First Time with the First-Years

By Christie Lutz

New Jersey popular culture items from Special Collections and University Archives at Rutgers University.
Representative array of materials we looked at in class.
Photo credit: Tara Maharjan (used with permission)

Archivists and special collections librarians who provide instruction at the undergraduate level are experts in the “one-off” class. Often at the request of teaching faculty, we offer sessions that introduce students to our repositories, present show-and-tell arrays of primary resources, or simply pull and display materials requested by faculty and stand by for classroom assistance. For those of us who wish to deepen and extend our instruction practice and reach and engage students in more meaningful ways, the one-off scenario is lacking. I have found that faculty are often hesitant to bring first-years into the archives and special collections classroom, whether it is because they feel it is too much for students who are still acclimating to the demands of college, or 100-level classes just are not the setting for archival research. Librarian colleagues (as well as teaching faculty) have been bringing first-year students into library spaces at Rutgers through the Byrne First-Year Seminars, engaging students in critical thinking through introducing them to the multifaceted world of an academic library. So, why not our archives and special collections faculty?

The Byrne Seminar is a ten-week, one-credit, pass/fail course open to first-year, including transfer, students, and capped at twenty participants. The program focuses on exposing new Rutgers students to the university’s vast resources and promotes the passion and curiosity of Rutgers’ faculty. Many of us are not formally trained in instruction, but rather have learned by doing, observing colleagues, or attending conferences and workshops. Impostor syndrome can easily strike in this scenario. If nothing else, I could certainly bring curiosity, passion, and subject expertise to the classroom.

Yet I knew that I was a good fit for leading a Byrne Seminar. I am currently New Jersey Studies Librarian and Head of Public Services at Rutgers’ Special Collections and University Archives (SC/UA), and I have led instruction sessions for much of my nearly twenty-year career. I write and present on the intersection of pop culture, in particular music scenes, and archives, and I have developed a number of pop culture collections at Rutgers. I titled my course “Pop! Goes the Archive: Exploring Special Collections and Archives through the Lens of Popular Culture.” I hoped to use pop culture to meet students where they are, excite them about the potential of archives and special collections as an academic resource, and help in my own way to set students new to Rutgers on a path to success at the university and beyond.

I crafted objectives that would allow the students to use the experience of learning about archives to think deeply about larger concerns.

I focused on New Jersey popular culture to take advantage of my own expertise in printed New Jersey material at SC/UA and our deep and vast holdings in this area. This focus presented a way to connect with Rutgers’ many New Jersey students, but also introduce students from elsewhere to their new surroundings. I structured the course topically around certain collections. I set the objectives for the class around gaining knowledge and a basic understanding of archives and special collections, developing archival research skills, and learning how archives and special collections are developed and maintained. I wanted to get the students thinking critically, too. I crafted objectives that would allow the students to use the experience of learning about archives to think deeply about larger concerns. They could begin to understand how critical factors such as ethnicity, race, gender, class, and age are documented and perpetuated in popular culture materials, become careful interpreters of documents, images, and objects, and notice what is included and excluded in archives and special collections and why. For example, in looking at early twentieth century Jersey Shore postcards, we discussed the absence of people of color strolling the boardwalk or enjoying the water, and the prominence of white, upper class tourists in the imagery. We talked about the fact that places depicted in the postcards, like Asbury Park, a hotspot for visitors today, typically had segregated beaches well into the twentieth century. I urged students to think about the travel and tourism marketing in these destination shore towns today, some of which still struggle with race and class divides, and how we could more consciously and inclusively document these places.

The class truly enjoyed the four guest speakers, a couple of whom have had me speak to their classes previously. Opening the archival classroom to experienced teaching faculty gave the students insight into how scholars use archives. The three teaching faculty, from Art History, American Studies, and Media Studies, all “fans” and users of archives and special collections, brought their own passion to the class as they gave presentations that featured their archival discoveries, or, in one case, building their own personal music-related archive. These were moments for me to learn from their presentations and instructional styles. An SC/UA colleague spoke to the class on how she uses social media to promote our pop culture collections and gave out buttons (always popular!) and postcards that we use for outreach. We also played her DIY SC/UA memory game, which includes questions about topics and items discussed in our class. It was a fun way to wrap up and assess the students’ learning.

Opening the archival classroom to experienced teaching faculty gave the students insight into how scholars use archives.

For their final project, the students would conceptualize their own personal pop culture archive and write a three-page paper describing their archive, what would be in it and why; what meaning the archive holds for them; and who else might be interested in the archive and how it might be used for research. Throughout the semester I assigned readings that I hoped would inspire the students in thinking about the project. For example, for a music week, we read Anthony Kwame Harrison’s reflective essay on collecting San Francisco Bay area underground hip-hop cassettes, [1] in which he explored how he as a fan and collector eventually came to see his collection as a unique and valuable historic resource. Coupled with our discussion of the essay, in class we looked at audiocassettes, zines, flyers, set lists and other items in the New Brunswick Music Scene Archive. In the penultimate class, the students presented their papers, which included archives of video games, guitar pedals, pens, and make-up.

The ten-week semester flew by, and while I found that weekly preparation took more time than anticipated, I got into the groove. My first realization when the class ended was simply that I survived. My next, once I received course survey results, was what students liked best about the class turned out to be the two things I felt most confident about going in: hands-on engagement with materials, and my own passion and enthusiasm for the subject matter. Knowing that I can ground my teaching in what comes most naturally to me gives me more confidence in addressing the aspects of my teaching and class structure that can use adjustments.

I had some great conversations with students after classes that gave me insight into how well the class and its structure worked, but the proof was in the student course surveys. For those of us who do not normally receive formal student feedback, reading ratings and comments can be nerve-wracking, but we know administrators increasingly look for quantitative and qualitative data to demonstrate impact. The comments will not all be positive, but what really surprised me was that when students did critique something about the class, they did so in a constructive way.

Feedback also revealed that as much as students enjoy the thrill of the “gee-whiz” item – artifacts of 19th and 20th century pop culture – some want to interact with more contemporary items also. Several also suggested they would like more engagement with media, which I take to mean online and streaming content. We are used to bringing material to classes as requested by teaching faculty or that represent the wonders of archives and special collections. As creator of this class, I formed my own definition of pop culture more than I had realized. To truly engage the students in such a class, we need to make sure we represent their pop culture touchstones. Hearing them discuss their personal archives and reading their final papers, that followed their interests, enlightened me as to how narrow my pop culture lens is.

My biggest takeaway from student comments was that we need to bring our passion about what we do to the classroom. As librarians, curators, and archivists, we are nothing if not passionate about the work we do.

Teaching first-year students can be enlightening and humbling, and a rewarding way to engage with and learn from our students. My first class impressed me with their quick understanding, observant questions, and level of engagement. I was surprised that several students remarked that the class helped them grow academically, and that they liked learning about archival processes. One student even said that the Byrne Seminar was helpful because it tied to their other classes. My biggest takeaway from student comments was that we need to bring our passion about what we do to the classroom. As librarians, curators, and archivists, we are nothing if not passionate about the work we do. And if we ever doubt our instruction and outreach work, or that we can impact college students very early in their academic careers, we can take inspiration from one of my students, who said that this course widened their view of American cultural history and how the present is tied to the past, and what a special thing it is to know archives and special collections exist.

[1] Anthony Kwame Harrison, “Preserving Underground Hip-Hop Tapes in Ethnographic Context” in Music Preservation and Archiving Today, ed. Norie Guthrie and Scott Carlson (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), 103-120.

Christie Lutz.
Photo credit: Harry Glazer

Christie Lutz is New Jersey Regional Studies Librarian and Head of Public Services in Special Collections and University Archives at Rutgers University, where she develops and provides instruction rooted in print and visual collections that encompass New Jersey history and culture.

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