Undisciplining Archives of Empire
Assessment Production Details
Students frequently begin my “Empire and Globalization in the Nineteenth Century” seminar assuming Victorian literature has little to offer because it’s mind-numbingly boring, toxically racist/sexist/homophobic/ableist, or all of the above. They need to discover the myriad social contexts and voices of the nineteenth century for themselves. I want my students to learn about the people who pushed boundaries and rebelled against colonization and hegemonic societal norms, critiquing the dominant culture from within Britain, but also beyond it.
Armed with this knowledge, students can better contextualize the specific complexities of nineteenth-century history and literature, reevaluating its relevance to current social justice issues. Thus, I created an assessment that asks students to engage with archival materials so they can seek out nineteenth-century texts that speak to them, think critically about archives and archival scholarship, and analyze how past power systems and racist hierarchies are connected to local and global systemic inequalities in the present.
Yet primary source research is difficult at my public regional comprehensive university, based in the U.S. Despite boasting a student body invested in the liberal arts, my institution underfunds its library in ways that deeply impact archival work. The English major, comprised of tracks for English Secondary Education and creative writing as well as literary studies, is robust, with over 600 majors or minors among the approximately 15,000 students enrolled at this PWI (predominantly white institution), where at least 30% of the student body identifies as first generation. These students are keenly interested in literature and the humanities. But even if they had access to resources like the British Periodicals database, many mainstream repositories frequently elide racialized nineteenth-century writers.
In response to these gaps, both at my university given the dearth of funds and in archives that erase the historical contributions and existence of people of color, I turned to the open access One More Voice digital recovery project to expand students’ knowledge of nineteenth-century global histories and literary genealogies. By inviting students to examine the materials available on One More Voice, I hoped to galvanize them as active learners and academic researchers equipped to “critically interrogate the role of archives “in bringing about or impeding social justice, in understanding and coming to terms with past wrongs or permitting continued silences, or in empowering historically or contemporarily marginalized and displaced communities” (Caswell et al. 1).
Archival work enables students at my Pacific-Northwestern PWI to “undiscipline Victorian studies,” following the work of Ronjaunee Chatterjee, Alicia Mireles Christoff, and Amy R. Wong. As I understand it, “undisciplining” this field means expanding the usual purview of Nineteenth-Century British Studies to include nonwhite people and their cultures. I try to accomplish this in my course by assigning texts outside the canon, which usually renders BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) experience invisible, and by introducing students to the archive, where BIPOC voices can be found, though oftentimes in highly mediated ways.
My classrooms are typically filled with white students; most frequently, I have just one or two BIPOC students in a class of twenty like this one. “Undisciplining” at my institution therefore requires teaching less-studied materials to foreground BIPOC experience in the nineteenth century. This curricular shift allows BIPOC students to analyze texts by and about people who look like them. Moreover, it challenges all students to decenter whiteness in their understanding of nineteenth-century history and literature. Further, archival research asks all students to bear witness to history as lived experience that is more complex than they may expect, and to connect those lived experiences and complex cultural and global contexts to the present, moving beyond an assumed linear trajectory of progress and social justice.
I designed “Empire and Globalization in the Nineteenth Century” to fulfill one of four 300-level “Literature and Culture” requirements in which English majors learn about a specific era of literary history while practicing research paper methodologies in preparation for 400-level seminars. Throughout the course, “undisciplining” entails keeping two things in focus: the intertwinement of power and racialization in the nineteenth century and how that intertwinement relates to our study of aesthetic values, form, and reading. This focus necessitates an expanded geographical and textual range, stretching me beyond my training as a white scholar in a conventionally white- and Anglo-centric field. It’s work that undisciplines me, not just Victorian Studies. It demands my continued commitment to the uncertain process of relearning alongside my students, producing active discomfort about which I try to be honest.
Over ten weeks, we investigate nineteenth-century literature in relation to three geographical locations deeply impacted by the British Empire: the Caribbean, South Asia, and Africa. Because one of the goals for the course is to practice reading and assessing scholarship, not just writing it, we also read literary criticism to expand our discussion. Some of the questions we consider include: How did imperialism shape these geographical spaces, and how did empire shape Britain? How does form affect a depiction of empire, migration, or diaspora? How does the nineteenth-century British Empire inform current experiences of globalization and neoimperialism?
The archival essay assessment, which I first developed for the course in spring 2022, invites students to locate and analyze one primary text of their choosing from One More Voice to decenter, destabilize, and displace colonial epistemologies. Researching these texts helps open up the nineteenth century beyond the boundaries of national history and the literary canon. I hope that, in particular, the assignment can lead students at my PWI to deconstruct the myths of white Enlightenment and classical liberalism, instead recognizing what Priyamvada Gopal calls “reverse tutelage”: the ways nineteenth-century anticolonial BIPOC thinkers and writers imagined a “just global order,” thereby “pushing open the boundaries of what it meant to be human in a global frame” and influencing white liberals and their development of progressive policies in Britain (24-25).
Tracking the global patterns in which reverse tutelage occurred encourages students to complicate their own understandings, not only of the myths of Western liberalism and white saviorism, but also of the relationships between colonized and colonizer. Crucially, One More Voice provides space where students can bear witness to the atrocities of slavery and racism, but also move beyond an understanding of nineteenth-century BIPOC experience as solely one of pain and violence to one that includes agency, intimacy, creativity, and joy.
Typically, students have no experience working with archival texts. I assign the essay during our unit on South Asia in week five, giving us time to scaffold the skills they need to approach it confidently. We begin the course with a unit on Caribbean literature framed by Saidiya Hartman’s “Venus in Two Acts.” Central to this essay is Hartman’s concept of critical fabulation: the attempt to “paint as full a picture” as possible of the lives erased and brutalized in the archives and simultaneously to “amplify the impossibility of [this] telling” (11). Hartman both describes and enacts critical fabulation, “advancing a series of speculative arguments and exploiting the capacities of the subjunctive (a grammatical mood that expresses doubts, wishes, and possibilities), in fashioning a narrative, which is based upon archival research” and yet reads the archive critically (11).
Following Hartman, we discuss the tendency of imperial archives toward a “display of the violated body, an inventory of property” and begin to think critically about our scholarly responsibilities to nineteenth-century voices, archives, and histories (2). In keeping with the goal of the archival essay, we read an excerpt from Mary Seacole’s autobiography before the other two texts in our Caribbean unit – The History of Mary Prince and The Woman of Colour – so students can begin with the nineteenth-century voice of a Black healthcare worker, entrepreneur, and skilled rhetorician rather than the expected narratives of BIPOC pain and slavery.
Moving to our second unit on South Asia, we consider the historical context of the Indian uprising of 1857, examining illustrations and excerpts from nineteenth-century periodicals to analyze how this collective revolt spurred “serious criticism of the imperial project” and “called upon the metropole […] to reflect on and reconstitute itself” (Gopal 51, 75). Concurrently, we screen the 2019 film, Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, which helps us consider the purposes, practices, and ethics of narrating historical events. With this framing, we turn to Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone along with a selection of related scholarship and the BBC’s 2016 television adaptation of the novel. Throughout the quarter, we dedicate class time to modeling literary analysis of each primary text – examining the textual or visual details, then working together to make arguments about what those details suggest – as well as modeling how to write up analysis in a formal essay. Every student also completes a short formal analysis of one or two paragraphs on a course text of their choice at the end of each week, posting to a shared discussion board.
In the fourth week, we practice researching in One More Voice. Students develop skills navigating an online database as researchers, familiarize themselves with the lives and work of creators featured on One More Voice, and experience the thrill of scholarly discovery. We then practice writing about archival materials in the fifth week with primary texts by two authors: a letter Behramji Malabari wrote to the London Times, which we pair with a chapter from The Indian Eye on English Life, and Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s essay “Woman’s Downfall,” which we read alongside her short story, “Sultana’s Dream.” We brainstorm initial analyses of these archival texts together, and then students write up their analysis formally in small groups, using a class-shared Google Doc. Each group chooses whether to write comparatively or focus solely on one of the archival texts. I leave feedback on everyone’s written work and invite students to use it while drafting their essays.
To empower my students as researchers, critical thinkers, and writers, I offer multiple options for formulating the essay. They can analyze a text from One More Voice on its own, analyze a One More Voice text in relation to a course text, or attempt an act of critical fabulation like Hartman’s. By inviting them to pursue the texts and analytical angles that most inspire them, the assignment positions students as holders and creators of knowledge – archival researchers in their own right – rather than passive receptacles for a presumed canon.
One student performed a formalist reading of “Incidents Connected with the Life of Selim Aga,” analyzing its deployment of both Gothic tropes and realism. A second analyzed Philip Cohen Labatt’s use of “opaque narration” to represent the resistance of enslaved people in “Curgy’s Funeral, or the Old Time Busha.” Most students chose the comparative option. One student compared The Moonstone with two letters from Frederick Douglass (written respectively to John Scoble and Catherine Impey) to dissect nineteenth-century rhetorics of religion, while another put The Moonstone in conversation with “Majwara’s Account of the Last Journey and Death of Dr. Livingstone” to appraise constructions of death and legacy. A third student scrutinized the ethics of editing and translation as represented across “Nosutu, the Mother of Soga (Excerpt)” and The History of Mary Prince. Another theorized the Christian rhetoric of Semane Setlhoko Khama’s “Letter to A.M. Chirgwin” as an assertion of BIPOC women’s agency and leadership, connecting it back to The Woman of Colour.
While no students chose the critical fabulation option, I hope scaffolding the assignment with more attention to One More Voice’s goals in the context of critical archival studies and revisiting Hartman’s essay will embolden future students to choose this option. Following a suggestion from peer reviewer Vani Kannan, I’ll also give students the option to build the archival essay into a critical fabulation for the final assessment (a research essay that asks them to incorporate scholarship), as they may be more inclined to experiment with counternarrative after successfully crafting the archival essay. I’ve included this revision in the assignment sheet linked above.
The open nature of the assessment requires flexibility in evaluation, but detailed rubrics help alleviate my students’ performance anxieties. In developing the evaluation criteria, then, I valued both creative, independent thinking and the tangible structural components of research writing, which this 300-level seminar curriculum is designed to teach in preparation for future 400-level seminar work. I broke these two emphases down into five criteria: thesis/argument, archival research, textual analysis, structure/writing style, and mechanics. I provided a letter grade and detailed feedback for each criterion. Successful student submissions demonstrated independent analytical ideas, evolved from consideration of textual details, and presented with some attention to the structural coherence and fluidity of their own writing.
Student feedback demonstrated that they valued both the opportunity to discover authors who shared their identities and the variety of perspectives that the assessment provided. Initially, students felt “somewhat overwhelmed at finding something in all the text choices on the website,” but they commented after completing the assessment that it was a “cool intro to the nineteenth century” to locate and read “so many different perspectives.” One student expressed delight in discovering historical texts “about women who look like me and who I can relate to.” Several students noted that our class and the archival research taught them “important history”: “what really happened to people in the past and in some ways still reflects our present day.” The global approach to archives and the British Empire also emboldened another student to share candidly about the feeling of being “erased” in the classroom when “you’re not Black or white –most historical stuff we cover is always about being Black or white in American literature and reading Indian writers from so long ago was really refreshing. I feel like I have something important to share because we’re discussing them.”
Looking forward, I’ll further foreground student-owned knowledge by co-creating the assessment criteria as a community, thereby deepening students’ stakes and reflection in the learning process while encouraging them to absorb the criteria and feel confident in their ability to achieve success. Many of my students are teachers-in-training, and together we will reflect upon the sustained efforts required from both teacher and students to move beyond canonical texts and confront the archives critically.
To foster this collective work, I’ll dedicate more class time to discussing the goals and difficulties of archival studies, as outlined in One More Voice’s mission statement and critical essays. I’ll additionally give students the opportunity to introduce their texts and developing ideas to their colleagues prior to writing drafts. Also, to avoid the cultural “overemphasis on minoritized writings as political or anthropological documents rather than artistic creations,” which can limit students’ critical analyses of a text, I’ll more insistently center the aesthetic value of recovered primary sources (Chuh 16). After students have submitted their essays, I’ll ask them to facilitate short class discussions in small groups with each group leading conversations in relation to the throughlines that emerged in their essays. I aim to help students discover the know-how and confidence to establish their own scholarly voices and critical archival methodologies, while we travel together toward a more radical understanding of nineteenth-century literature and history.
Aga, Selim. “Incidents Connected with the Life of Selim Aga, A Native of Central Africa.” One More Voice, edited by Apex Data Services Inc. et al., New dawn edition, 2021.
Anonymous, et al. “Nosutu, the Mother of Soga (Excerpt).” 1874. One More Voice, edited by Jo Davis and Adrian S. Wisnicki, Site launch edition, 2020.
Anonymous.The Woman of Colour. 1808. Edited by Lyndon J. Dominique, Broadview Press, 2007.
Caswell, Michelle, et al. “Critical Archive Studies: An Introduction.” Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies, vol. 1, no. 2, 2017, pp. 1–8.
Chatterjee, Ronjaunee, et al. “Introduction: Undisciplining Victorian Studies.” Victorian Studies, vol. 62, no. 3, Spring 2020, pp. 369–91.
Chuh, Kandice. The Difference Aesthetics Makes: On the Humanities “After Man.” Duke University Press, 2019.
Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. 1868. Edited by Steve Farmer, Broadview Press, 1999.
Douglass, Frederick. “Letter to Catherine Impey.” 1888. One More Voice, edited by Heather F. Ball et al., Site launch edition, 2020.
---. “Letter to John Scoble.” 1846. One More Voice, edited by Anne M. Martin et al., Site launch edition, 2020.
Gopal, Priyamvada. Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent. Verso, 2019.
Hartman, Saidiya V. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe, vol. 12, no. 2, June 2008, pp. 1–14.
Holmwood, Frederick and Majwara. “Majwara’s Account of the Last Journey and Death of Dr. Livingstone.” 1874. One More Voice, edited by Anne Martin and Adrian S. Wisnicki, New dawn edition, 2021.
Khama, Semane Setlhoko. “Letter to A.M. Chirgwin.” 1934. One More Voice, edited by Heather F. Ball and Adrian S. Wisnicki, Site launch edition, 2020.
Labatt, Philip Cohen, et al. “Curgy’s Funeral, Or The Old Time Busha.” 1855. One More Voice, Site launch edition, 2020.
Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi. Directed by Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi and Kangana Ranaut, Zee Studios, 2019.
Prince, Mary. The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave Narrative. 1831. Dover, 2004.
Seacole, Mary. Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. 1857. Edited by Sarah Salih, Penguin Books, 2005.
Wisnicki, Adrian S., et al. “Mission Statement.” One More Voice, Solidarity edition, 2022.
Students in the Archives Series
This cluster of assessments encourages students to intervene into Victorian Studies through original archival research. It engages students in the politics and ethics of the archive by using frameworks from such fields as Postcolonial Studies, Black Studies, and Critical Ethnic Studies. These assessments empower students to take charge of their learning by asking them to follow their own interests, make connections between the past and the present, and participate in the co-creation of knowledge.
Katherine Judith Anderson is Associate Professor of English (Victorian literature and culture) at Western Washington University, and the author of Twisted Words: Torture and Liberalism in Imperial Britain (The Ohio State University Press, 2022). She’s also written for public outlets such as Public Books, BigCityLit, The Critical Flame, and The Strategy Bridge. Anderson is currently working on a second monograph, tentatively titled Weaponizing Mass Destruction: Planetary Biohazards at the Ends of Empire, which examines the ethics, technologies, and ecologies of biological and biochemical warfare in the literature and global histories of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, particularly in relation to the British Empire.
Tile/Header Image Caption
Anonymous. The Rani of Jhansi Leads Her Troops in the Siege of Jhansi. Gouache on paper, [nineteenth century], Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.
Page/Assessment Citation (MLA)
Katherine Judith Anderson, dev. “Undisciplining Archives of Empire.” Vani Kannan, peer rev.; Anne Schwan, assess. guide. Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom, 2023, https://undiscipliningvc.org/html/assessments/archives-of-empire.html.