About the Position of Student Historian in Residence

By Rena Yehuda Newman

This piece is a companion to Cat Phan’s previous post describing the creation of the Student Historian in Residence position at the University of Wisconsin Archives.

My name is Rena Yehuda Newman (they/them), the Student Historian in Residence at the University of Wisconsin (UW) Archives for the 2018-2019 school year. The Student Historian position has now completed its pilot year, open and full of possibility. What began as an undergraduate research opportunity expanded into a project that not only reflects on history but turns forward to the future, integrating modern outreach and collection projects into the work of creating student memory.

I’m a history student going into my senior year at UW-Madison. My work at the University Archives began in July 2018, fresh to the world of archives and deep-diving research. For me, this was my first experience with long term research, beyond a short paper or a couple brief sessions with primary source materials in a reading room. Though my research would unfold in unexpected directions, I had set out intending to study student activism during the Vietnam War era, focusing on the anti-racist organizing efforts of the late 1960s, like the Black Student Strike. With eight to ten hours a week in the archives, I had the chance to wander down rabbit holes and find myself in a wonderful, spinning universe of secret doors and unopened boxes. By October I had my land legs and adventurer’s tools; I was totally submerged in the archives, sailing paper seas.

Screen Shot 2019-10-03 at 8.38.08 AM
Table of Contents for the UW-Madison Black Student Strike: Teaching Guide.

During my time in this position, I researched the Black Student Strike of 1969, one of the most major (and arguably most successful) student protest movements of the sixties, where a core group of black student organizers mobilized thousands of UW students to fight for the creation of a Black Studies Department, one of their “13 Demands” for racial justice at UW. This study culminated in a research paper and a teaching kit commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the movement, part of a collaborative celebration event between the University Archives, University Communications, and the Black Cultural Center. Along the way I also stumbled upon several unresearched folders and boxes, including a set of materials about Educational Policy Studies 900, an entirely student-led course run concurrently to the Black Student Strike. In the second semester of its offering, the class had over five hundred students enrolled and had to be capped, lest the class accumulate a thousand. All of these subjects created opportunities for reflection and reckoning, both personal and public.

Inspired by all of these student organizers, I became determined to make my historical work face forward. While the University Archives is a source for learning about past activism, it is also filled with gaps and omissions of voices from the student organizers themselves; without these stories, student organizers of today are at a loss for their context. Looking around at the modern campus climate, I wanted to make sure that today’s change-making students would be able to speak for themselves. Learning to see students from the 1960s as historical subjects taught me that in 2019 we are historical subjects too. So how can the archives collect these stories? Documentation defends against erasure: I don’t want administrators telling our stories when we have the power to write our own.

In the spring, I began an oral history project to collect the stories of my peers — modern student activists addressing food and housing insecurity, racism, accessibility, trans rights, and more on campus from 2016-2019. Being a student paid to do archival work situates me in a special location which obligates me to both document and honor the work of my peers, preserving campus memory through their lived experiences on their own terms while also engaging in peer-education about the meaning and power of archives. Like any other public job, the Student Historian position is a great privilege and a great responsibility. The Student Historian should serve the student body, working with peers to preserve student memory.

University archives can and should fund paid positions for student historians and archivists, especially for undergraduates. Student staff are uniquely positioned to build trust and create lasting bonds between archives and the student community around them, engaging in relevant research, teaching other students to think of themselves as historical subjects, and collecting contemporary stories. Who is filling these positions also matters. Bearing equity in mind during position advertising and recruitment processes means hiring students holding marginalized identities who will bring unique, necessary perspectives to the work.

I am so grateful for the opportunity to have held the position of Student Historian in Residence.  I learned deeply from the staff, from the materials, from my peers. As this position grows from grant funding to a more institutionally supported structure, backed by the UW General Library System, I hope that this position will continue to provide impactful opportunities for future scholars and activists, creating a long line of Student Historians (maybe even a cohort!) at UW-Madison, inspiring similar programs at schools across the country. May this memory-work find its way beyond the walls of the archives and into the minds and memories of students on this campus and beyond. We are historical subjects — let’s act like it and document the meaning along the way.

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