Ithaka S+R’s capstone report on teaching with primary sources was published today. To coincide with its release, we invited one of the project’s local research teams to reflect on their experience participating in the project and how they are building on the project’s findings.

Why did we want to participate in Ithaka S+R’s Teaching with Primary Sources Project? 

In 2019, Ithaka S+R invited Washington & Lee University (W&L) Library to participate in a research study to interview undergraduate instructors on their pedagogical use of primary sources. We jumped at the chance to join, as this project perfectly aligned with the library’s following goals:

  • To document existing practices concerning the curricular use of primary sources on campus;
  • To improve library support services relating to teaching and learning with primary sources;
  • To contribute meaningfully to on-going campus discussions concerning institutional history.

In addition to these concrete objectives, we knew this study would facilitate unmediated, consistent, and structured conversations with disciplinary instructors. We hoped these discussions would forge strong relationships … and they did just that!

What did we learn?

We interviewed 15 instructors in the humanities and social sciences. From these interviews, we discovered how instructors learned to teach with primary sources (even if informally); which departments scaffolded primary source literacy within the curriculum; and how individuals identified and utilized primary sources. All that appears in our local report. What we want to share here are the affective and relationship-based revelations that will support the implementation of our forthcoming initiatives.

1) Our faculty are generous with their time and were eager to talk with us.

Initially, we were concerned that it would be difficult to get 15 people to agree to the interview. Surprisingly, nearly everyone we asked said yes! 

2) Engaging in one-on-one conversations about educational and pedagogical philosophy creates relationships based on shared interests, not university position.

While the answers to our semi-structured interview questions were interesting, the most illuminating tidbits arose from conversational asides. More than informational, these intermittent detours personalized the interviewer/interviewee dynamic: moving beyond the traditional librarian/instructor relationship to one of collaborative co-educators.

These conversations impacted us, the interviewers, differently. Still relatively new to campus, the interviews provided an opportunity for Paula to meet instructors across traditional disciplinary divides.  Knowing more about various projects and activities facilitated her extra-study endeavor: the digitization and digital preservation of institutional materials.  

3) Relationships matter but so does convenient, digital access.

Instructors working with Special Collections materials, in particular, develop strong relationships with library staff. Expert staff assistance not only facilitates material access, it prompts new avenues for research as professionals suggest connected collections and local documents. While many found in-person staff guidance irreplaceable, instructors also wanted digital access to rare and original items. Digital access allows instructors to continue their research or course planning after hours and from the comfort of their own homes.

4) Our faculty underestimate the value of what they could teach others about course design and assignment creation.

Instructors focus primarily on their research when publishing or presenting, likely due to disciplinary norms. Yet much could be achieved by collegial sharing of what occurs within the classroom, through formal and information modes of publication. We hope to leverage newly formed relationships to facilitate the peer-to-peer sharing of primary source pedagogies in collaboration with W&L’s Harte Center for Teaching and Learning.

What are we doing now?

It is very important that the information gleaned from interviews doesn’t languish in our local report. We want to honor our interviewees’ time by sharing what we’ve learned in actionable ways.  We are integrating into W&L’s pre-existing “Fall Academy,” a series of presentations and workshops for and by faculty and staff. By presenting within this series, we will convey our findings and recommendations to the wider instructional community. This will also set the stage for a later collaborative workshop series, highlighting stellar primary source pedagogies and local pedagogues, under development with W&L’s Harte Center.

The collaboration with the Harte Center exemplifies the title of this post: relationships matter. With a large faculty following and several successful workshop series, alignment with this unit positions our primary source literacy initiatives for success. Working together, both the library and the Harte Center can achieve coterminous goals:

 “One key purpose of the Harte Center is to help faculty find more deliberate, productive approaches to student assignments: this primary source study fulfills that goal wonderfully, providing colleagues with both an approach (and insights into using that approach) that they may have not considered before.”
–Paul Hanstedt, director of the Houston H. Harte Center for Teaching and Learning

How did COVID impact our work with primary sources?

While COVID-19 toppled our initial programing plans for 2020/2021, it created an increased demand for the digitization of local primary sources. This rise in demand resulted in greater acknowledgement of the need for increased support of the digitization and preservation of local, unique materials. As classes went virtual and instructors decided to adapt future classes to an online environment, interest in digital/digitized primary sources increased as we entered a period of limited staff availability. Visits to Special Collections did not diminish; they simply became virtual or hybridized as Special Collections received requests from instructors to digitize manuscript collections for class use. Many of our student workers moved to virtual work and faculty and staff tried to work from home as much as possible.  Time spent in the library was focused on digitization, while remote work focused on quality control and preparing the items for access. The renewed appreciation for the accessibility of local primary sources coupled with our renewed (or new) relationships will guide the implementation of our study’s findings: helping us support existing practices and facilitate the sharing of novel pedagogies.