Exploring the Archives

Classroom with students against the far wall and teacher standing in foreground with desk and globe.

Assessment Production Details

Developer: Laura Clarke Contact

Peer Reviewer: Vani Kannan

Assessment Guide: Sophia Hsu Contact

Webpage Developer: Kristen Layne Figgins

Associated Assessment: Katherine Judith Anderson, “Undisciplining Archives of Empire

Cluster Title: Students in the Archives

Publication Date: 2023

Assessment Overview

Download the peer-reviewed assessment:  PDF  |  Word

I developed “Exploring the Archives” for a Capstone Seminar in the Liberal Arts Program at Guttman Community College, City University of New York (CUNY). Teaching Victorian literature and culture poses several challenges in my community college classroom: Victorian Studies is a field that is white in its content and methodologies, while my student body is comprised of mostly low-income students of color, who are continually disadvantaged by racist structures in higher education. To address this issue, I use historically and culturally responsive pedagogy that values and affirms students’ diverse backgrounds and lived experiences as a starting point for their learning. This approach enables students to identify and interrogate the ways in which Victorian literature and culture, and indeed the field of Victorian Studies itself, perpetuates the same racist structures. More importantly, it empowers them to intervene. By taking up archival research, students can begin to reshape the field by demonstrating the centrality of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) intellectual and political traditions in the Victorian era.

The Capstone Seminar at Guttman brings together the academic experience of the Liberal Arts and Sciences major through interdisciplinary coursework to explore contemporary issues related to modern society. My seminar, “Nineteenth Century Media and Identity,” is an interdisciplinary course that explores how Victorian ideology was produced, circulated, and consumed across different media. I take a comparative approach so that students can identify how issues raised in the nineteenth century are reflected in media today. For example, we look at imperialism in Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden” in conjunction with racist advertisements for Pears’ Soap in both Britain and America and then consider how modern advertising is similarly implicated in imperialism. In another module, we read newspaper accounts of the Jack the Ripper murders and compare them with victim blaming in mainstream media today.

Comparing nineteenth-century and contemporary constructions of identity across different media engages student interest in an unfamiliar period and helps students to understand difficult concepts by first accessing their prior knowledge on similar subjects. Providing students with a variety of texts to choose from, both visual and verbal, and with various levels of difficulty, also gives neurodivergent students more autonomy in deciding the best way to engage with course content and show their learning. Additionally, I ask students to write metacognitive reflections throughout the semester in which they consider how knowledge is constructed and reconstructed in the field of Victorian Studies. After discussing “cartomania” and different examples of cartes de visite, we discuss the mission of the Black Chronicles II project to locate and exhibit forgotten and erased portraits of Black Victorians. It is within this context that I introduce our “Exploring the Archives” assignment.

To understand why we are doing archival research, we read excerpts of Rebecca Hall’s graphic novel Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts, and discuss the kinds of representation missing from the archives that led her to imaginatively recreate history in the form of a graphic novel. When I teach this course again in the future, I plan to deepen this critical framework by assigning Saidiya Hartman’s introduction to Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments and discussing her warning that “Every historian of the multitude, the dispossessed, the subaltern, and the enslaved is forced to grapple with the power and authority of the archive and the limits it sets on what can be known, whose perspective matters, and who is endowed with the gravity and authority of historical actor” (Hartman xiii). This framing will, I think, help students see themselves as “historian[s] of the multitude” via their archival work, for this assignment asks students to find and analyze a primary source that reveals something about people who have been left out of history (as we saw in the Black Chronicles II exhibition) or a primary source that encodes a position of power and/or places limits on what can be known (as we saw in colonial advertising).

By this point in the semester when students embark on their archival projects, they are already familiar with analyzing archival sources. This is because I have been beginning each class with a discussion of archival sources that offer different perspectives on the topic of the day. For instance, in an earlier class focusing on concepts of sexuality throughout the century and the fin de siècle, we read Thomas Hood’s “The Bridge of Sighs” and looked at different illustrations and paintings of the fallen woman that fetishized and depicted her dead body in an ethereal light. We then compared these images to newspaper reports about Jack the Ripper and the accompanying illustrations of his victims to show how these illustrations use the same visual codes to present the victims as fallen women who have been purified in death, placing the blame on the victims’ sexuality rather than on the murderer himself. Students often work in groups to analyze the assigned archival sources of the day, and they follow a series of steps that ask them to place the source in its historical and social context; analyze the source content; assess the source’s ideological or critical perspective; and make connections between the source and topics about race, class, and gender we explore in class.

Even though my students are familiar with archival sources, the “Exploring the Archives” assessment is the first time that they search for their own sources to analyze. To highlight the range of resources available to my students in New York City, I direct them to the nineteenth-century digital archives available through the New York Public Library, such as Nineteenth Century Collections Online; American Underworld: The Flash Press – Crime, Scandal, and Blackmail Papers of the Nineteenth Century; African American Newspapers: The 19th Century; 19th Century British Newspapers; and Nineteenth Century UK Periodicals Series I & II.

I dedicate one class period to helping students navigate the digital archives. At first, students are overwhelmed by the number of archival materials available and are unsure about how to get started on their research. I advise students to think about what kinds of archival materials they have enjoyed looking at the most over the semester, whether they have preferred newspapers, photographs, etc., and to narrow their search to this type of media. Alternatively, I suggest that students pick a topic they are interested in and use this as a guide for choosing a particular database. For instance, if students are interested in Black perspectives and abolitionist history, I guide them toward African American Newspapers, or if they are interested in crime, I suggest they start by looking at Nineteenth Century UK Periodicals Series I & II.

I assess the final drafts using labor-contract grading. Asao B. Inoue writes that “a grading contract based only on labor is better for all students and undermines the racist and white supremacist grading systems we all live with at all levels of education” (3). Students revise their project based on my feedback, but the quality of writing in the final document does not inform the overall grade for the assignment.

Kathleen Kryger and Griffin Zimmerman note, however, that “while LBGCs [Labor-Based Grading Contracts] are specifically designed to attend to linguistic disparities, they may introduce neurological disparities by putting students in a position to perform labor under a societal construction that makes them reluctant to admit to neurodivergence and ask for help” (Kryger and Zimmerman). Thus, to be attentive to neurological diversity, I dedicate time in several class periods for students to work on the different steps of the assignment and offer regular check-ins where students are able to report on their progress. I base my suggestions for revision on whether students have completed the steps, which we have practiced throughout the semester and are outlined on the assessment handout. For instance, if students have not provided enough context for their archival source, I point them toward relevant historical and social information, or if they have not connected their analyses to broader topics and themes, I remind them of relevant discussions and readings from class.

Over the semester, I encourage students to think about whether they see themselves represented in Victorian Studies, and we discuss different projects that researchers are working on to center BIPOC experiences. I encourage students to use this assignment as an opportunity to highlight sources that give voice to their own experiences and interests. Students locate a wide range of fascinating primary sources, including Edwardian accounts of Victorian public executions, colonial newspapers from East Africa, abolitionist magazines, penny dreadfuls, abolitionist poetry for children, carte-de-visite portraits of formerly enslaved people, photography magazines for amateurs, and photographs from the Great Exhibition, among many other sources.

Through this assignment, students develop skills that are critical to digital-age composition and literacy, but most importantly they are better able to identify and interrogate structures of power. For example, one student who analyzed a colonial newspaper in East Africa observed the abundance of references to Christmas, including places where colonial families could secure food and presents for the holiday. In his analysis, he identified how Christmas was used to reinforce imperial ties between Britain and the colonies as well as to enforce Western values and traditions on indigenous peoples.

Based on the work students submitted, it is clear that the assignment successfully enacts the four-layered equity framework proposed by Gholdy Muhammed in Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy: 1) Identity development, 2) Skill development, 3) Intellectual development, and 4) Criticality. Furthermore, my community college students were empowered by becoming co-producers of knowledge. bell hooks notes in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom that “students in public institutions, mostly from working-class backgrounds, come to college assuming that professors see them as having nothing of value to say, no valuable contribution to make to a dialectical exchange of ideas” (149). This assignment encourages students to see themselves as researchers with a voice, and when we discuss everyone’s findings as a class, I emphasize that each student has offered a new critical insight into Victorian media and culture.

There are several ways that I plan to improve this assignment. The first thing that I have realized is that in asking students to write their analysis in a traditional essay format, this assessment does not offer multiple means of expression, which is important to accessible assessment design. In future iterations, I could ask students to present their archival resources to public-facing audiences using different genres and media such as podcasts, videos, blogs, websites, etc. Alternatively, to create a culture of collaborative inquiry, the class could curate a digital exhibition of the sources found, with each student writing a catalog description for their source. As a group, we could discuss our findings and collectively write a rationale for the exhibition in the context of our class themes. Students could create digital exhibitions on CUNY’s Academic Commons and gain experience using WordPress. Students could make their sites available to the public so that they have the experience of writing for authentic readers.

I am also interested in incorporating a creative writing element in this assignment in the future. Using Hartman’s term “critical fabulation” – the researcher and writer’s attempt to breathe life into the absences in the archive – students could write a response to their source that creatively honors the sense of personhood and agency missing in the archives (“Venus in Two Acts” 11). This would provide students with an opportunity to focus on celebrating resistance and joy instead of only focusing on the suffering and pain experienced by communities of color.

My experience teaching Victorian literature and culture to non-majors at an urban community college has reaffirmed what Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan observe in The Teaching Archive: A New History of Literary Study: “Classrooms offer us both a truer and a more useable account of what literary study is and does, and of what its value is today” (6). Buurma and Heffernan argue that contrary to accepted accounts of discipline formation, “the value of literary study inheres in the long history of teaching as it was lived and experienced: in constant conversation with research, partly determined by local institutional histories, unevenly connected with students’ lives, and as part of a longer and wider story that has never been written down” (6). Indeed, my students have helped me to see the classroom as a space of disciplinary formation and transformation.

Works Cited

Buurma, Rachel Sagner, and Laura Heffernan. The Teaching Archive: A New History of Literary Study. University of Chicago Press, 2021.

Hartman, Saidiya. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe, vol. 12, no. 2, 2008, pp. 1–14.

---. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals. W. W Norton & Company, 2019.

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge, 1994.

Inoue, Asao B. Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom. University Press of Colorado, 2019.

Kryger, Kathleen, and Griffin X. Zimmerman. “Neurodivergence and Intersectionality in Labor-Based Grading Contracts.” Journal of Writing Assessment, vol. 13, no. 2

Muhammad, Gholdy. Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy.

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.

Developer Biography

Dr. Clarke is an Academic Developer at the University of Sussex where, among other pedagogical projects, she is working on Sussex's ambitious Curriculum Reimagined project. Her disciplinary research has been published in Victorian Poetry, CLIO: A Journal of Literature, History, and the Philosophy of History, Modern Philology, Religion and Literature, Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, Nineteenth Century Studies, and Victoriographies.

Tile/Header Image Caption

Anonymous. Colored School – Object Teaching. 1870. The New York Public Library Digital Collections, b11486940. “The New York Public Library believes that this item is in the public domain under the laws of the United States, but did not make a determination as to its copyright status under the copyright laws of other countries. This item may not be in the public domain under the laws of other countries.”

Page/Assessment Citation (MLA)

Laura Clarke, dev. “Exploring the Archives.” Vani Kannan, peer rev.; Sophia Hsu, assess. guide. Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom, 2023, https://undiscipliningvc.org/html/assessments/exploring_archives.html.