealing to emotion, establishing credibility, and using logic. This is a task I am finding more and more valuable both for helping students understand what they read and for workshopping their own writing.

It’s also really, really hard.

In Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf writes that children “with a rich repertoire of words and their associations will experience any text … in ways that are substantially different from children who do not have the same stored words and concepts.”1

None of the students in my class had visited an archives before or had experience with primary documents. The students’ interactions with archival materials were circumscribed by the limits of their “stored words and concepts;” they needed to learn a new vocabulary to understand the documents.

Archival research exposed my students’ limited cultural and historical vocabularies. As one young woman wrote after studying documents from the CORE collection: “This experience was not how I envisioned it would be; mostly because when people think about Civil Rights, they only think about the southern states. However, the Civil Rights movement also occurred right here where we live in New York City.”

When we analyzed the documents as physical objects, I found myself filling in gaps in their knowledge – telling them that written contracts did, in fact, exist before the 1960s and explaining how manual typewriters and mimeograph machines worked.

Wolf also points out that students “who have never left the narrow boundaries of their neighborhood, either figuratively or literally, may understand [what they read] in entirely different ways” from those who draw on a wider experience and vocabulary.2

The archives we visited is only a fifteen minute walk from LIU Brooklyn, but for students who had literally not left the “narrow boundaries of their neighborhoods” it was a long trip into unfamiliar territory. Just getting there was complicated: “I don’t know that subway stop!” “I can’t find it on this map!”

With the help of course readings, guidance from me and archives staff, and lots of practice, my students began to develop a richer “repertoire of words and their associations.” Their document analysis grew more sophisticated and they even began connecting the themes of the Civil Rights movement to contemporary events.

We read Brian Purnell’s scholarly work on the Brooklyn CORE’s plans to stall traffic during the opening of the New York City World’s Fair in conjunction with contemporary news accounts and protest flyers from the archives.3 We talked about CORE in the context of the Occupy Wall Street protests that were then taking place just across the river and we made connections to their own educational and employment experiences living in New York City today.

And by the end of the semester, they had strong opinions — which they were able to articulate clearly and back up with research — about Brooklyn CORE and its approach to Civil Rights.

One of my students reflected on our archives visit:

The advantages of getting out of the classroom and doing hands on research in the library was that we were able to feel as though we were doing independent work with the professor and librarians there to answer any questions we may have had. We were able to obtain primary sources that helped us see and understand the perspectives of people during the civil rights movement.

Two things strike me: that this student values the ability to do independent work — knowing that the support is there if she needs it — and that she is learning to distinguish among multiple perspectives surrounding a topic. She is ready to succeed at college writing.

1) Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (New York: Harper. 2007), 9.

2) Wolf, 9.

3) Brian Purnell, “‘Drive Awhile for Freedom’: Brooklyn CORE’s 1964 Stall-In and Public Discourses on Protest Violence,” in Jeanne F. Theoharis and Komozi Woodard, eds., Groundwork: Local Black Freedom Movements in America (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 45-75.

To cite this page:
Melissa Antinori, “Basic Writers in the Archives,”, accessed [insert date here],