Teaching with Primary Sources: The Charlotte Lederer Story

By Carrie Schwier

This blog post is drawn from one case study shared during a talk given at the 2017 SAA annual conference during Session 106 Active Learning for Archival Institutions: From Theory to Practice. Coincidently, as it relates to immigration it also ties in nicely to the last post Meet Your Vice-Chair: Ellen Engseth.

While I’ve been a full-time staff member of the IU Archives for almost 10 years now, in the summer of 2015 I moved into the new position of Outreach and Public Services Archivist and was tasked with developing our instruction program. This year our program served over 1,100 students in 70 separate sessions in 21 departments.

Like most archivists, I received no formal training on instruction during library school. Admittedly, looking back at my very early forays in instruction around 2011 I am a little embarrassed. These were often very passive sessions for the students, with me lecturing and leaving them little opportunity to interact with our collections. Over the years my teaching has been heavily influenced by a couple of professional development opportunities including the 2012 Midwest Archives Conference Symposium – Engaging Students and Teachers: Integrating Primary Sources in Curricula (in particular a session on Primary Sources in the College Classroom with Peter Carini, Dartmouth College), and in 2016 the first Librarians Active Learning Institute for Archives and Special Collections (LALI-ASC) at Dartmouth College. Both emphasized the importance of integrating active-learning techniques into the classroom, and the power that a strong story can have as our brains are built to process information as narrative. Furthermore, learning is enhanced when that story is authentic and relatable to the learners’ life.

COLL-S103 – Becoming “American”: Immigration and American Literature
Immediately following my return from LALI-ASC, a relatively new faculty member who was teaching an Intensive Freshman Seminar (IFS) course at Indiana University contacted me.  IFS classes are two-week 3-credit classes intended to introduce “freshman to the rigors of college life” two weeks prior to the start of fall semester. IFS classes typically enroll about 20 students. While planning the instruction session the professor noted that he anticipated the course would attract a large percentage of international students, and this may be their first time in the United States. Ultimately, we choose to target three learning objectives from the ACRL RBMS – SAA Joint Task Forces – Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy:

  • that students understand that they can “draw on primary sources to generate and refine research questions.” (I. Conceptualize; C.)
  • that students “recognize and understand the policies and procedures that affect access to primary sources” specifically in regards to handling and necessity for usage in a secure reading room (II. Find and Access; E. )
  • that students can “identify and communicate information found in primary sources, including summarizing the content of the source and identifying and reporting key components such as how it was created, by whom, when, and what it is.” (III. Read, Understand, Summarize; B.)

 

Lederer to Trustees 1940_Page_1
Page 1 of letter used in classroom discussion. Image courtesy the author.

Using a flipped classroom model to free up in-class time at the archives for active-learning activities, prior to their visit to the IU Archives the students were assigned to read this letter written in September 1940, by then IU student Charlotte (Lotte) Lederer, a Viennese Jewish refugee to the IU President and Board of Trustees. In the letter, she thanks the Trustees for supporting her studies, talks about her upbringing and about how her parents wanted an education for her equal to that of her brother, the start of the war, and her father’s support of the ill-fated Austrian government. She also goes on to mention that she recently applied for her first citizenship papers and hopes to always live in Indiana. Today’s readers are left with a LOT of hanging questions, which are perfect for demonstrating the above learning objectives. Prior to class, the students are simply asked to come prepared with a list of questions they have about the letter.

During their 90-minute session at the archives, as a group we first compile a list of questions: Did she graduate? Was she Jewish? What happened to her family? Based upon inflation, what would the cost of tuition be compared to that of today? Etc. I use this letter with multiple classes, and based upon their backgrounds the students ask different things and always add questions that I have yet to consider. I use this as an opportunity to share with students the number of directions that a single primary source can take them.

The students are then divided into 6 groups for a think-pair-share activity featuring other documents that fill in details of Ms. Lederer’s life and answer some of the questions they have generated. Included are a New York passenger ship log found through Ancestry.com, a dormitory scrapbook, newspaper clippings about a student refugee committee on campus, a wedding announcement found in the President’s office records, and a letter to the Alumni Association written while she was working as a classification analyst at the Pentagon. Students are then asked to fill out a simple worksheet answering questions such as What is it? When was it made? Where was it made? Who made it and why? What part of Lotte’s story does your item fill in? And does it raise any new questions? Then as a group, I ask the students to report back in a certain order on their documents so as to continue the suspense of the narrative for a while longer.

IU Archives_Folklore and Urban Legend Interactive Class_09222017_01
Students examine a scrapbook during an archives session. Image courtesy the author.

For the second half of the session, in order to reinforce these new skills I pull out another group of items from our collection that are completely unrelated to the Lederer story. For example, oral history interviews from Indiana immigrant communities, records from the Cosmopolitan Club, an early student group formed to support international students, examples of Polish ethnic jokes from the Folklore Institute student papers, and photos and notebooks from our Charles Cushman collection of a Polish Independence Day parade in Chicago in the 1940s. Again in pairs the students work through a similar set of questions as with the Lederer activity (What is it? Who made it? And finally – what’s one question that you have?). The students then come back together as a group to share their findings with their classmates. I also remind them that now they have each generated a research question that they could further develop into a project.

Offered again this fall, a second iteration of this course was expanded into a full sixteen-week course. With each, the professor shared that many of the students expressed that the Charlotte Lederer activity really resonated with them, in particular because she was a college student at Indiana University such as themselves. There is something quite powerful when you can use historical documents which refer to places and spaces intimately familiar to students.

To conclude, I will admit that it took a good amount of time (multiple hours) to develop this activity, most of the time going towards doing the research to find the pieces of Charlotte’s story that were present in our collection. This process actually proves helpful during the instruction session however, as I can share with the students my own research hurdles in an authentic way.

Furthermore, I certainly can’t create a new exercise like this for every instruction session that I teach. This one exercise is quite adaptable for a range of learning objectives and subjects. I use this letter for classes in the History department, Gender Studies, and even recently a School of Education Social Studies for Elementary Schools class. The key is finding an engaging document, which raises a TON of questions. Perhaps it relates to a local mystery, or scandal, or simply something that will draw an emotional response – every archive has that!

Are you wondering how to find engaging documents for use in instruction? Just keep an eye out for ideas while providing reference services, processing new collections, or looking for social media content. My position involves doing a ton of reference so when I run across something interesting that makes me ask questions, I make a quick photocopy and add it to my file of instruction ideas.

If you would like to know more about Charlotte Lederer’s story, see this post at the IU Archives’ Blogging Hoosier History.


Carrie Schwier is the Outreach and Public Services Archivist at the Indiana University Archives. In addition to instruction, she also manages public services, oversees exhibits and outreach initiatives, and supervises lots of graduate students. She holds an M.A. in Art History and M.L.S. with Archives Specialization from Indiana University, and a B.A. from Hanover College.

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