Intellectual Access

Intellectual access: Using digital archives in an introductory literature course


Learning the discipline of literary analysis and interpretation and how these activities deepen one’s ability to think, read, and write critically about life is what a college Introduction to Literature course is about.

In April I’ll be designing and working with a colleague overseas to implement a global collaboration project in which students in Intro to Lit classes on two sides of the Pacific will use digital archives to develop hypotheses about literary texts, and to address those hypotheses through contextual documents found in digital archives. Consulting digital archives will in turn problematize the original student question, thus extending critical thinking and allowing for application of the understanding of literary, political, and social history to both interpretation of the literary text and to understanding of current issues.

For the two courses in question, the students are first or second year students at two-year colleges who may or may not have taken the freshman year writing sequence and who may be nontraditional students with considerable life and academic experience or may lack the preparation typically required by four-year colleges for admission, so their skill levels with research methodology can vary considerably.

And while the topical outline and most of the competencies for my colleague’s and my course focus entirely on the functions, elements, and contexts of literature, one outcome does stipulate that students “demonstrate the ability to select and apply contemporary forms of technology to solve problems or compile information.”

This outcome is general enough to allow me as an instructor to select technologies that are especially relevant to supporting literary and contextual cultural analysis and interpretation. To maximize student engagement with literary texts and historical contexts rather than with secondary resources students might find through academic database searching for example, I’ve decided to focus the upcoming project on the use of digital archives .

In this blog post, I address the question of how novice college literature students can access digital humanities archives, with minimal research methods instruction, to extend their contextual knowledge of texts and develop new lines of inquiry about the texts they read.


Some definitions are in order.

A primary source is a first-hand document, such as a court record, text message, photo, or video. It’s an “artifact” or piece of first-hand evidence.

Contextual has to do with context, which means the larger historical, political, and social situation in which a literary work was produced.

Digital archives are either complete digital recordings (in audio, video, or multimedia form) or digitally catalogued records of materials that were created or received by a person or organization and saved because of their value.


The rationale from pedagogical and content knowledge

The rationale for my question, and for the way it is asked, includes (1) the context of the instruction in which the question is asked and (2) the research base from which I’ve developed an answer.

Is it appropriate to de-emphasize or at least not to foreground research methods instruction in an introductory, general education, undergraduate literature course?

Considering the standards and outcomes for the course, yes. However, standards themselves shouldn’t drive instruction, and shouldn’t thus be the ultimate rationale for instructional decisions.

While I want the students involved in this project to employ ISTE Standard 3 (“students critically curate a variety of resources using digital tools to construct knowledge, produce creative artifacts and make meaningful learning experiences for themselves and others”) in their use of digital resources and in their interaction with others across the Pacific, the learning skill I want to foreground in this project is students’ “active role in choosing, achieving and demonstrating competency in their learning goals,” which, though it does not specifically reference technology, is ISTE Standard 1.

Students in Intro to Lit need to learn the basics of textual analysis, as well as to consider how authorial intent, contextual information, and their own and other readers’ construction of meaning might influence an interpretation. This can be a hefty goal for first year college students. Too much emphasis on research methods or even on secondary sources can overwhelm this primary goal. To both avoid cognitive overload and keep the emphasis on contextual interpretation, I’ve decided to use the technology outcome for the course to focus on assignments and technologies that ask students to locate and consider primary sources through digital archives.

To prepare students to use digital archives to support their own inquiry in April, I am developing a few initial lessons for the early part of the semester to provide modeling of the use of digital archives.

Two initial sources have confirmed this approach.


The rationale from research

Chen and Chen (2010) presented a study that gave attention to many of the considerations present in my question. The authors acknowledged that little research has been done on assessing learning designs for effective use of digital archives as course materials to support learning. The authors described a study in which statistical analysis was used to evaluate the learning of a group of learners who were supported in problem-based learning (PBL) by digital archive resources, measured against a control group that was supported by Google search resources and technology.


Chen and Chen (2010) noted that digital libraries face the challenge of effective informational architecture. The authors advise that libraries and archivists reconsider how they present archival resources—suggesting as well that the instructional designer carefully consider how he or she present novice students with archival resources—because digital archives may not be intuitively or optimally organized. This validates my concern to locate and present sources that undergraduate students will find useful and manageable, and reinforces my sense that I need select those that are well organized archives, even as I teach archival organizational patterns to students.


Chen and Chen (2010) also provided a review of PBL theory and design that can help with my learning module and assignment design. One of their findings was that use of digital archives that have been structured by the instructor resulted in deeper learning in part because the cognitive overload and problem of students finding ineffective resources on the Internet because of poor information evaluation skills was bypassed when more structured resources were presented. The study found that students in the digital archive-supported group performed better throughout the three phases of the learning process: cognition, action, and reflection (25).


Chen and Chen thus provide some empirical basis for inferring that the positive learning outcomes documented in their study (and that I hope to achieve in my instruction) were caused by the digital archive-supported PBL approach.


A second source that seems to confirm my hypothesis that a simplified presentation of digital archives as learning tools can effectively address both ISTE standards 1 and 3 in addition to achieving my essential goal that students will develop extended, nuanced thinking about combining both textual and contextual elements is Charlotte Nunes’ (2015) description of her use of digital archives in a world literature class. Nunez argues that “students can benefit greatly from even preliminary exposure to archives early in their undergraduate careers, by means of short-term, small-scale archival research tasks” (115).


Developing a preliminary lesson demonstrating the use of archives to develop contextual thinking


In addition to providing ideas for both assignment design and class sessions, Nunes provides helpful resources for locating archives, including Yale University’s website. To test the usefulness of Yale’s catalogue, I focused on finding archival material on possible symbolism in William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily.”


One of my students had just written an insightful analytical response suggesting that the town in the story is a microcosm of the United States during the post- Civil War period, and that the stuck-in-the-past intransigence of the character Emily (who gets away with not paying taxes because the town politicians of her generation find it too much trouble to hold her accountable) might mirror larger U.S. attitudes toward the South at the time. I decided to try to use the Yale catalogue to search for visual, written, recorded, or other materials that might provide contextual evidence to verify or disprove the student’s theory. After investing a half hour on the site, I found myself impeded by the fact that the site includes many archives which are not digitized and must be requested, as well as by some of the non-intuitive information organization Chen and Chen had alerted me to as obstacles for novice researchers.


I turned back to the Internet and conducted a Google search for <digital archive William Faulkner>. This yielded the Faulkner at Virginia Collection at the University of Virginia Library, which led to video recordings of Faulkner discussing the very question my student had raised. In this case, my internet search yielded highly relevant primary source material in a matter of several minutes; this is a reminder that as I grow my own skill and knowledge base as a digital archival researcher, there is room for continuing to use the Internet in addition to cultivating a knowledge of the type and quality of the archival material I am seeking, and that an Internet pathway may be more effective for a (novice) archival researcher than using heavyweight archival research catalogues.


While I found using the “Search” tab of the online Faulkner at Virginia Collection to be unwieldy, I used the “Clips” tab to locate a small collection of well-edited audio and visually reproduced clips of transcripts in which Faulkner responds to questions of authorial intent while also admitting that perhaps there was more in the story than he had originally intended. These clips are so well-edited that the entire collection could easily be presented and discussed in a class session. This primary source collection will lead students to ask whether my student’s hypothesis that the town and characters are parables of North and South can be validated despite the author’s intention.


Following the same Internet search technique, I looked for a second source. I did a Google search for <digital archive 1930 Mississippi >. Basing my choice of which search results to investigate on authority, relevance, and ease of use, I chose Within a few intuitive clicks, I was able to locate a small digitized collection of tax roll corrections for the years 1818-1902 from Chickasaw County, Mississippi, and I downloaded one image to discuss with my class. In addition to demonstrating my search technique, my lesson will involve student observation of the artifact, of how it might address the student hypothesis, and of what other primary sources might be helpful in continuing to address the hypothesis.


The material I found so easily will allow me to structure a day’s lesson around an inquiry question formulated by a student; demonstrate to students through their own interaction with archival materials how archival contextual information can inform their understanding of a text and extend their critical thinking in comparing literary, social, and political history to the present; and demonstrate how to locate such archival materials.




Intellectual access


Nunes notes that while learning the research strategies involved in archival research is beyond the scope of an introductory literature course, providing students with the “intellectual access” to archival materials can greatly deepen their ability to contextualize their thinking about the historical and social issues they encounter in literature (117).


A write-up of the initial lesson that I developed to accomplish this initial “intellectual access” to and practice with including archival material for this is here.


As I pursue this project in April, my goal will include finding a way to push further into ISTE Standards 1 and 3 to empower students with an initial, scaffolded level of independence in conducting archival research.


As Chen and Chen point out, one of the challenges in incorporating research methods into an introductory class is that while research methods are not the primary instructional goal for such a course, it is nevertheless the case that disciplinary thinking can be bound up in both the technologies and the information-structures of the discipline. These interwoven aspects of knowledge, information, and technology pose a challenge for instruction: How can the three be combined, and the appropriate weight be placed on each, to allow novice students—those whose experience in an introductory college course may determine whether or not they persevere in higher education—achieve “intellectual access.”


Sharkey (2013) reminds us that “information and technology are no longer separate entities but are inextricably connected” (34). This is precisely the case with digital archives, which students will not use well without an understanding of the nature of the information contained in them, how that information is organized, and how to access and use that information. To enable students to use digital archives well in my eventual project, I will need to follow Sharkey’s admonition that technology fluency instruction focus on the higher order thinking that will “give students a high level of aptitude to interact fluently with both (the) information and technology” I want students to draw upon in order to extend their inquiry into literary texts and contexts (37).


What would such instruction look like? Although developed for K-6 instruction and focused on teaching more basic search and evaluation skills, Kingsley and Tancock’s (2014) approach of explicit modeling followed by guided peer practice and independent inquiry mirrors how I teach technology skills in writing classes and hints at ways I can organize literature instruction using digital archives once I define the higher order skills and knowledge-creating ways of thinking I want students to develop through their use of digital archives.






Chen, C., & Chen, C. (2010) Problem-based learning supported by digital archives: Case study of Taiwan libraries’ history digital library. The electronic library, 28(1), 5-28. Retrieved from:


Kingsley, T., & Tancock, S. (2014). Internet inquiry. Reading teacher, 67(5), 389-399.


Nunes, C., (2015). Digital archives in the wired world literature classroom in the US, Ariel 46(1/2), 115-141.


Sharkey, J. (2013). Establishing twenty-first-century information fluency. Reference & user services quarterly, 53(1), 33-39.

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