Why Less is More in the Archives
Why Less is More in the Archives

Integrating visits to the archives into my courses has reminded me, once again, that when teaching undergraduates, less is often more.

It has been a new experience for me to approach the archives as a teacher instead of a scholar. When I first began selecting documents for the course I would bring to the archives, I did not realize how different my research methods would need to be. I looked at materials with the enthusiasm of a scholar, not the pedagogical eye of an educator teaching first-year college students.

The teacher in me should have recognized that “less is more” when it comes to planning class visits to the archives. I should have asked myself the following questions:

  • How many visits to the archives should there be in a semester?
  • How much time is needed between visits to provide students with essential historical context?
  • During visits, how much material can students examine in the allotted time?

Visits to the archives are challenging to students on a number of levels. Students have to behave differently, as working in an archives comes with all sorts of new rules. They have to think differently because they are face to face with primary documents, materials that are simultaneously content and object. They also have to work differently because there is no lecture to provide an interpretive screen between them and the documents.

In my first semester teaching with primary sources, I scheduled 7 visits to the archives. This was too many. My students enjoyed their experience, but more class time between visits would have given them much-needed time to digest their experience, to talk to me and their fellow students about the challenges of archival work, and to acquire necessary historical context.

As an advanced scholar, it is easy to forget that students do not have the knowledge that I draw on almost instinctually. The teacher in me must provide just the right amount of context in order to enable students to understand how the documents exemplify or complicate a given historical narrative.

For example, to effectively analyze and appreciate a 1860s military recruitment poster aimed at African American men, students need to understand the struggle black men faced in obtaining the right to fight in the Civil War. Indeed, I had students who thought African Americans did not contribute to the war effort at all.

Over the course of two years teaching in the archives, I learned that fewer visits allowed me to provide a better contextual foundation, which resulted in more meaningful knowledge for my students. I now believe 3 visits evenly spaced throughout the semester to be ideal. This allows students to become familiar with the physical space of the archives so that the documents can be the real focal point of the visit. It also allows enough time between visits for the experience to sink in, and for students to reflect on and contextualize the documents.

I also learned not to throw too much material at my students during each visit. That first semester, the archives staff suggested I group materials into about 4 stations. Students worked in small groups of 3 or 4 and each group rotated every 20 minutes. Thankfully, my college capped the classes which visited the archives at 15 students, which helped tremendously.

This structure would have worked well if I hadn’t placed 4 (sometimes more!) documents per station. My enthusiasm to show my students everything I (the scholar) found meant that they didn’t have the time to digest much of anything. I had one very honest student admonish me about this in a blog post after one of our first visits to the archives. It seems the amount of material I had selected almost caused her to have a nervous breakdown in that beautiful library.

By the next semester, I learned to cut the number of items examined per visit to improve my students’ experiences. Most stations had 1 to 3 documents. If there were 3 documents at a station, I made sure that the documents did not have too much text and that they did not contain difficult language or handwriting that was hard to decipher.

Indeed, teaching in the archives has reminded me – in a powerful way – that sitting in front of just one document for 25 to 30 minutes teaches students much more about a historical period than seeing a whole range of documents from that same period.

Document analysis requires a student to go deep instead of wide. They make initial observations and leave the archives puzzling over difficult concepts. Students often have a hard time sitting with one thing, mulling over questions that can’t be easily answered. But doing so is one of the most important parts of the learning process. An archives is an ideal place to practice this.

I took these lessons of pedagogical discipline with me into the next course I brought to the archives. And what I noticed was that students made far fewer assumptions about the documents and began asking a lot more questions. The professor in me was thrilled.

To cite this page:
Athena Devlin, “Why Less is More in the Archives,” TeachArchives.org, accessed [insert date here], http://wwww.teacharchives.org/articles/why-less-is-more/.


Athena Devlin
Associate Professor of English and American Studies
St. Francis College
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