Teaching the Archive

The archive can be an exciting place for students, but also a daunting one. CLEMT’s first research seminar of 2017/18, held in the Cadbury Research Library on 12 October, brought together colleagues from across the historical span of literary studies to share their experiences of using archival materials and methods in undergraduate teaching.

Seven quick-fire papers showed how resources as diverse as Palestinian posters, Modernist magazines, nineteenth-century mariners’ logs, and early printed books and manuscripts can be made a central part of university learning, in a way that allows for genuinely student-led research while negotiating the archive’s unfamiliar and intimidating aspects.

Projects such as ‘Drawn to Books’ – a forthcoming Cadbury Research Library exhibition on women illustrators trained at the Birmingham School of Art, to be co-curated with students as part of a module on the Pre-Raphaelite Circle – showcased inventive ways of fully integrating archival work into the assessment of modules, as well as exploiting the public-facing potential of such activity.

Archival materials and settings offer pedagogical routes into nearly every practical and theoretical crevice of literary studies, and raise urgent and wide-ranging questions. Can we ‘close read’ an archive or an artefact? As well as bringing archival materials into the undergraduate classroom, can we transform the classroom into an ‘archival’ space? How can the non-literary archive be accommodated within a traditional English Literature degree? How should we recover lost or marginalised voices from the past?

‘Teaching the Archive’ provoked intriguing perspectives on these central disciplinary concerns, and showed how such topics can be opened up to students for participation and debate.