Teaching American Archives on an International Scale

By Christa Vogelius
October 2015

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 When I say that I teach American literature in Denmark, the first response is usually puzzled bemusement, a reminder that while American studies ranges increasingly toward the transnational in its scholarship, its scholars are often resolutely nation-based. The sense of American literature as a place-based discipline implies that for many, the teaching of literary history or cultural studies takes as its end more than the building of often-rehearsed skills like critical thinking or analysis; it suggests that there is still an element of traditional nation-building to our classes on Whitman or postmodern literature, an imagined community of readers brought together by an increasingly expansive canon. The displacement of the classroom to Northern Europe, or the Middle East, or Asia, dislodges this notion, and forces us to reconsider why and how we teach what we teach. For me, this effect has been one of the most powerful—and powerfully unexpected—results of my first year of teaching abroad.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Tied in to this dislodging, though, are some much more practical considerations, the first among which is access to physical archives. While this is always a fraught question even in the United States—archival work is expensive and time-consuming, often favoring those in urban centers or at major institutions—those considerations are exacerbated in an international context, especially where teaching is concerned.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Most larger state and private institutions in the United States can offer their students access to significant brick-and-mortar archives as part of their undergraduate or graduate educations, an access that instructors consistently benefit from. At the University of Michigan, where I was a graduate student, an archival research project was a standard assignment for first-year graduate students, and I used first editions from special collections and papers from the Clements Library as part of my own teaching. At the University of Alabama, where I was a post-doc in an Americanist archive, the Special Collections department as a whole was considering opening its doors to all first-year undergraduates, instituting a program in which freshman writing students would tour highlights from the collection and work on a writing project using archival materials.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Such initiatives are more complicated at non-US institutions, where archives are most often independent from universities, and where the often inherently nationalist project of the archive excludes many disciplines. For instance, at the University of Copenhagen, where I teach, the humanities classrooms are located an easy fifteen-minute walk from the impressive archival collections of the Royal Library, but these collections focus primarily on Danish materials. Scholars of Thorvaldsen or Kierkegaard have access to unparalleled material within the city center, but students of American—or English, or French, or Arabic—literature have fewer resources.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 This might seem like a negligible educational disadvantage, but the absence of archives does have some concrete pedagogical effects, especially in a context where American literature is not an ingrained part of the cultural imaginary. Transnational studies teaches us that there is no center to a field like American studies, only many global peripheries, but secondary education in most countries is still strongly centered on a traditional national literary canon. American students, no matter what kind of education they’ve had, have probably read some Hawthorne and some Dickinson, have at least skimmed Emerson, and have possibly read Salinger. Few Danish students will have this background; their introduction to English-language writing is most often British, and the American literature that they have read on their own tends toward the contemporary or popular. These gaps offer some obvious advantages. Making the argument for expanding the canon to a group of students who have only the vaguest sense of the canon, for instance, is remarkably easy, and teaching Emerson to students who haven’t used him in their high school yearbook quotes makes the strangeness and complexity of his writing much more readily apparent. But it also means that students come in to the classroom with no sense of ownership over the field, no sense that this is writing that speaks to them in any particular way. American literature is distinctly foreign, displaced; and my field, nineteenth-century American literature, appears across both a historical and geographical divide.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 This idea of ownership is an intangible one, but depends at least in some senses on materiality. It has something to do with seeing Dickinson’s dark-eyed daguerreotype in a magazine, in a newspaper, on the cover of a book; it has something to do with the memory of the dog-eared copy of The Scarlet Letter in the middle school library. It is a sense that the stuff of Dickinson and Hawthorne is mixed in with our own personal memories and histories—and here, I think, is where archives can come in. The materiality and immediacy of the archive is a kind of shortcut to this ownership. As Dana Gioia writes, this is the “magical value” of these primary materials; the appreciation of literary manuscripts reflects “the desire for a direct and authentic relation between art and its audience.”1 Many of us can attest to the reality of this relation. I remember seeing, in the archives of the American Antiquarian Society, the small green slate on which Fanny Osgood wrote her last words, and feeling in a way that I couldn’t know the way that her words connected to a lived experience, the way that her writing came from a real but different world that produced tiny slates and near-perfect calligraphy. Students get some of that same jolt from archives, whether or not they have an accumulated familiarity with these writers. As one of my students writes, getting a “deeper connection with the text and with the time that it was written” is a “romantic benefit of the archive.”

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The romance of this encounter may be more difficult to approximate through a screen, but for international students—or even, in some cases, American students—the digital archive is the best possible solution to a geographical leap. During this term I’ve been teaching a course on digital archives and nineteenth-century literature that begins with a section on archive theory, and then takes students through the works and digital archives of three major American writers. The challenges of teaching a course like this to students who, for the most part, have no background in Whitman, or Dickinson, or Thoreau, are real. The rewards, though, are also significant: not only that tenuous sense of “romance,” but also a realization of the extent to which an author’s text is flexible and living, a heightened awareness of the significant difference that small textual changes can make. Looking at specific Dickinson poems in manuscript, then in early twentieth century editions, and finally in late twentieth century editions provides a concrete sense of the conventions that have shaped publishing, as well as the increasing respect for archival variants and changes in recent scholarly publication.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Other assignments can treat students as producers rather than just consumers of this knowledge. More systematically archive-based digital projects are now easily accessible to international students. Transcription and tagging is a user feature built into many digital archives, and offers instructors an easily adopted means of introducing knowledge organization and the challenges of researching with manuscript material. Working with an archive to allow students to create finding aids for digital materials is a slightly higher-commitment assignment, but it offers students hands-on experience with the often eclectic means by which materials are organized. Collaborative projects like digital exhibits can provide students with the experience of curating and captioning recently digitized materials, and if undertaken with the support of the hosting archive, can provide a stable public platform for student work. In addition to the more universal gains of archival work, projects such as these can easily operate on a global scale, ensuring that the transnational turn of American studies and American archives takes place in archival practice as well as theory.

  1. 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0
  2. Dana Gioia, “The Magical Value of Manuscripts,” The Hudson Review 49, no. 1 (1996): 29. []
Teaching American Archives on an International Scale

Christa Vogelius

Assistant Professor of American Studies – University of Copenhagen

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