Since the start of the pandemic, the Instructional team of the Harry Ransom Center has met every two weeks to figure out how to alter our teaching for virtual instruction. With each new class, our educators have quickly adopted a new tool or shifted our lesson plan, assessed what worked and didn’t, and then tried again. Like everyone else, we began to experience Zoom fatigue, so dispensed with long, slow discussions in favor of 10-minute interactive segments. These changes reflect the logistical necessities of teaching online in a pandemic. Yet the forced shift within our Instructional program has helped us refine our teaching and taught us a few things in the process.
All of our teaching at the Center is grounded in primary source literacy: an emphasis on building skills that students will bring to their own research with the collections. We care less about students remembering the precise photographic processes used to create a fine art print than we do about students seeing their own observations as the beginning of the research process, pursuing answers to the questions they find intriguing.
Most educators want student learning to be driven by intrinsic motivation. In the Center’s collections are materials from authors’ and artists’ time in school. Faulkner’s fourth-grade report card shows his teacher assessed him as “excellent” in Reading, and Ian McEwan’s teacher noted he “has done well – sometimes careless” in English. Materials like these are fun for current students to see. The collections also contain famous authors’ college essays or edits from their peers in creative writing classes. There are syllabi from courses they taught before they were famous and drafts of commencement addresses and honorary degrees from after they became literary successes.
Sifting through the evidence of well-known authors’ engagements with educational systems is like reading the ending of a novel first. We know how their literary lives unfolded but along the way can follow them through successes and failures (on tests or report cards) and observe their trite observations (in early essays or harsh grading policies as teachers). Not everyone will excel at every subject but some may still end up with their schoolwork collected in literary archives. Knowing how to write novels may not make you the most empathetic English teacher, but the educational materials of famous writers reveal the ways learning is slow and full of fits and starts—it takes time to unfold. It may be years or even decades before a lesson leads to understanding.
Although impossible to link to a learning objective, we want our students to have transformative moments in our classrooms. We intentionally use primary sources that might spark connection and excitement for our students. We hope—as do all educators—that something the students learn will resonate with them years later.
In the best of circumstances—so, not during a pandemic—learning to research can be challenging, and we want students to appreciate that research can feel painstakingly slow. Primary sources, especially those encountered in a rare materials archive, can feel “unique and unfamiliar.” To teach primary source literacy in a virtual environment is to focus on the “literacy” more than any specific “primary source.” We want students who work with the collections to “effectively find, interpret, evaluate, and ethically use primary sources” for their classes. We teach the research process as iterative and support students while they practice: testing initial ideas, revising questions, reframing scope, rewriting narratives. Teaching primary source literacy requires supporting students through a series of false starts and sometimes painful revisions. When we teach research, we teach students to work through the faltering.
Teaching students how to research means selecting fewer items per class session and building time into our lessons for students to discover on their own. Instructors slow down by patiently hanging back, relying on wait time, and avoiding “show and tell” lectures. Rather than sharing every relevant collection item, we hope students make one new connection between the primary sources and their classwork. Years from now, students may not recall the details of any specific manuscript we shared with them. But they may remember how they felt when they visited and what it was like to work with rare materials.
Teaching research methods also means helping students to recognize “collections in cultural heritage institutions reflect and reinforce societal power structures.” We want to facilitate spaces for students to engage with diversity in the Ransom Center’s collections and to share their own diverse perspectives. This work involves more than merely showing an isolated item but also sharing its context — about how materials came to be created and by whom, about how items and creators have been valued or disregarded — not only at the Center but in society-at-large. Many scholars have written about this essential work for archives and their role in research practices and higher education. As UT professor Ashley Farmer has written in “Archiving While Black“: “At the core of these claims is not only a concern for individual scholars, but also the need to address the biases built into the structure and design of the archive itself.”
To create space in the classroom to grapple with these ideas, we foreground “silences and absences” and ask students to consider “what sources were never created, what sources may no longer exist, and what sources are collected, as well as communities’ abilities to engage in these activities.” One method is to explicitly invite and model critique of my choices as an educator. I will ask students to re-curate my selection of primary sources by telling me what to search for in future visits. We ask which primary sources might not be in the classroom because the Center did not acquire them. We invite students to imagine which sources might not be possible to collect because they were never created or were intentionally destroyed.
Shifting to an entirely virtual classroom felt challenging at first, yet we have noticed several benefits. Each student is now able to look closely at the same primary source. We no longer need to crowd an entire class of students around a single folder of materials. Students can study the digital surrogates at home, taking time to form their interpretations in advance of the class session. Digital surrogates allow students to work with the primary sources without having to consider safe handling. They can zoom in on details, annotate with digital sticky notes, and pair sources together that don’t exist in physical proximity. The materials seem less intimidating, more open to remixing and interpretation, more akin to the other primary sources they encounter on their screens.
In the best of circumstances—so, not during a pandemic—learning to research can be challenging, and we want students to appreciate that research can feel painstakingly slow … We teach the research process as iterative and support students while they practice: testing initial ideas, revising questions, reframing scope, rewriting narratives. Teaching primary source literacy requires supporting students through a series of false starts and sometimes painful revisions. When we teach research, we teach students to work through the faltering.
Moving to virtual instruction avoids some barriers to access that students might encounter when visiting the classrooms in person. In Zoom sessions, we are the guests in their homes. We are bringing the archives to them rather than the other way around. They no longer have to arrive early, shed their jackets and backpacks, pass through layers of security. We can now dispense entirely with these steps preceding classroom access that can make students feel unwelcome and slow us down.
Virtual primary source sessions minimize the challenge of building rapport as a guest educator in a classroom. Quiet or contemplative students—those not so quick to jump in with their answer—can participate using the chat feature and other forms of virtual engagement. Breakout rooms get educators out of the way and prompt students to talk to one another. By sharing sources ahead of time, we can push the boundaries of the session out beyond the meeting time or move away from synchronous instruction altogether.
Of course, there are many challenges to teaching online. Not all students have equal access to technology, and we miss the rapport of chance observations, personal and material engagements, and the shared wonder of working through these questions in person. But there are benefits to virtual primary source pedagogy that were not apparent to us at the outset of the pandemic. Along with our students, we scrambled through the first semester learning online together. Our instruction team has met every few weeks to swap ideas, and over time, our skills as educators have been expanded, shared, and refined. There is no perfect way to backwards design lessons on the research process during a pandemic; however, this learning curve has helped us think of ways to better design for the future. Whether we will be supporting or reformulating research questions, or grading future famous authors, or reworking teaching practices, we won’t know exactly how things will turn out. But, stumbling through the process without knowing the ending is often the skill we’re trying to teach.
 “Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy,” ACRL RBMS SAA Joint Task Force on the Development of Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy 2018. [Hyperlink: http://www.ala.org/acrl/sites/ala.org.acrl/files/content/standards/Primary%20Source%20Literacy2018.pdf.]
 “Report Card, Oxford Graded School, 1907-1908,” William Faulkner Collection. Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin; “School report cards, 1953-1959,” Ian McEwan Papers. Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin.
 “Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy,” p. 1.
 Ibid, 2.
 Ibid, 3.
 Ashley Farmer, “Archiving While Black,” Black Perspectives, 18 June 2018.
 “Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy.”