Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

Archival Literacy: Reading the Rhetoric of Digital Archives in the Undergraduate Classroom

Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

Archival Literacy: Reading the Rhetoric of Digital Archives in the Undergraduate Classroom

Article excerpt

Archives have figured prominently in scholarly conversations across the humanities, as researchers have long considered the role archival methods and methodologies play in their historiographic scholarship.1 Only recently, however, have scholar-teachers turned their attention from the archive's role in research to its role in pedagogy. Figures such as Joanne T. Diaz, Jessica Enoch and Jordynn Jack, Jane Greer, Wendy Hayden, Megan A. Norcia, James P. Purdy, and Pamela VanHaitsma are among a growing cohort that argues for the relevance of this practice, claiming that when students conduct archival research, they have the opportunity to engage in genuine scholarly inquiry.2 Greer notes, for instance, that through working in archives, students learn to "locat[e] primary sources, analyz[e] primary sources, and us[e] primary sources to participate in ongoing scholarly conversations" (3). Norcia elaborates on this idea, pointing out that students who engage in archival research gain experience in "sophisticated historiography" by "asking questions about the nature of presentation of the past, establishing authority in relation to a historical object, and considering issues of audience, especially how to contextualize this material for future users" (94). The end result of such research, Hayden concludes, is that undergraduates are invited "into the scholarly community," where they find "they have much to contribute" (418).

The advent of digital archives has only furthered such a pedagogical project. As Purdy explains, the spatial and temporal convenience of digital archives "makes using and teaching digital archival materials feasible as doing so need not entail traveling or taking students to distant locations" (41). In a course on African American women writers, for example, teachers are now able to easily point students to the New York Public Library 's Digital Schomburg collection; or in a course on Native American rhetorics, students can access the numerous sources available through the Utah American Indian Digital Archive. These are just two examples from among a vast number of digital archives now available. Indeed, from institutionally sanctioned sites such as the Library of Congress's Digital Collections to commercially supported archives such as Ancestry, digital archives are ubiquitous in our online culture. Scholar Helen Freshwater acknowledges this ubiquity and sees it as reflective of a "recent societal obsession," in which researchers as well as everyday citizens turn to archives for answers to personal, communal, cultural, and scholarly questions (732).

Our essay responds to this new archival situation by considering ways to teach with digital archives during this moment of abundance, ease, and even obsession. While our goal, like that of the scholars above, is to advance the work of bringing archives into the undergraduate classroom, our project is not to offer pedagogies that will enable students to use digital archives for their research. Rather, we see that it is crucial to pause before asking students to leverage digital archival materials in their writing projects and prompt them first to read these archives carefully and critically. Our work is to set out what an archival literacy might look like for students engaging these new and compelling digital entities.

In characterizing this archival literacy, we build on Purdy's argument regarding digital archives. He writes, "Millions of daily Internet users, including ourselves and our students, are crucial players in digital archives. Literacy in a networked, digital world, then, will increasingly involve the ability to ethically, critically, and effectively create, navigate, evaluate, and use digital archives" (43). In agreement with Purdy, our purpose is to suggest ways for students to examine digital archives. The key to our discussion, however, is that we ask them to do so by cultivating a certain kind of archival literacy. The particular type of archival literacy we set out emphasizes reading digital archives to understand and analyze their rhetorical properties. …

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