Digital Archives and the Theory Class

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Every spring I’m tasked with teaching the Introduction to Literary Theory course.  My structure for the first part of the course is to assign two days to each general type of theory that I introduce to students -- one day to introduce the major concepts of a theory, one day to have the students apply the theory to a short story. 

When I teach the basics of New Historicism, I like to have the students do a bit of online research to have them find things that might be relevant to Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case.” To find things, it’s been particularly useful to send them to the ever-growing digital collections of the Library of Congress.  I gave the students some suggestions for things to look for (men’s fashion; education; Pittsburgh; railroad travel) and set them to work in our building’s computer lab.

Once students find files that they think are relevant -- whether  pictures or documents -- they email them to me.  We work through a number of the pictures discussing what they can tell us about the early 20th century in the United States and how that understanding might illuminate our reading of Cather’s short story.  Particularly useful this time around were the documents and images students found about education.  For example, a couple of students came across this image of “an old fashioned boys’ school” that shows just how prescriptive and even imprisoning the schooling was -- and that’s something that Paul rebels against.  Even though the photo is clearly staged, the students could parse the details and think significantly about what perceptions of education were 100 years ago. 

One of my constant pieces of advice for my students is to embrace the digital.  They don’t necessarily need to read e-books or learn to code, but they do need to learn to search for things and to become comfortable in a digital environment. “I don’t do computers” isn’t a choice at this point for our students.  And the fact is, we’ve got an extraordinary set of tools available to us freely for our research: with more and more libraries and museums digitizing part or all of their collections, we have opportunities to explore things that were shut off from most of us just a few years ago.  It doesn’t replace the experience of seeing the artwork or the rare book in person and this doesn’t replace the experience of working with the expert librarian, but it does open up new avenues for teaching -- and I’m excited by the possibilities.

About the Author
Emily Isaacson received her BA from Augustana College (Illinois) and her MA and PhD from the University of Missouri. Previously at Chowan University, where she was the coordinator of the Chowan Critical Thinking Program, Emily is now working as an assistant professor of English at Heidelberg University. She has presented her work on early modern literature and on teaching literature at meetings of the Shakespeare Association of America, the Renaissance Society of America, South Atlantic Modern Language Association, and the College English Association. She also frequently reviews books about teaching literature in the classroom.