Undergraduates in the Archives
By Andrea Gustavson
In the fall, I taught a class called "American Images: Photography, Literature, Archive" that made extensive use of the collections at the Ransom Center. Each week, the students and I explored the intersections between photography, literature, and archival theory using the Center's primary materials as the foundation for our discussions. On Mondays and Wednesdays we met to discuss the week's reading, closely reading passages or images and making connections to contemporary events. On Fridays the students had the opportunity to view rare manuscripts and photographs that illustrated, extended, and even challenged many of the concepts we had discussed earlier in the week. Over the course of the semester, the students worked within a variety of written genres as they built toward a final project for which they conducted their own original research.
Centering this class around the Ransom Center's dynamic collection of archival materials has, I believe, enhanced the experience for the students. It is a unique opportunity for these undergraduates to be able to apply their new knowledge each week as they directly engage with the primary sources. For example, as part of our unit on family photography the students grappled with questions about the gendered nature of the family snapshot and baby photographs. We considered the ways that family photographs are circulated as they are swapped between family members, on holiday cards, pasted into scrapbooks, or shared on social media sites. When they encountered several of the photographs pulled for the class, the students returned to some of their earlier questions and anchored those questions in their consideration of early post-mortem daguerreotypes, cartes-de-visite and Polaroids of Queen Alexandra, and studio portraiture taken of African American families in Galveston during the 1940s and 1950s. Providing students with access to the collections allows them to build their own interpretations about such rich cultural materials. They begin to form their own arguments about the collections in the Ransom Center as they prepare to enter into the scholarly debates that are already taking place around them.
The Ransom Center's holdings also provide me with several opportunities to draw on the manuscript collections and enhance the writing workshop that forms a core component of this class. For example, for the class's unit on war and the archive we read sections from Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. As part of our exploration of the text, the students closely compared several of O'Brien's manuscript drafts. This opportunity deepened their readings of the material as they pondered the weight of O'Brien's word choices as they change across different drafts of the same passages. As they follow O'Brien through the revising and editing process, the students gained a better understanding of the writing process both as it led to O'Brien's published work and as they engaged it for their own final projects.
Not only does the Ransom Center provide us with the chance to directly engage the primary materials we read about, but it also offers students the chance to consider the archive as an institution that shapes our understanding of the world. We spend time thinking, discussing, and writing about the Ransom Center and other archives on campus as physical spaces, historical buildings, and institutions with policies and people guiding the collection, conservation, circulation, and curatorial practices. At the Ransom Center the students consider everything from the installation provided for the First Photograph, to the use of the gallery space, to the evolution of the Magnum Photos collection, to the digital collections as they grapple with the ways in which our encounters with the archive shape our understandings of some of the world's most spectacular cultural materials. These undergraduate students truly benefit from the many ways they engage with the Ransom Center's collections. This class provided them with access to some of the Center's astounding holdings and then afforded them the opportunity to make sense for themselves of the cultural significance of the materials they encounter.
Andrea Gustavson is a PhD candidate in American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. She worked as a graduate intern in Public Services and as a Graduate Research Assistant at the Ransom Center in 2010–2014.