Andi Gustavson is the Instructional Services Coordinator at the Harry Ransom Center. She works with educators to collaboratively design and teach lessons that use collection materials. She also helps faculty and graduate student instructors develop assignments that draw on the Center’s collections.
Why is it important that undergraduates get exposure to the Ransom Center’s materials?
When students come to the Ransom Center for the first time, they are discovering for themselves the excitement of working with rare books and manuscripts. We teach students how to grapple with the historical and cultural significance of the collection materials and encourage them to take up the work of interpreting the past. Students draw on the larger questions they’ve been discussing in their class and apply that knowledge to the materials we’ve staged in the seminar rooms. When we welcome undergraduates into the Ransom Center we are inviting them to and teaching them how to contribute to those conversations that are taking shape here at the Center, across the campus, and all around them.
What has been a particularly satisfying aspect of this job?
One of the things that I love the most about my work is the opportunity to provide students with their first glimpse into the process of research in the humanities. Bringing students into the Center’s classrooms to work with the collection material exposes them to the type of research their professors and teaching assistants are doing. My goal is for the students to leave understanding how scholarship takes place within the humanities and to feel empowered to return and participate in that process on their own.
How do you work with faculty to develop meaningful interaction with Ransom Center materials?
Professors often come to our meetings with a strong sense of their goals for their students and then we work together to design lessons that help them achieve those goals. My colleagues and I spend time reviewing their syllabi and conducting preliminary research in order to suggest materials that might intersect with the content they’ve planned for their course. We discuss whether a single visit, a multi-visit, or a semester-long engagement will be best and plan how to support their students from their initial encounters with the materials to planned final projects.
What are some of the strongest reactions you’ve observed among students in classes?
My favorite moments in the classrooms occur when the students are building connections between the larger concepts that underpin their course and the collection materials they have in front of them. For example, Professor Holli Temple’s class “Caregiving for the Elderly” exposes pre-health professionals to cultural representations of aging, caregiving, death, and dying. Professor Temple wanted her students to gain an understanding of the role of an archive, the scope of the collections at the Ransom Center, and the process for conducting research. Her students worked in groups, looking closely at a range of materials from makeup stills documenting the process of making Elizabeth Taylor look older for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf to medical records and manuscript drafts for Jayne Anne Phillips’ novel MotherKind based on the experience caring for her terminally-ill mother. Temple’s students first worked to teach one another about their object within their small groups and then presented their item to the entire class, making connections between the many different types of cultural materials and the larger questions that structured the class.
Have the students commented or reacted in ways that inspired future lesson ideas? If so, tell us more.
One of the things I noticed when I first taught an Advanced Spanish Literature class with the Gabriel Garcia Márquez papers was the way in which the students took over the session. They began showing one another textual changes and discussing the significance of those changes using the various drafts of the manuscripts. Their command of the language was stronger than mine (much of the collection is in Spanish) and that subtle shift allowed us to flip the dynamic in the classroom so that they were teaching one another and also teaching me. Now I try to replicate this structure for most of the single-visit sessions that come to the Ransom Center. First, we ask the students to look closely at a single item from the collections, describing the object, noting small details that require looking closely, and connecting it to the course content. Then, we ask the students to teach their object to another classmate. Finally, we reconvene as one large group in which the students are presenting their item and leading the discussion. This simple structure encourages the students to take ownership over the interpretive work of the class rather than waiting for me or their professor to present the materials.
What’s in the works for the future?
I’m excited to continue partnering with faculty who would like to teach in our seminar rooms but my colleagues and I are also beginning to collaborate with professors and graduate students who are teaching larger lecture courses in order share the Center’s collections with those students. We’re finding ways to reach out to new departments and centers and to welcome professors that have not yet taught at the Center. I will also continue to work with my colleagues at other libraries and archives on campus in order to support classes at multiple repositories and instructors who want to incorporate digital pedagogy into their courses.