Attending the Brooklyn Historical Society's Pedagogy Workshop at RBMS 2014

By Amy Chen posted

The Rare Book and Manuscripts Section (RBMS) of the Association of College and Research Libraries met for its annual conference June 24-27 in Las Vegas, Nevada. On June 24, RBMS hosted a daylong pedagogy workshop presented by the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS). As I conduct all instruction sessions for the Division of Special Collections at the University of Alabama, I attended alongside my supervisor, Associate Dean Mary Bess Paluzzi. I came away from the session with a toolkit of tried-and-tested principles and an expanded network that could help me strategize approaches in the future.

Brooklyn Historical Society’s pedagogy workshop summarized the results of a three-year project they undertook after receiving a grant from the U.S. Department of Education Fund for the Improvement of Post Secondary Education for their proposal, Students and Faculty in the Archives (SAFA). SAFA, which was bolstered by an additional grant provided by J. P. Morgan Chase, sought to teach undergraduates document analysis, information literacy, and critical thinking skills. As BHS is not affiliated with a university, they partnered with three local colleges—Long Island University Brooklyn, Saint Francis College, and New York City College of Technology (City Tech)—to bring students into the archive. Sixty-five classes made over one hundred visits to BHS from 2011 to 2013, reaching more than a thousand students. This population was diverse: many were immigrants, first generation college students, or non-traditional students. The number and variety of students and faculty BHS worked with makes SAFA an excellent model for integrating special collections into undergraduate curricula.

Brooklyn Historical Society put together a website, TeachArchives.org, to provide articles generated by the SAFA project about special collections pedagogy as well as modules on teaching with different sets of primary sources. I reviewed the website before attending the workshop, which introduced me to the concepts that Robin M. Katz, the outreach and public services archivist who co-directs SAFA at BHS, would cover in more detail during her presentation. The suggestions in the articles section were extremely helpful. And, in the exercises portion of the page, I was glad to find that several of BHS’ prompts, like those asking students to examine slave bills of sale, had content that dovetailed with the types of material found at UA. 

The workshop was just as useful as the website, for I was able to learn from the attendees as well as from Katz. Participants, who came from universities throughout the United States as well as places like the New York Public Library, swapped stories of what worked—and what didn’t—in our own classrooms. At times, it was hard for us to stop talking and focus on Katz’s presentation!

For example, we discussed the benefits of choosing only a few items for students to examine, rather than pulling a variety of materials. Changing this step would help us move away from “show and tell”—a model of teaching in which faculty members ask whoever is in charge of instruction at a repository to pull items related to their class topic and teach a session summarizing why these materials are significant. Those attending the workshop agreed that these types of presentations do not facilitate optimal learning outcomes because they allow students to view items passively rather than forcing them to interact with and analyze the materials in front of them.

Together, we discussed the best ways to integrate our holdings into the assignments and syllabi of our partner faculty—a topic on which Katz could share BHS’ findings. Katz reminded us that it was not always our role to do the research to find items to use in class. While we can provide guidance on item selection, the responsibility of item selection should be in the hands of our faculty partners. I found this directive liberating, for changing my policy from providing all the behind-the-scenes work to sharing these tasks would allow me to have more time to do outreach. I would like to find faculty who are interested in having their students curate exhibitions with our materials and I want to develop programs targeting local K-12 populations. Both of these topics sparked additional conversations during the course of the workshop. Now, I know how to shift my pedagogy to obtain better learning outcomes, how to regulate my workflow, and who to talk to when I begin developing these new initiatives in the upcoming academic year. 

The range of expertise on display and the friendliness of RBMS members made attending this workshop, as well as the conference as a whole, the best experience of my career. Now, I am looking forward not only to applying what I learned, but also to returning in 2015.