Infusing Archival Research into the Undergraduate Classroom: What, How and Why

By Samantha Arten
Ph.D.’18 (Musicology)

Samantha ArtenHave you ever wondered what the Rubenstein Library can contribute to your pedagogical work at Duke? Have you ever wondered how to get your students handling primary sources, or how to help them make sense of the documents they find? Or perhaps you’ve wanted to employ archival sources in your classes, but didn’t know how to handle problems of locating the most relevant and interesting sources, situating them for your students, or crafting productive assignments based on them.

The Teaching with Archives workshop offered through the Summer Doctoral Academy tackled all these questions and more, and at the end of the five days, we nine participants (who spanned eight academic disciplines) were excited about the possibilities represented by archival materials for our students.

Dr. Edward Balleisen (History) first led us through reasons to teach with archives and ways of responding to non-trivial barriers that make it difficult. Exposure to archival sources helps demonstrate to students the texture of a time period using original objects rather than digitized (and thus distorted) versions. There’s an immediacy, a materiality, and a messiness to archival sources, and such objects force students to confront questions of authorship, truth, and biases. At the same time, teachers and students alike must confront the intimidation factor (not just of the materials, but also the regulated physical space), overwhelming quantity of possible materials, and time management.

Among the most intimidating barriers is the problem of language. How can instructors use materials in languages students don’t speak? What questions can they ask; what explorations can they make? Both Dr. Clare Woods (Classical Studies) and Dr. Laura Lieber (Religious Studies) led discussions and a variety of activities that showed us some of the possibilities available for student assignments. An unexpectedly delightful exercise in paleography and textual transmission had some of us dashing to the nearby water fountain in order to simulate damage in the life of a medieval book, and close analysis of advertisements reminded those of us whose work focuses on textual content of the insights to be gained from materiality and image.

Presentations on existing Duke courses that are archive-heavy piqued our imaginations and gave us concrete ideas about ways to incorporate the Rubenstein’s holdings into our own teaching. Dr. Balleisen’s “American Business History” course intentionally structures its final research paper assignment as “high intensity / high scaffolding”—a sizeable project but one for which students are actively prepared and the sources they draw upon carefully curated in advance. An open-ended research paper, in contrast, is high intensity / low scaffolding. An open-ended source analysis (“Go find a source, make a case for its connection to the class, and write a few pages about it”) might be low intensity / low scaffolding, while a guided source analysis (“Go read this given source carefully”) would be low intensity / high scaffolding. I found this grid-style conceptualization of the ways of incorporating archive-driven assignments into syllabi to be extremely useful.


One of the texts that Samantha Arten selected for her class: Martin Luther’s Ein Freiheit des Sermons Bebstlichen ablas vnnd gnad belangent (1520).

Dr. Richard Powell (Art History) presented on personal archives—collections of information, documents, and materials on a topic of interest, gathered together by an individual. We learned about his process of crafting his own research archives (and how—and why—he donated them to the Rubenstein following the research project), as well as how he incorporated the collected visual images into undergraduate classes and ways in which we might encourage and empower students to create their own archives, determining what might be of value for others and how to curate their choices.

We received guidance about useful technology as well. Dr. Victoria Szabo (Art, Art History & Visual Studies/Information Science) and Dr. Trudi Abel (Rubenstein Library) co-taught “Digital Durham—Past, Present, Future,” which asked its students to not only engage in substantive, rich archival work, but also to present it multimodally. Drs. Szabo and Abel introduced the Teaching with Archives workshop to a number of digital tools, including StoryMap JS, Juxtapose, ThingLink, and Google MyMaps, which can provide vehicles for deep student engagement, annotation, and interaction, as they consider the best ways in which to present the fruits of their historical research.

The only disappointing part of the Teaching with Archives workshop for me was the fact that, having just finished my Ph.D., graduated, and (mere days after the workshop) moved out of state, I couldn’t stay longer at Duke to take advantage of the amazing and underutilized advantages the Rubenstein Library offers for researchers, instructors, and students! Evidently the Teaching with Archives workshop will be offered again. I commend it to anyone interested in spicing up a class, integrating aspects of their own research into their pedagogy, or getting students excited about the actual work of a professional within academic disciplines.


Samantha Arten received her Ph.D. in musicology at Duke in 2018. She is a faculty affiliate with the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University. In addition to 16th-century English metrical psalmody, her other research interests include Reformation theology, print culture and book history, early music performance practice, and contemporary sacred vocal music. Her work can be found in Early Music and in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and the Arts.