Campus News

Fellows program promotes archives-based learning

Kristen Smith env h
Kristen Smith (center) and several of her graphic communications students look at original printings of The Great Speckled Bird

With Google searches, online textbooks and e-readers, students increasingly rely on digital tools to learn without ever needing to pick up a physical book.

There is nothing inherently wrong with digital learning tools, said Jill Severn, head of access and outreach at the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies, but students get a different kind of learning experience from putting their hands on physical books, documents and other primary sources. That’s especially true with the rich materials available at UGA’s special collections libraries.

A partnership between UGA Libraries and the Center for Teaching and Learning aims to help faculty incorporate archival material into the curriculum. This kind of tactile learning—the look, smell and feel of a document—offers a complement to 21st-century digital resources.

“We’re not saying do this instead,” Severn said. “We’re saying do this, too.”

To help UGA instructors take advantage of the breadth of material housed in the special collections libraries, UGA is offering the Special Collections Libraries Faculty Fellows program. Introduced last year, the program provides instructional support plus a $2,000 stipend to develop or (re)design courses that make significant use of the special collections libraries, which include the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies, and the Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection.

CTL is accepting applications until Oct. 3 for the 2017 SCL Faculty Fellows at

The program begins in December, followed by monthly meetings in which Fellows delve into the foundations of archives-based learning. Fellows meet for a Maymester Institute to focus on course design, planning and development.

Recent studies by the Brooklyn Historical Society found that effective archives-based learning, such as the kind encouraged by the SCL Faculty Fellows program, enhances student engagement, performance and retention, and promotes observational, research and critical thinking skills.

“It’s a way of thinking about finding, searching and discovery,” Severn said.

Faculty in the Fellows program brainstorm ways to create a sense of awe when handling the archives.

Severn compares a student’s initial interaction with a primary source to a first date. One of the keys to this program is to guide students on a good first date with archival material, one that makes an impression. For example, Cynthia Camp, an associate professor of English literature in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, wows students by introducing them to a large, leather-bound 16th-century Catholic songbook. Camp asks students to describe—like forensic detectives—what they observe and determine what that says about the book’s origins.

Although history and literature are natural fits for this program, faculty from all disciplines are welcome to apply to find creative ways to use archives-based learning. Among last year’s inaugural SCL Faculty Fellows cohort were faculty in theatre and public relations.

Kristen Smith, a senior public relations lecturer in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, is using the special collections libraries to introduce her graphic communications students to graphic design history. Special collections has an assortment of 20th-century posters and magazines that give students a sense of how graphic design evolved.

Whereas this class has traditionally focused on assignments that build students’ design skills, Smith has built a new curriculum that includes research papers and projects centered on graphic design history.

“You can’t be a great graphic designer without some sense of history,” Smith said.

Amma Y. Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin, an assistant professor in Franklin College’s theatre and film studies department and the Institute for African American Studies, has designed a performance arts course around archival material. The idea is that physical objects can be inspiration to the creative process—that’s especially true for objects with a rich history.

“The archives gives us a great opportunity to play,” Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin said to her students.

Severn believes this creative use of archives-based learning can go even further; she wants to see faculty in sciences or math learn take part in the program to reach even more students.

“My dream is for every UGA student to have some experience with material in this building,” said Severn, “not to see them become historians but so they have some sense of the fascinating materials we have here.”