Teaching to Transgress with Primary Sources

A Comparative Analysis of Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks and Teaching with Primary Sources edited by Christopher J. Prom and Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe

Archival instruction, at its core, is a radical pursuit. When students interact with primary sources, it creates a unique opportunity for engagement. Assumptions are challenged. Perspectives are questioned. Archives inform the study of history and even a document can transform our understanding of a person or event.

It is this relationship between archives and history that I find most provocative. I spend a great deal of time thinking about archival outreach and engagement. Recently, a colleague recommended I read Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks as it relates to understanding the broader pedagogy at play in archival instruction and engagement. At the same time, the Society of American Archivists started to promote its One Book, One Profession series which spotlighted Teaching with Primary Sources edited by Christopher J. Prom and Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe.

I found the books complemented each other. hooks explored the educator and student dynamic and sought to turn the traditional pedagogy on its head. In the age of multiculturalism, inclusivity, and diversity, the educator is not always the expert on a given topic. Focused primarily on college students, hooks noted that students enter the classroom expecting to absorb information from the educator rather than engage with the information, critique it, question it. It is up to the educator to take a more engaged pedagogical approach to foster discussion and analysis thereby enriching the educational experience.

Conversely, TPS presented three modules that provided historical context, a guide for information professionals about teaching with primary sources, and case studies of connecting students to primary sources. TPS erred on the side of applicability. For me, as an archivist-turned-outreach professional, this was a helpful how-to guide on getting started. This information would be beneficial to professionals seeking to embark on archival instruction or, perhaps, gain ideas about how to improve their current offerings. Throughout the reading, I could not help but be cognizant of hooks’ book. The archivist is, after all, stepping into a new role.  For better or worse, the archivist is becoming the instructor. 

Archivists Be Aware (or Beware)

Archival instruction calls for mindfulness on the part of the archivist and the selection of documents and photographs to present to a class. Expanding on hooks’ multiculturalism, society is increasingly setting its gaze on social justice issues. This is asking all of us, not just archivists, to examine and be cognizant of our internal biases and prejudices we bring to any given situation. As instructors, archivists bring these into the classroom much like students bring their experiences.  In stepping into the role of instructor, the archivists must be mindful that these biases can come into conflict. hooks described her personal frustration as well as the frustration of her students when they reached an impasse. She did not provide answers as to how to solve this but to bring an awareness that this could happen. Rather than let it dissuade instructors, she encouraged them to continue to engage and know when to listen especially when topics lie outside of an archivist’s experience.

Selection and much of archiving is not a passive endeavor. In TPS, Module 9 provides an example of an archivist who chose multiple documents to explore stereotypes of enslaved African Americans in the mid-19th century. The problem was that she chose too many documents and the students were overwhelmed. The takeaway in the example was to reduce the number of documents. Again, calling to mind hooks I thought more deeply. What was the reasoning behind choosing one document over the other? There is the shock and awe aspect of selection. Are the items that are selected contain more overt expressions of racism? What about subtler forms?  Archivists, if possible, should include a discussion that the examples provided are but one point of view and that opinions on the matter range from the outrageous to the passive (think: microagression-level). Often, students are not learning the shades of grey present in historical issues.

Areas of Further Study

  • TPS predominately focused its attention on academic faculty and students. This speaks to the overwhelming number of academic archives and libraries within SAA. The next area for further examination should be on K-12 educators and students.  There are significant challenges to overcome such as highly structured time, focused content, and communication lags. Unlike academic audiences, K-12 archival instruction is geared toward the educator instead of the student. Why is this? There are a myriad of answers to this question. Let’s explore it. Let’s find out what has been successful and what has failed.
  • What role can the Society of American Archivists play? One suggestion is the development of professional development opportunities for archivists to acquire instruction skills. Much of the professional development currently available is geared toward the technical, practical skills of archiving and description. There is room to grow reference, outreach, and instructional skills. SAA could seek out a partnership with the American Library Association. Our librarian colleagues are light-years ahead of equipping emerging librarians with skills that archivists are (still) lacking. The days of the archivist spending 100% of their time processing and describing collections are quickly shrinking. Archivists are expected by users not only to know more but do more. The next frontier lies in reference, outreach, advocacy, and instruction. SAA can and should position itself to fill the gap.