Have you ever wondered how letters, pictures, and other texts recovered from the past can change the telling of history? Have you ever wondered how a book, poem, play or film might have turned out differently? Have you ever wondered who or what gets left out of the narrative as stories about creative processes and stories about the past unfold? These are questions that humanities researchers can address by studying the materials preserved in archives and special collections around the world and that scholars from around the world come to study at the renowned archives at the University of Texas at Austin. As Prof. Tom Staley, former director of the Harry Ransom Center, writes, the mission of archives is to “attempt to create some order among the random remnants of history - the poetic fragment, the unfinished drawing, the unpublished novel, even the masterpiece; it is an attempt to bring the pieces of our human story together.”* In this course, students will discover, explore, and promote some islands of order that emerge from the vast cultural and historical collections at the Ransom Center and other archives on the UT-Austin campus, and learn essential skills for pursuing original research projects in humanities disciplines.
Some of the essential research skills students will develop in this course include:
- How to form significant research questions about cultural objects and texts and primary source evidence in historical contexts
- How to understand the nature and purpose of cultural archives like the Harry Ransom Center and historical archives like the Dolph Briscoe Center
- How to find, access, and use physical archival material and digital collections published online
- How to identify scholarly critical discourses and intervene in them
- How to develop and refine analytical arguments through a process of research and archival discovery
- How to scale research projects up from response papers to seminar-length papers to theses; and how to scale large projects down to fit into presentations, blog posts, or exhibits
- How to use archival scholarship and online exhibit development to raise awareness about and give voice to marginalized or hidden populations, social groups, and cultural movements
This course is geared toward any upper-division student interested in refining his or her analytical writing skills while learning to research and interpret unique, rare, and valuable primary source materials in archives like the Harry Ransom Center and the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. Students who are thinking about developing a senior thesis project in a humanities discipline—especially those who seek to discover a research topic and learn applied research methods—should find this course useful. The course will offer students a chance to explore cultural history via early books like the Shakespeare First Folio and unique artifacts of performance history from the perspective of 20th century actors like Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. Students will have a chance to study the creative processes behind great works of literary art revealed in notebooks by poets from Walt Whitman to Anne Sexton to Billy Collins, or in the papers of famous dramatists and novelists like Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman, John Steinbeck, Julia Alvarez, Tim Obrien, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Students will have a chance to explore the history of the universal struggle for civil and human rights in the Sara Clark Collection on Social, Political, and Environmental Reform at the Briscoe Center, the Oliver LaFarge, Jessica Mitford, and Morris Ernst Papers at the Ransom Center, the League of United Latin American Citizens Archives at the Benson Library, and the Human Rights Documentation Initiative.
Students will develop archival research skills and multimodal writing skills through several guided research, analysis, and digital publication exercises led by the instructor, the Learning Programs Librarian at UT Libraries (Elise Nacca), and expert staff at the Harry Ransom Center and other on-campus libraries and archives. Students will then develop their own final research projects around materials in archival collections on campus that have little attention or research done on them, and that may align with, overlap, include, or take part in marginalized conversations in humanities and cultural studies: e.g. African American, LGBT, women, Mexican-American/Latin-American, first nations, etc.
(*read Prof. Staley’s full essay at http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/exhibitions/2000/islands/Islands2.html)
Assignments and Grading:
10% Participation: including attendance, active engagement in discussions, meetings with instructor, and presentation of work to class
30% Guided Research and Analysis Exercises: written up as response papers or blog posts to provoke class discussion, including critical responses to self-selected scholarly essays, books, and digital artifacts
25% Midterm Research Project: an 8-12 page research paper and presentation on an “Island of Order” at the Harry Ransom Center (optionally collaborative)
35% Capstone Independent Research Project and Final Presentation: Discovery and description of an item or set of items in an archival collection around which the student will build her or his own “Island of Order.” This will involve defending a scholarly claim about the interpretation of archival items in the context of documented history, thoroughly explaining the significance of that claim in a public-facing piece of multimodal writing, and then promoting that claim both in a live presentation and via social media.
Description of Class Format:
This class is designed as an undergraduate seminar experience. Therefore, attendance at class sessions, active participation in discussions, punctual submission of assignments, keeping up with readings, group collaboration, and meetings and private work outside of class (that may need to be scheduled to fit into limited reading room hours at the Harry Ransom Center and other archives) are mandatory and expected. That is to say, well beyond the 10% grade apportioned to general participation, your attendance, activity, and level of engagement with the class will factor into the grades for each assignment.
For the first half of the course, students will become oriented toward scholarly research in the University Libraries and learn about the nature of archives and the scholarly possibilities for archival research. While Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, Shakespeare, and other works of drama, fiction, and poetry may serve as unifying themes for this unit; students’ main objective will be to learn about archival theory and practice, and research goals and methods in the study of literary and cultural history. Short exercises and response papers will provide opportunities for students to reflect on these topics and to experiment with new analytical techniques. In this part of the course, students will utilize the amazingly comprehensive and connected collections at the Harry Ransom Center to see how “islands of order” can be formed around seemingly random collections of archival materials to enrich and advance the study of culture and the human experience. Students’ midterm research papers will explore and elaborate upon sets of collection materials and research paths recommended by the instructor and curatorial staff. For example, one “island of order” students might be able to explore at the Harry Ransom Center could be focused on The Diary of Anne Frank. In this project, students would analyze the Diary, research its publication history and the history of Nazi-occupied and post-war Amsterdam, and then use the Lillian Hellman Papers and related collections to research how Frank’s tragic story was turned into a Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning play. This could lead to a midterm project on the ways Frank’s book’s transformation into a cultural phenomenon affected the Western World’s perception of the Holocaust.
In the second half of the course, students will apply the skills practiced in the first half of the course to do research on underutilized archival materials on campus that need a voice. Students will work with Elise Nacca, the Learning Programs Librarian at UT Libraries, and staff at libraries and archives throughout campus to select a collection that needs attention and conduct sustained research on its holdings. Students will report frequently back to the class on their findings and will also learn how to use a digital content management and web publishing platform, like Omeka, Scalar, WordPress, or Weebly, for multimodal writing. Thus, rather than just producing and presenting a capstone research paper, students will develop a public-facing online exhibit. Through the process of researching, drafting, editing, presenting, and promoting this exhibit, students will have the opportunity to help develop UT’s own online cultural collections while also developing and showcasing valuable digital communications skills, honing their research skills, learning how to find real audiences for their work across different media networks, and discovering how humanities scholarship can be used to promote social justice and understanding.
The readings list below is very provisional. A major component of the work students will have to do for the course is to work with the instructor and their peers to figure out what they need to read in order to learn about a subject they’ll investigate in the archives. This is an essential skill any student needs to learn in order to become a competent and competitive critical thinker and researcher in the world today.
Selected readings may be drawn from:
Drama, Fiction, Poetry
Tom Stoppard, Arcadia
William Shakespeare, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Hamlet (selections)
Tennessee Williams, Streetcar Named Desire
Lillian Hellman, The Children’s Hour
Adrienne Kennedy, Funnyhouse of a Negro
Edgar Allen Poe, The Black Cat
Anne Sexton, The Black Art
Walt Whitman, Song of the Exposition
John Steinbeck, East of Eden
Theory and Methodology
Jacque Derrida, Archive Fever
Matthew Reason, Documentation, Disappearance, and the Representation of Live Theater
W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley, The Intentional Fallacy
James O’Toole and Richard Cox, Understanding Archives & Manuscripts
Maggie Gale and Ann Featherstone, The Imperative of the Archive: Creative Archive Research
Sheila Cavanagh, Gitanjali Shahani, and Irene Middleton, Engendering the Early Modern Archive
Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb, and Joseph Willams, The Craft of Research
Kristen Arola, Jennifer Sheppard, and Cheryl E. Ball, Writer/Designer: A Guide to Making Multimodal Projects
Archival Research Methods:
Harry Ransom Center research guides:
Human Rights Documentation Initiative:
Benson Latin American Collection:
Dolph Briscoe Center for American History:
Fine Arts Library:
Texas Archival Resources Online (TARO):