ADM Roundtable – Teaching with Archives

By Charlotte Stevens on September 13th, 2021

Last week my BIME colleague Iain Taylor and I hosted a session of the ADM Roundtable series that we titled Teaching with Archives. In this session we shared our experience of introducing undergraduate students to the ADM Archive through scheduled teaching sessions, and discussed future plans for further use of the university’s archival holdings for teaching across all levels.

This blog post summarises some of the discussion from the roundtable, with some reflection on next steps for this project. I was pleased to see at least 30 of us in the call, which is a great turnout for a lunchtime Teams meeting in that space just before teaching starts in the fall. We had participants with a range of teaching experience, as well as colleagues from the University’s archives and libraries who contributed to the discussion after our opening presentation.

First, some background. In February 2020 I took a class of second-year students to explore some relevant collections at the ADM Archive. The module is a fandom studies option for Film Studies, Screenwriting, and Filmmaking students; my aim was to offer talk about film fandom and cult audiences through the horror fanzine collection held in the ADM Archive. I’ve been working with television fanzine collections for a couple years in my research, so obviously I think archives are neat, and I wanted to introduce the students to another research method and source for data beyond textual analysis or ethnography. One major challenge was to articulate a pedagogical justification beyond “I think they’re neat”, so I turned to literature, blogs, and guides (and twitter help!) to pull that together.

Due to a gap in Faculty provision regarding support for teaching staff who want to make use of the ADM archive, so I drew on some American resources and tips from colleagues to develop an activity. (This was a moderately successful session, particularly to identify areas for improvement.) But out of that experience it seemed like there was a lot of generic framing in the plan I drew up – about what is an archive, and what is it for – that could be the basis of a solid template for any subject or year level.

So, I brought an initial working document and template to a History, Heritage and Archives research cluster meeting in January 2021, and after learning Iain had also been using the ADM Archive in teaching I proposed we collaborate on a roundtable session to start a broader conversation within the Faculty about where, how, and why (or why not) we make use of our Faculty holdings in teaching and research.

One interesting development during the roundtable was seeing that other colleagues had a similar experience to me – struggling to move beyond the quiet spectacle of “old stuff we’ve kept” and turning the visit into a useful experience for the students – but that Iain had solved that problem by using the archive visit as a first step. After encountering the original periodicals (back issues of Melody Maker, introduced to a Music Industries class), he moved the session to a regular classroom space prepared with teaching copies of key documents. This let the class work with the copies at their leisure as they worked toward learning objectives around cultural value. (I did also notice in Iain’s photo from the day, once back in the classroom with the copies, nearly every student had a coffee or an open drink can next to them, which would of course be impossible in the Archive itself with the original documents.) Iain’s point that the module’s learning outcomes should be guiding how we teach with archives is, I think, key to solving that struggle. Awareness of holdings is the first step; the second is to show how those holdings can become evidence for broader core concepts in the curriculum.

Another notable trend during the discussion was the number of colleagues who chimed in to note that they had once used the ADM Archive but (pre-COVID) had ceased to do so. I agree with one of the final comments on the roundtable discussion that there appears to be a real appetite for the Faculty to support a working group around how to facilitate use of the ADM Archive and similar special collections held at BCU. Speaking personally, I fully support this happening, and hope to see some movement here in the upcoming year.

I’m very sympathetic to wanting to freshen up a module but not having the time or space to do a full revamp: porting in an archive activity could be a real boon. Perhaps the most fun part of the roundtable was brainstorming and presenting potential uses for ADM Archive collections outside obvious disciplinary ties. For example, the photographs in old music magazines could interest fashion students, video game art/design might enjoy digitally modelling some of the clothing and jewellery collections, and the fine art holdings (photography, painting, printmaking) could be prompts for creative writing exercises. This is not to discount the more orthodox potential of, say, and undergraduate dissertation student who is interested in film distribution using the movie magazines as a primary source in their research.

My next step is to tweak the teaching template to include more discussion for the students about the context for archival collection and historiography writ large, rather than focusing on the holdings themselves as having inherent value away from that critical framing. In the immediate future, I’m planning to bring this project back to the HHA cluster, with an update from the roundtable and (hopefully) with a digital version of some activities that we can evaluate for their suitability as pre-session tasks before an archive visit. The past academic year has affirmed that access to a physical archive is not a guarantee, so mapping out online collections will also be useful to discuss how those digital might be made to suit similar needs and principles – as Iain suggested, to make sure we’re guided by learning objectives first and foremost when we’re introducing undergraduates to the world of archival research.