Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Digging into history

Summer 2010 coverIt's one thing to study a subject from a textbook, but quite a different story to hold in your own hands an object or document that is, in some instances, centuries old, directly related to that subject and tied to Wheaton College.

Such has been the case for Wheaton students, who increasingly over the past several years have been required to dig into the rich treasure trove of history housed in the Marion B. Gebbie Archives and Special Collections as part of their course work. Professors across the curriculum—from art to science—have been collaborating with library and technology staff members to create opportunities to use the archives as a resource for teaching and learning.

The growth of these types of collaboration has come about because archives and library staff members are doing more outreach about the possibilities. And, at the same time, faculty in all disciplines are working to expand opportunities for students to delve into research the way scientists have been doing for years.

Science research affords students hands-on study through field and laboratory work. Faculty members in other disciplines say that using original archival materials can do the same for students in the social sciences and the humanities. Students get a chance to be scholars who are not just reading books on various subjects, but going to original source material, analyzing it and bringing something new to the work as a historian would.

ArchivesWheaton's archives and collections include more than 70,000 photographs, ranging from daguerreotypes to digital images. There are 79 imprints from before 1700; 362 manuscript collections; an estimated 1,500 cubic feet of Wheaton College records; more than 900 cubic feet of objects, including furniture; and more than 14,000 volumes in the special collections, according to Zephorene Stickney, college archivist and special collections curator.

"We always say, there is no point in keeping all of this, if no one is using it," she said.

"The collections are being used. That's one of our greatest joys," added Associate Archivist Deanna Hauck. "The students and faculty add even more value to the collections when they come in here."

The most recent visitors include students in the "Native North America" course taught by Brown Teaching Fellow Christine Reiser. Among other documents and objects, they got to handle a letter written by a Wheaton alum in 1876. The firsthand account of her encounters with and perceptions of Native Americans was a valuable addition to the subject being explored, noted Laura Donovan '12, one of Reiser's students.

"When I first heard we were going to the library for a class, I wasn't very enthusiastic because previously in other classes that only consisted of being informed of how to use research methods to find books pertaining to the topic," said Donovan. "But when I arrived and saw all of the artifacts and firsthand accounts laid out on tables, it was really awesome. It definitely was a more insightful way to study the history and culture of native people."

Zeph StickneyStudents in math teaching associate Harrison Straley's "History of Mathematics" course took to the archives to research historical figure Mary Jane Cragin, a math teacher at Wheaton during the 1850s. The information was essential to the students, who wrote and performed a play based on her life as part of their course requirement.

Assistant Professor of Anthropology Gabriela Torres even used the archival lens to help her "Economic Anthropology" students look at the development of currency. It was a perfect opportunity to study the accounting books of Laban Morey Wheaton, as well as an original bank note that featured his portrait. (He was the husband of Eliza Baylies Wheaton, who inspired the founding of the college.)

"There is something to actually holding a historical document that is really impressive. I think it impressed them all," said Torres, noting that a third of the class ended up writing their final research papers on a currency related topic.

Shannon Coco '11, a music and anthropology double major who took Torres's class, said using the archives helped her figure out how to connect the collections to her academic work. "Initially, I thought the archives were a great resource if you were looking at the history of Wheaton. But we used them in our 'Economic Anthropology' class," she said. "Looking at currency from the area over time, as well as other currency that was in the collection, was a great asset to our learning. Being able to examine the different representations and handle them was great."

This year, the work has moved into the digital spotlight for all to see and to learn from in "Out of the Classroom and Into the Archives," a new blog feature on the archives Web site.

For the Web feature, professors write detailed follow-up essays about their collaborations, noting their goals, results and the materials studied. Images of the materials—many of them not seen before by the Wheaton community or the general public—are also posted.

The idea for the blog feature began last summer as Hauck and Patrick Rashleigh, faculty technology liaison, discussed the redevelopment of the archives Web site.

"We thought: How do we let other faculty or even other people outside of the institution know about this great work?" said Rashleigh. "The students have a great experience, and the faculty have a great experience. We wanted to somehow capture the experience and let people know about what went on."

Stickney notes that these types of collaborations have received support from the Dana Faculty-Librarian Partnership Program grant since 1989. The aim of the program was to bring the library heightened prominence in the liberal arts curriculum, to foster new faculty-librarian partnerships and to integrate technology into the curriculum. As technology has grown over the years, so too have the varied ways in which the work is being carried out.

Professors who have used the archives praise the collaborations as excellent examples of the Connections curriculum's interdisciplinary learning.

"Over the course of the semester, I have brought many different kinds of media to class, including 19th-century history books, archeological artifacts, and 20th-century pop culture, which students have enjoyed analyzing in tandem with our class discussions," said Reiser. "But the trip to the archives offered this experience on a whole different scale. For many, I think there's an excitement in being able to analyze for oneself examples of the language, stereotypes and cultural representations we have been talking about. Each student has the opportunity to articulate new connections between materials—connections that may not have ever been made before—and there's a creativity and discovery in that that is intriguing and fun."

Said Torres: "I think it is important to be able to take what you learn in the classroom and to find real-life examples. Working with primary source materials requires that you take the principles of 'Connections' and apply them to real life. It's integrated learning."

It is also learning that is encouraged by the American Historical Association and the Council on Undergraduate Research, noted Associate Professor of History Kathryn Tomasek.

"Over the past ten years, the American Historical Association has been urging instructors to give students opportunities to 'do history,' that is, to 'get their hands dirty' by digging into archival sources so that they can learn history by doing research similar to that done by professional historians," she said. "When students have opportunities to learn by doing, they become historians themselves and have a greater opportunity to own their research and learning."

Archives groupShe has used the archives for many classes over the past six years. In fall 2008, students in her "Gender and Work in the 19th-Century United States" used the digitized forms of the Eliza Baylies Wheaton diaries to find examples of gendered work and then wrote papers about their findings.

In spring 2009, students in her "Junior Colloquium" course, which is a methods class for history majors, digitally transcribed pages from the daybook that Laban Morey Wheaton used in the store that he kept in Norton between 1828 and 1859. Students wrote their final papers for the course about the relationship between the founding of Wheaton Female Seminary and the wealth that the Wheaton family accumulated through their various financial interests, she said.

"My collaborations with Zeph Stickney were an important factor in my use of archival sources in teaching," Tomasek said. "Working with archival sources gives students opportunities to hear the voices of real people who lived in the past. The Wheaton family papers are especially useful since students have a direct connection to the people who founded our educational institution.

"Most important, students who have transcribed and marked archival documents have expressed a kind of understanding of historical study that they had never before experienced."

Leah Niederstadt, assistant professor of museum studies, said that she always takes  her students to the archives.

"For 'Exhibition Design,' the focus of the Making It Modern exhibition was objects from the archives' collections. We could not have done the exhibition—or held the class, as it was structured—without the collaboration and support of Zeph Stickney and her colleagues and work-study students," said Niederstadt.

Torres pointed out that, in many ways, the trips to the archives are learning experiences for faculty members, as well as for students. "We as faculty don't always know what's in the archives, until we teach a course that uses it," she said. "It is so rich."

What is the most amazing item from the archives that you've ever seen or heard about? Tell us at quarterly@wheatoncollege.edu. Go into the archives at wheatoncollege.edu/archives/.

About Sandy Coleman

Sandy Coleman is the editor of the Wheaton Quarterly and Senior Associate Director in the Communications Office.