Hands-on History in a Hands-off Era

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The COVID-19 pandemic requires innovative solutions for remote and socially-distanced learning. During the 2020-2021 academic year, we designed teaching kits, or mini-teaching collections, that permitted undergraduate students in an archival methods course to safely engage in hands-on activities. The kits formed the basis for several assignments throughout the semester and fostered a meaningful sense of connection among students during a highly disconnected period. Developed out of necessity, the teaching kits are now a durable resource for college students exploring the public history field.

Masked student standing behind table with archival box teaching kit open on it. Student is holding a single slide up to light to view it.

Jess Hoos (IC Class of 2023), Curricular Assistant for the Department of History, Philosophy, Political Science, and Religion, with the teaching kits for HI279 Archival Methods. Photo credit: Samantha Sauer

Illinois College (IC), a private liberal arts college located in Jacksonville, Illinois, founded in 1829, is the oldest degree-granting institution in the state. IC houses institutional, local, regional, and special collections at the Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives, established in 2014 thanks to a National Endowment for the Humanities Grant, and the Paul Findley Congressional Office Museum, established in 2011. These spaces are learning laboratories where archivist and curator Samantha Sauer and Jenny Barker-Devine, professor of history, teach a variety of courses that comprise an undergraduate concentration in public history, launched in 2017. The curriculum leverages new and evolving campus resources and emphasizes transferable experiences for students across academic disciplines. Students gain skills with collection handling, interpretation, and management, while meaningfully contributing to short- and long-term institutional projects.

During the 2020-2021 academic year, IC supported hybrid instruction, with partial on-site and partial digital teaching, with additional support for students in quarantine or isolation. To ensure a safe learning environment, all members of the campus community signed a Community of Care Agreement, which outlined strict guidelines for social distancing and masking.

The institutional policies required us to rethink the hands-on, collaborative components of the public history courses. The first challenge was simply creating a safe learning environment. The courses typically enroll twelve students each semester, but social distancing requirements permitted only six students in the Archives reading room, where the classes take place. As a result, we divided students into two groups of six. Every week, each group attended one in-person class for hands-on activities, and then completed an online assignment. While in-person, each student had their own workstation. These conditions led to another challenge: designing consistent, meaningful hands-on assignments, while fostering camaraderie among students and making the most of in-person class time.

In pre-COVID iterations of an archival methods course, students enjoyed immersive, collaborative, and unique experiences with a broad variety of collections. In fall 2020, however, we realized the course would need significant revision to better fit the hybrid course model. As Sauer reflected on her experiences with a public history course in fall 2020, she suggested the creation of individualized classroom kits containing duplicate materials related to institutional and community history.

Inspired by “traveling trunks” utilized by museums to support school and community outreach programming (such as this example from the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center), with touchable teaching collections, we developed dynamic boxes for each student, highlighting a range of materials and range of conditions. Each kit, contained in an acid-free box, included similar but not identical materials. For example, each kit contained historic postcards and an IC yearbook, but the postcards varied and yearbooks ranged in year and in condition. Slight differences created distinct opportunities for observation and creating connections, while fostering student accountability for the unique elements within their kits. Each kit also contained some basic tools such as mini magnifying glasses, gloves, pencils, spatulas, and measuring tapes. Individually labeled boxes allowed students to use the same kit each class session without the kits leaving the classroom. In a period of evolving health and safety regulations best practices, the kits could be carefully monitored should contact tracing or review be necessary.

Three students sitting at a long table wearing gloves while holding and observing film. Boxes and archival materials are on the table.

Illinois College students enrolled in HI279 Archival Methods in Spring 2019 engaging in hands-on activities before the teaching kits were developed. Photo credit: Jenny Barker-Devine

The kits supported several lessons including those on the care of archival materials, the basics of processing, the preservation of photographs and 3D objects. The benefits of the kits were immediately apparent. In previous iterations of the class, introductory lessons on safe handling only permitted students to examine archival materials briefly before passing them along. With ownership of specific kits, however, students enjoyed more hands-on time and engaged in rich discussions to compare and contrast their mini-collections. During a lesson on the care and preservation of photographs, for example, each student had an envelope of photographs and 35mm negatives of a local Civil War reenactment from the late 1990s. The photos, processed at Walgreens, were still in the original drug store envelopes. We spent ample time discussing how to find context clues to date the photographs. For example, the people in the images were dressed in nineteenth-century attire, so how could we know these were not original to the 1860s? Students scoured the photographs for visual evidence of twentieth-century material culture, and they dated the technological processes needed to create the photographs by examining the photo paper, the negatives, and the Walgreens envelopes advertising photos on 3.5-inch floppy disks and CD-ROMs. For students learning remotely due to quarantine, we shared PDF images of the items on Wakelet, an educational digital curation platform, so that they could at least explore visual representations and participate in class discussions via Zoom.

Screenshot with multiple thumbnail files above a larger scanned file of Illinois College Alumni Director from 1929

This is a screenshot of the class output on Wakelet, which served as a platform to support a digital version of the teaching kits for HI279 Archival Methods, Spring 2021.


Though created out of necessity, the kits facilitated a more intentional, focused classroom experience. The kits worked because the careful selection of each item both targeted specific learning outcomes and permitted reusing the materials over the course of several different lessons. The kits proved such an effective learning tool that we will continue to use them in the archival methods course in future semesters. This type of hands-on curriculum allows students to contribute meaningfully to a dynamic range of short- and long-term strategic initiatives. Illinois College students become active stakeholders in the ongoing development of our collections, as they engage with interdisciplinary scholarship and gain transferable skills applicable across academic programs and career fields.

~Jenny Barker-Devine is a Professor of History at Illinois College and Chair of the Department of History, Philosophy, Political Science, and History.

~Samantha Sauer is an Assistant Professor of History, Curator of the Paul Findley Congressional Office Museum, and the Illinois College Archivist with the Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives at Illinois College.

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