So I teach on a small campus. There are only 3 buildings that have classrooms, and one also houses about half of the departments. Among many of my colleagues there’s a strong bias against teaching in a building where your department is not housed. I think some of them deem it a punishment to have to travel too far from one’s own office to teach a class. I guess I can understand that sentiment but I definitely don’t share it – I think “crossing the tracks” is a good thing.
This semester, for the first time, I ended up with one of the classrooms inside our multi-use library building for my US History II survey class. In fact the classroom is inside the library itself, so that the stacks are right outside its door. The possibilities in this didn’t occur to me right away. I had deliberately left parts of the syllabus unplanned and in the first week had the class vote from a list of topics the things they’d like to cover in greater depth for each time-period unit. This gave me 5 days on the syllabus I had sketched as “workshop” days with only the vaguest idea of what that was going to mean. As I sat down to work on planning out the first one (topic: Native Americans in the West, late 19th century), I suddenly realized what a gift it was that we were IN THE LIBRARY. Aha moment!
Here’s how it went down.
I asked one of the reference librarians to come be an embedded resource person that day. I asked all my students to bring their laptops (we have a 100% student laptop program, so you can actually say this to your classes). I had previously passed a signup that sorted them into pairs and indicated a rough interest in what kind of source they wanted to use (film, visual images, old newspapers, online databases, books, poetry). The session before the workshop we discussed the lead-up to the summer of 1876 on the northern plains. On workshop day I sent them throughout the library to locate and evaluate/analyze sources related to the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876.
4 pairs worked at a conference table with their laptops and the reference librarian, who walked them through searching a scholarly database for relevant articles (without full JSTOR, and no America: History and Life and no Project Muse, this is a bit of a wrestle at our university since our history offerings are
pathetic slender, but they made do with Academic Search on EBSCO Host… better than nothing).
2 pairs screened a DVD of the orientation film that visitors see at the Little Bighorn National Monument in Montana. I had called their gift shop a couple of weeks ago and bought a copy; it happily came with a bonus film on it, the 1961 orientation film – wow, fascinatingly slanted towards the glory of the 7th Cavalry, so made for good comparison with the current one, made in 2002.
2 pairs took their laptops to a table on the main floor of the library and went to some links I provided for free digital databases of historic newspapers and collaborated on figuring out how to search them to pull up newspaper articles about the event from 1876.
2 pairs used that same list to look at virtual reconstructions, online versions, or tribute websites and evaluate them for accuracy, reliability & other “information literacy” criteria, and they set up in a reading area on the main level to talk about what they were finding.
1 pair consulted Colin Calloway’s Bedford book, Our Hearts Fell to the Ground which was on course reserve at the circulation desk, for the section that reproduces Indian ledger art from the battle.
1 pair pulled out their laptops in the classroom and examined a section of the documentary reader First Peoples that discusses differing visual portrayals of Custer’s Last Stand, and did a close reading of this famous Anheuser-Busch print, which was widely distributed in saloons and bars in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Our textbook also has a section on this painting, pointing out the Zulu warrior shields in it, among other borrowed imagery and creative imaginings of the scene.
2 pairs were sent to find books in our stacks that were relevant to the topic. Interestingly this group at first had the hardest time. Number one, our holdings are not great for print works. Many of our books are from the 1960s and 1970s with very few recent publications (we all tend to use interlibrary loan or one of the other Worcester consortium college libraries if we need newer books). Number two, the online card catalog wasn’t functioning that day, and the paper one is long gone. Fortunately the reference desk was staffed by our shiny new cataloguer, who showed them the print edition of the Library of Congress subject headings and sent them to the vicinity of E83.8 where they found what they were looking for. I think it was a major revelation to this group that you could find PRINT books by consulting PRINT resources. That might sound sarcastic, but I don’t mean it that way – in the main, our student population are not strong readers or well versed in library skills, and I genuinely think this isn’t something they come into college knowing, so finding that workaround was a stroke of luck. It also, handily, pointed up the uses of the reference desk.
Meanwhile – I strolled between groups, who had stationed themselves throughout both floors of the library, checking here and there, responding to questions, observing. They were busy, engaged, on task the whole hour. Kinda magical. The next class was a follow-up discussion about what they looked at and what they learned. And at the end of that day, I had them do a short 5-10 minute in-class writing, responding to three questions:
What is something you KNOW you know about the Battle of Little Bighorn? Something you are 100% sure of.
What is something you THINK you know or you GUESS about the Battle of Little Bighorn? Something you think might be true, but you’re not 100% sure.
What is something you DON’T know about the Battle of Little Bighorn but wish you did?
I got fantastic responses to all three, actually – and I think the emphasis throughout the workshop that there are multiple perspectives, multiple kinds of sources, and multiple possible interpretations was really reinforced by sending them scattershot into the real live library right under our noses. I hope the next 4 work as well as this one did.