March 13, 2023

Library and Arts block week partnership transforms student learning

Students dive into archives to uncover clues about creative and political processes in artistic work
Students peruse archives in Block Week Course
Students peruse archives in Block Week Course. Libraries and Cultural Resources Staff

If asked, most students would probably say the library is a place to study, print documents or pick up books. But dig a little deeper and it turns out ‘the library’ is the teacher you didn’t know you needed.

Dr. Rebecca Sullivan, PhD, from the Faculty of Arts is all too familiar with the library’s hidden treasures. She regularly invites Annie Murray, a librarian and head of the rare books collection, to give a guest lecture on archival methods in her course Methods for Gender and Sexuality Studies. The enthusiastic response from students gave Sullivan the idea for an experiential, transdisciplinary block week course for both Gender and Sexuality Studies and English students to explore the rich offerings of Archives and Special Collections.

“Experiential learning is all about diving into the deep end, leaving the lectures and theories behind. More and more, universities understand that hands-on creativity builds deeper understanding of the why’s and how’s behind any academic discipline,” notes Sullivan.


Libraries and Cultural Resources Staff

  • Photo above: MOTHERHOOD. Drawing from personal experience with their own mothers, students considered the complexities of motherhood and the myth of the perfect mother. From Susan Aglukark and Winnifred Eaton Reeve they gained insight into what it means to be an artistic mother. Studying romance novels helped students understand the lure of imaginary escape to a world where women are separated from their role as mother. Documentary films on motherhood gave insight into second-wave feminist politics.

Mindful of the benefits of a ‘learning-by doing’ approach to teaching, UCalgary has made it a priority to give all students immersive educational experiences. Research shows when students can bridge classroom knowledge with experience, they acquire an expanded way of thinking and a framework for critical reflection. This ensures students have a broader, more diverse range of skills when they enter the workplace.

Sullivan approached Murray about the course idea and Murray enlisted a team of archivists and librarians — Dr. Alexandra Alisauskas, Lelland Reed and David Jones — to lead students through Libraries and Cultural Resource’s archives and special collections. The team gave students access to materials from the EMI Music Canada fonds (archives), the Winnifred Eaton Reeve fonds, the Calgary Status of Women Action Committee (CSWAC) fonds, and the Canadian Paperback Collection.

After interacting with the collections, students were given a specific creative assignment to help them understand the significance of original materials to revealing the creative and political processes that go into artistic and/or activist work. “This course was the perfect opportunity to create hands-on relationships with knowledge and learning,” says Anna-Belle Cadrin, gender and sexuality studies student.

“Connecting with queer folks, feminists, anti-racist activists, and other resilient communities through the archival materials was emotional and inspiring.”


Libraries and Cultural Resources Staff

  • Photo above: THE VISUAL LANGUAGE OF ACTIVISM. Students selected materials based on images and colours that highlighted the do-it-yourself aesthetic of '80s and '90s feminist activism: hand-drawn illustrations and fonts that would withstand repeated photocopying; visually bold use of texts and images together; and catchy slogans like “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Students used artist files and photos to create album cover art design for Susan Aglukark, Juno Award-winning Indigenous recording artist, with the direction to address her commitments to decolonialism. After looking at author Winnifred Eaton Reeve’s correspondence about her acrimonious divorce, students wrote a letter to her from the perspective of a friend or business associate. The DIY movement of feminist art in the '80s and '90s came alive through the making of buttons and a ‘zine. An original romance generator game challenged students to reflect on generic conventions and the pleasures of pulp fiction.

“This extended interaction with rare and archival materials provided a unique opportunity to reflect on literary work, representation, and gender in a much more direct and emotionally engaging way,” says Murray.

Katie Siddoway, an English student, agrees: “The English department teaches you how to critically interact with texts as small historical alcoves. Yet, I never really understood how human these texts were before this course, where I interacted with archives directly and saw the person behind the page.”


Libraries and Cultural Resources Staff

  • Photo above: TEXTS AND EMOTION. Through additional research, students found one of Reeve’s novels, The Other Woman, sympathetically written from the perspective of a husband’s mistress. Students noted without archival context about Reeve and her marriage, a reader would likely make a different conclusion about this book, as her personal correspondence showed deep anger and resentment against her own husband’s mistress. Other material from CSWAC, like a worn-out address book and a contact list with new information scrawled in crayon, brought to life the exhaustion and frustration behind activism.

The individual assignments set the stage for the final group presentations. Students pitched exhibitions based on a theme or topic that stood out to them from the various collections they’d consulted in class. The assignment challenged students to think broadly as well as specifically, to imagine the personal experiences and feelings of their archival subjects, and to push the limits of analysis beyond textual or close reading. The time constraints of this intensive, five-day course meant students self-selected content based on an immediate, visceral connection.

“It’s that feeling of communing with the past that I most wanted students to experience. It transforms how we analyze texts from the past,” says Sullivan.

“It was really exciting to see students so engaged and inspired by the possibilities of archival materials, and be able to present a well-conceptualized and thoughtful mini exhibition even after just one week with the collections,” says Alisauskas.

There’s a saying: “You haven’t really learned something unless you can teach it to someone else.” After watching the students interact with archival materials throughout the week, putting together exhibitions based on their chosen themes and topics and speaking passionately about them, there’s little doubt they could teach what they have learned.

Libraries and Cultural Resources is poised to support faculties interested in delivering experiential learning in their courses. For more information about a possible partnership, contact Leeanne Morrow.

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