Teaching in the Archives: A Q&A with Kevin Levin

Each year the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass. sponsors an American Studies Seminar for a select group of undergraduates from the five four-year colleges and universities in Worcester: Assumption College, Clark University, the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and Worcester State College.

In fall 2015, Kevin Levin taught “The North’s Civil War: Union and Emancipation.” Last week, we talked about his experiences teaching this seminar, which makes use of the American Antiquarian Society’s manuscript, graphic and print collections.

 

MKN: How did you organize your seminar?

KL: The narrow focus on the North both focused the course and allowed us to take full advantage of the AAS’s rich collection of Civil War era materials. The course met once a week for two hours. Each week was divided between a scholarly book, which we discussed over the course of one or two sessions, and hands-on work with the collection. I selected books that not only covered a wide range of topics, but offered students a chance to explore how historians go about constructing their interpretations utilizing a wide range of primary sources. Each week two students were required to lead the class discussion. Small assignments such as book reviews helped to focus their reading as much on the structure of each book’s interpretation as with the historical content.

 

MKN: Part of the purpose of this seminar series is to give students access to the vast manuscript holdings in the AAS archives. What kinds of documents did you assign? How did you choose them?

KL: The amount of Civil War materials available at the AAS is overwhelming. Given the length of the semester I wanted students to begin thinking about potential projects as early as possible. For the first few weeks I invited curators from different departments to talk for a few minutes with students about the wide range of sources available, including ephemera, children’s literature, newspapers and manuscripts. This provided a solid foundation. Given the wide range of research experience among my students it was important to carefully introduce each stage of the research process. This starts with learning how to interpret primary sources. Students began by interpreting documents alone and then in pairs to work through and appreciate competing interpretations. From there I put together small DBQ-style projects that asked students to interpret more than one document. As the semester progressed I had students select their own sources as part of a scavenger hunt and eventually as a way to introduce to the class the subject of their research projects.

 

AAS students at Hope Cemetery in Worcester

AAS Seminar 2015 students at Hope Cemetery in Worcester, Mass.

MKN: How did students respond to working with these documents on a regular basis? Did they struggle with any aspects of them? Which documents were their favorites?

KL: Few undergraduates have the opportunity to work closely with archival collections for an entire semester so the experience was quite powerful for many in the group. You simply can’t beat the experience of holding an item from the past. In those moments history comes alive. There is also a certain sense of responsibility that students feel when they realize that an archival source does not appear with an interpretation attached to it, but that they must provide one to the best of their ability. In these moments, students move from studying to doing history.

My sense is that students enjoyed the political cartoons the most. With the mainstream media’s insistence that Americans have never been more divided, I suspect that they were surprised by the level of vitriol expressed between Northerners of various political stripes and by various visual materials that reflected the demonization of the Confederacy. The most difficult material was by far manuscripts. In this case I was surprised by the extent to which students struggled reading nineteenth-century handwriting until I realized that the emphasis on teaching handwriting has waned in recent years.

 

MKN: Your students were required to use AAS documents in their final research papers. How did these projects turn out?

KL: I could not have been more pleased with the quality of their final research papers. Students researched a wide range of subjects, including the election of 1864, the music of the Irish Brigade, wartime roles of women in children’s literature, and Northern sermons that justified killing, to name just a few. Proper scaffolding of a research project such as this is essential. Students worked on this project in stages from formulating their research questions and writing a thesis statement to completing multiple rough drafts. Certainly, their final versions reflected a wide range of different skills and experience in the history classroom, but all of them demonstrated hard work over the course of the semester.

 

MKN: What advice do you have for university and secondary teachers who want to integrate work with archival resources into their classes?

KL: With all the technology available to university and secondary teachers it is easy to lose sight of the potential value of exposing students to archival materials. As a high school history teacher I have found that university archivists are more than happy to help organize classroom projects. During my time in Charlottesville, Virginia I co-taught an American Studies course that worked with UVA’s Special Collections staff. We visited campus two times as a group to give students time with a specific document that they were required to interpret on their own webpage.

Local historical societies are almost always enthusiastic about working with teachers to expose students to collections that are often under utilized. Student work with archival materials does not have to be in the form of a semester-long course. Even minimal exposure can have a profound impact. Certainly, access to a local archive will vary. In those situations the rich collection of digital materials from the Library of Congress or Readex is the next best thing.

 

MKN: Has this class changed the way you teach, or the way you do your own research in Civil War history?

KL: Archival research has always been an important role in my teaching, but this particular course served to reinforce its importance. No other project gives students the experience of being able to apply the kinds of analytical skills that define academic history.

 

Kevin M. Levin is a historian and educator based in Boston. You can learn more about his work by visiting his website, Civil War Memory.