Turning spotlight on Wheaton history

Archival photos of students in a classroom
Even focusing on one photo can spark questions that lead to deeper research, Kate Boylan ’04, director of archives and digital initiatives, showed students in a video she made about how to use the archives to investigate the past. This photo was just one example.

New theater collaborative course examines college’s past

Looking into the mirror to examine one’s truth—the good as well as the not-so-great parts—is not easy. But, a group of collaborators are doing just that this semester at Wheaton College in the new course “Wrestling With History: Wheaton College and Black Lives Matter.” 

Associate Professor of Theatre and Dance Stephanie Burlington Daniels ’97, who is also co-chair of Diversity, Equity and Access Leadership (DEAL), created the course. Students will investigate the predominately white culture and history of the college and create short films about specific areas of interest that have sparked curiosity during the research phase.The films are scheduled to debut during the Academic Festival in April, leading up to the 2021 virtual Alumni of Color Conference. 

The idea for the course stems from the intersecting crises of racism and the global pandemic and emerged as Daniels listened to podcasts and audiobooks about the history of slavery, the contributions of African Americans, and racism in the United States.

“Where does Wheaton College, our history and our present realities, intersect with COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement?,” Daniels wondered. “I am a theatermaker. I tell stories. I invite and encourage my students to tell their stories. I believe that through storytelling, we build connections across differences, and empathy blooms. I believe that sharing our truths, complicated and messy and painful, is the way forward to building an anti-racist community.” 

DEAL recently outlined 10 specific action steps that Wheaton will undertake as a community to fulfill the college’s commitment to institutional equity. One of the steps is to build upon the work that the Wallace library team has been doing to dig into Wheaton’s history.

Professor Daniels is working with Kate Boylan ’04, director of archives and digital initiatives; Mark Armstrong, college archivist and records manager; Courtney Shurtleff; director of Alumni Relations; Allison Chaves ’21, who is Daniels’s teacher’s assistant; and Dominick Torres ’20, a narrative and documentary filmmaker who has been hired as an instructor and consultant for the class with the support of an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation course transformation grant

Torres is teaching students how to turn research into a visual story as well teaching the technical aspects of filmmaking—from setting up cameras to editing. 

“I wanted to be involved with the course because, as an alumnus of color and the fact that the course seeks to unravel some of the stories of Wheaton’s history as it pertains to race, I felt connected to the topic,” he said. “This course is very important because often there are people left out of history due to a multitude of reasons like race, gender and religion. This course is going to be giving snapshots into students’ understanding about those people, and this will only make Wheaton a better place.”

Chaves, a film and new media studies major, has been a filmmaker in residence at Wheaton. For the course, Chaves’s main role is to help students throughout the visual storytelling process—from pre-production to post-production. This includes going over pre-production treatments with students and helping them with filming and editing.

“The class includes students of many different majors and class years, which I think will foster a lot of interesting and insightful conversations,” Chaves said. “I wanted to be involved in this course because race and racism are important topics that need to be addressed both on our campus and in our country. I’m looking forward to helping the students document what they have discovered and experienced.” 

Students are working with Boylan and Armstrong to develop research and investigatory skills, and how to contextualize what they read and find during deep dives into the archives and digital collections. 

“Wheaton, though a wonderful and thoughtful place, is not free from the historic system of racism in our country. It is important to acknowledge and interrogate painful and challenging moments of history in order to challenge our present and change in the future—we hope,” Boylan said. “We know there are less-than-proud moments; they are inescapable. There are 186 years of history to dig into!”

“We’re going to be looking at those moments now to merely begin to grapple with the fact that Wheaton is and has been a primarily white institution for most of its history,” Boylan said. “We want to examine the past now so that Wheaton can be part of change and manifesting new ideals and new goals.”

In a video that Boylan created and showed in Daniels’s class as well as in the “Race and Racism” class taught by Associate Professor of History Dolita Cathcart and Professor of Sociology Karen McCormack, Boylan pointed out to students that archives in general are not “neutral” because there are many missing voices and stories. 

“At this moment in our world, it is very important to consider what has been collected, what is preserved and what has not and start to question why. One of the best skills you can bring to research is simple observation,” Boylan said. 

Even focusing on one photograph can be eye-opening, she showed in her video. As Boylan presented a photo of a classroom scene of white female students with a white male at the front of the class, she talked about what she can see and then unpacked what questions might come up just by looking at the image. For example: What is the time period? Who is in the photo, who is not? What other information is needed to learn more about the image? Those preliminary questions lead to broader and deeper questions, other research sources and some answers but not all, she said. 

To support student research for the class, Armstrong worked with Thomas San Filippo, systems and educational technology liaison, during the summer to update the College History webpage as well as digital objects and archival search tools, and created a resource list of relevant archival collections. The Archives and Digital Initiatives Department also developed a workshop on how to interrogate and interpret archival material. 

“What excites me about this project is that theater has the capacity to explore nuance, to challenge beliefs and to cultivate capacity for empathy—all of which are necessary for this kind of work,” Armstrong said. “We are living through an era-defining moment in American and global history, and it’s a deeply precarious time. We have the chance to think critically about ourselves as moral agents and as members of a community, and to probe the historical power structures that have led to this moment.”